Digitalisation makes many things easier for us in our professional and private lives. Communication is possible in a variety of ways so that we can stay in touch with our friends and family at all times. What really makes us happy in the digital age is explained by happiness researcher and keynote speaker at the upcoming Swippa Conference Prof. Dr. Maike Luhmann in an interview. People in Switzerland and Europe live in peace, usually own more than enough things and have enough to eat – are we happy? Compared to countries that are not doing so well, we are actually happier on average. Average well-being tends to be particularly high in countries that are characterised by high economic performance, good health care and political conditions that allow for personal freedom and co-determination. Of course, there are very unhappy and very happy people in every country. What do people actually need to be happy? A large part of the differences in subjective well-being – this is the term we use to study happiness in psychology – can be explained by something we can hardly influence ourselves: our personality. People who are more emotionally stable and possibly also more extraverted tend to be happier than people who worry quickly and are more reserved. But external life circumstances also influence well-being. Poverty, unemployment, hunger, illness can strongly affect well-being, while good social relationships can strengthen well-being. How do life events – positive ones like winning the lottery or having children and negative ones like losing our job – affect us? Many life events have quite short-term effects on our well-being. For example, we find that, on average, life satisfaction among divorced people declines in the years leading up to the divorce, but quickly rises again after the divorce and, on average, returns to its baseline level just a few years after the divorce. The situation is different in the case of job loss. Here, many studies show that the well-being of unemployed people is permanently lower than before unemployment, even if they have found a new job again.
We humans are social beings, which means that most of us suffer when we do not have enough social relationships.
The findings on the birth of a child are particularly exciting. The birth of a child is a very joyful event for most people, but caring for and raising babies and young children is also very exhausting and tiring. In line with this, our findings say that parents experience more positive emotions after the birth of their child than before, but their life satisfaction and especially their satisfaction with their relationship decreases in the years after the birth. With regard to all these findings, it is important to note that they are always averages. We also find that people differ greatly in how much and for how long their well-being changes after life events. What influence do relationships have on our happiness? We humans are social beings, which means that most of us suffer when we don’t have enough social relationships, and we do better when we have a stable social network and a few people with whom we can have very close, familiar relationships. But again, it is important not to generalise this statement too much: How many relationships someone needs varies greatly from person to person. Some people need as many friends and acquaintances as possible around them all the time, for others a good relationship with a steady partner is enough, and still others feel most comfortable when they are alone a lot. And if things aren’t going well in the relationship, but they are at work, can you draw happiness from that? In fact, there is the phenomenon that deficits in one area of life can be compensated for by another area of life. In addition, not every area of life is equally important for all people. While relationships are important to many people, there are also many people who place a much higher value on their work. For these people, work is much more important for their life satisfaction than their relationships. How do social media and digital possibilities (Whatsapp/Chat/Videocall/Skype) affect our relationships and happiness with them? This is a contentious issue in current research. Some studies suggest that digitalisation can affect our well-being. For example, social media are blamed for supposedly increasing rates of depression and loneliness, among other things. Other studies, however, cannot confirm these effects. As with all social innovations, it is probably the case that digitalisation has both positive and negative consequences. What advice can you give our readers on the road to happiness? If you go to the advice section of a well-stocked bookshop, you are quickly led to believe that happiness is entirely in your own hands. In fact, there are a few things you can do to become happier, such as getting less upset about the little annoyances of everyday life, being grateful and expressing it, and focusing on what makes you feel good. But: One’s own well-being is also strongly influenced by factors that we can hardly or not at all influence, such as our personality or our external life circumstances. The downside of many guides is that they imply that it is your own fault if you are not happy. It is not that simple. So if you want to become happier, you can certainly do something, but you should be patient with yourself and not expect miracles.
Maike Luhmann is Professor of Psychology at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, has published in excellent journals and is a member of the editorial board of two scientific journals. She researches the influence of life events on life satisfaction, adaptation processes and for the sources of motivation.
SWIPPA Annual Conference
Maike Luhmann is keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Swiss Society for Positive Psychology (SWIPPA), which takes place on 29 November at the Bern University of Applied Sciences in Economics. All information on the programme and registration can be found here.