The Art of Strengths Coaching

V is for Ruut Veenhoven: Studying Happiness Around The World

Ruut is a pioneer in the field of studying happiness in nations across the world. He is director of the World Database of Happiness and founding editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Ruut is emeritus-professor of ‘social conditions for human happiness’ at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He is also an extra-ordinary professor at North-West University in South Africa.

The video above is taken from his talk at Google’s Brussels office in October 2010.

Ruut begins by exploring several definitions of happiness. In his own work he uses the term Enduring Life Satisfaction as interchangeable with happiness.

During the lecture Ruut describes the levels of Enduring Life Satisfaction that are found in different countries. There are, of course, variations within these countries.

Life Satisfaction

Ruut expands on why happiness can be beneficial, both for the individual and society. He says:

It appears also from research that happiness is beneficial. Happy people are more active; they are more sociable; they are even better citizens in political sense.

They pay their taxes more, they read the newspapers more, they vote more, they don’t drive fast.

The most interesting thing is that they live longer. The effect of being happy or not on how long you live is comparable to smoking or not.

Why is that? Basically it is because if you feel happy that is because your needs are gratified and it means that as an organism biologically you’re thriving.

Thriving organisms tend to be healthier and then to be more active. And then, in the case of the health effects, there is a lower chance that you fall ill.

If you’re chronically unhappy, that triggers the fight/flight system. Over the years you’re more susceptible to illnesses such as flu. And that’s why unhappy people die earlier.

So in that respect I would say that happiness fits most of the things we want anyway.

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Ruut goes on to explain the role that policy makers can play in happiness. It is beneficial to provide an infrastructure that contains the following elements.

They provide good governance.

They provide a social framework that supports the basic human needs and gives people the opportunity to live flourishing lives.

Providing these conditions, which some people call ‘livability’, is a good start. But it does not explain why some people in the same society are happy, whilst others are not.

Part of the reason can be explained by genetics, says Ruut. People may be born with a pre-disposition towards being happy or not. Whatever pre-disposition a person is born with, however, they can still shape their future by the life choices they make.

Ruut spends much of his time working with policy makers. Bearing in mind the principles outlined above, what can policy makers do to improve the chances of people choosing to be happier? He says:

They can improve the livability of the environment, which is their prime job. They could also improve the life-ability of individuals, at least indirectly.

People ultimately make their own choices. But they are strongly influenced by whether or not they grow up in a caring environment and learn from positive models.

Ruut concludes by saying that it possible to enable people make more informed choices. Providing the ‘livability’ framework is in place, the choices that individuals make will then strongly determine their chances of happiness.

Below is a link to a pdf in which Ruut outlines the development of his own career and the present work on happiness.

http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub2000s/2007c-full.pdf

World Database

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