An Expert’s Guide to Being Happy During Mental Health Awareness Month
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). For 2021, the theme is “You Are Not Alone,” continuing its campaign from 2020 during this alienating pandemic period. There is a wealth of events, in addition to resources, free graphics, social media outreach ideas, and fact sheets for advocacy.
Also, on July 12, 2012, the United Nations established March 20th as the International Day of Happiness. The resolution was put forth by Bhutan, a small country nestled in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. The Day was proclaimed not only to acknowledge the importance of happiness and well-being for people around the globe but also to highlight the need for their inclusion in public policy.
Bhutan’s commitment to the well-being of its citizens goes back decades. In the 70s, the government of the predominantly Buddhist nation officially prioritized Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GNP). Used in law-making, the GNH is based on four pillars: sustainable development, environmental conservation, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.
Perhaps most notably, the Bhutanese government set a precedent for important work to come by laying the groundwork for a global commitment to sustainability. Three years after the first International Day of Happiness, the UN published the Sustainable Development Goals, which form part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. All UN member states adopted the Agenda as “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet,” making a vow to end poverty and reduce inequality while spurring economic growth, improving health and education, addressing climate change, and protecting the environment.
With the recent global devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic and March 20th just around the corner, the time is ripe to explore the topic of happiness.
Meet the Expert: Fengyu Wu, PhD
Dr. Fengyu Wu is a research associate at Wake Forest’s Eudaimonia Institute where she studies the relationship between economics and well-being. In particular, Dr. Wu publishes on the determinants of health and subjective well-being in populations around the world, and the factors that influence gender equality in the family and labor market. Her goal is to provide insight into the design of policies that promote well-being.
In addition to her research, Dr. Wu teaches courses in the philosophy and social science of happiness at Wake Forest. She is also the book review editor for the International Journal of Happiness and Development and has been presenting internationally since 2015, most recently for the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre Seminar in 2020. Her latest project, “COVID-19 and Well-being: Lessons from East Asia,” will be published in the 2021 World Happiness Report in March.
What are the correlates of happiness and how can the extent of a person’s well-being be measured?
Psychology researchers and economists who probe such questions do so through the study of subjective well-being. Dr. Fengyu Wu of the Eudaimonia Institute at Wake Forest University generously shared her expertise on this topic, as well as her thoughts on how greater levels of happiness can be cultivated individually and collectively.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle sought to understand “what sort of life ultimately benefits a person, serves his or her interests, or makes him or her better off,” Dr Wu said. “In the modern world,” she explained, “happiness economists focus on the measurement of subjective well-being.”
Dr. Wu herself is a “happiness economist” with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in economics from Singapore Management University and the University of Southern California, respectively. And while Aristotle used the term “eudaimonia” (you-die-mo-NEE-uh) to refer to the state of happiness, Wu clarified that subjective well-being is actually made up of three dimensions: life evaluation, affect, and eudaimonia. She defined them as:
- Life evaluation: a reflective assessment on a person’s life or some specific aspect of it
- Affect: a person’s feelings or emotional state at a point in time
- Eudaimonia: a person’s meaning and purpose in life
Here we can see that the definition of eudaimonia goes much deeper than the state of being happy: “Eudaimonia is often translated as ‘human flourishing’ or ‘prosperity’ and entails the cultivation of virtue as the most important constituent along with external goods such as health and wealth,” Wu stated.
When asked how to recognize a person that embodies a state of eudaimonia, she shared that it is difficult to describe the outward signs of human flourishing since different people behave or express themselves differently. But with respect to the inward signs, she said a person will have “inner calm, confidence, and expansiveness of mood and spirit.”
As far as discerning who is “flourishing” or those on their way to such a state, Wu explained that we may or may not recognize people on the path to eudaimonia simply because of being fully engaged in our own lives. So in part, perhaps “stopping to smell the roses” entails looking around to see if anyone in our vicinity is flourishing, including ourselves. As in the case of healthy relationships, it can be helpful to see models of what eudaimonia looks like in order to set on a path toward achieving it.
Objective vs Subjective Well-Being
How does subjective well-being differ from its objective counterpart?
Researchers at the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard look to factors such as educational obtainment, economic stability and sufficiency, and neighborhood safety to understand objective well-being. These areas are assessed by measuring aspects of education, economy, the physical and built environment, and community.
Objective well-being tends to examine happiness on a societal level, as opposed to subjective well-being, which is based on the perspective of the individual.
Flourishing Across Cultures
A publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), The World Happiness Report (WHR) is an annual publication written by an international team of experts in the field. The 2020 report was the first in the publication’s eight-year history to include a ranking of cities by subjective well-being. And unlike other studies on the topic, the ranking found in the WHR is unique. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Christian Krekel (2020) explain in the introduction to chapter three that, “Rather than relying on a list of factors that researchers consider relevant, our ranking relies on city residents’ self-reports of how they themselves evaluate the quality of their lives.”
Using data from the Gallup World Poll, the WHP found these cities to be among the worlds happiest: Helsinki, Finland; Aarhus, Denmark; Wellington, New Zealand; Zurich, Switzerland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Bergen, Norway; Oslo, Norway; Tel Aviv, Israel; Stockholm, Sweden; Brisbane, Australia; San Jose, Costa Rica; Reykjavik, Iceland; Toronto Metro, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; Perth, Australia.
Respondents based their assessment of subjective well-being on criteria related to life evaluation which can be strongly influenced by affect, or emotional state, at the time of the survey. Since subjective well-being also includes eudaimonia how might subjective well-being differ across cultures?
With regard to human flourishing and prosperity cross-culturally, Wu explained,
Since the path to eudaimonia well-being comes through virtue and the core virtues are different in different cultures, culture definitely relates to the components of eudaimonia. For instance, in Western culture, according to Aristotle, there are 12 moral virtues, including courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, pride, honor, good temper, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, friendship, and justice. However, in Eastern culture, the five core virtues of Confucius are benevolence, reciprocity, knowledge, integrity, and good manners.
Therefore, our efforts to find meaning and purpose in our lives (and as a result, enter a state of human flourishing and prosperity) entail pursuing paths of virtue. And since virtues differ from individual to individual, as well as from culture to culture, a person’s eudaimonia is a highly individualized and culturally-influenced endeavor.
Challenges to Human Flourishing
Not surprisingly, when looking at the barriers to human flourishing on societal levels, most roads lead to inequality. The events of 2020 (and throughout time for that matter) have shown us that with regard to human well-being, inequality is not so much the elephant in the room as the herd of elephants in the room. On an individual level, Wu explains that the challenges to happiness have also been consistent throughout history:
I believe the main challenges to human flourishing have been similar across time. As far as I am concerned, the major ones are social comparisons and overly pursuit of external goods including wealth and beauty.
When achieved at the expense of others, it becomes clearer how individual factors, such as the pursuit of excessive wealth, contribute to societal barriers to happiness and well-being like systemic oppression.
Wu went on to explain how the Information Age has contributed to preoccupation with the accumulation of material things and distraction from seeking meaning and purpose through the cultivation of virtue. Science and technological innovations have, to a large degree, increased the frequency and extent of social comparison:
More recently, science and technology have created more temptations. For instance, social media has created new channels through which people observe each other’s lives and compare with respect to external goods. This not only leads to dissatisfaction with one’s life directly but also makes one pursue external goods instead of cultivating virtue.
Research consistently shows that a person’s happiness or level of satisfaction with life is largely affected by family relationships, employment, community and friends, and health. The effect of income, however, is more controversial. Wu shared,
There is a famous Easterlin Paradox, which finds that self-reported happiness levels do not rise over time as a country’s real income rises, even though rich people [report being] happier than poor people in the same country.
There are two main reasons for this paradox: social comparisons and adaptation. She continued,
First, people tend to compare their own income with others. Therefore, when people all become richer over time, they do not become happier. Second, people tend to quickly adapt to increases in income.
In short, individuals tend to be happier with increases in income as long as other people don’t have similar economic prosperity. And, even if individuals experience increased happiness with increased income for a time, it is not likely to last.
Call to Action: Cultivate Meaning and Purpose in Your Life
What needs to happen on individual, societal, and global levels to support more of the world’s people in flourishing? Wu points to interventions that can be implemented in schools:
At the social and global levels, various policies and programs can be launched to help people achieve eudaimonia. For example, education programs by schools and other non-profit organizations can be created to educate students of various levels about eudaimonia or human flourishing and the importance of achieving it. These can also be built into schools’ curriculum as a general education course. There should also be policies promoting a more cooperative social environment.
At the individual level, she said, “Each of us should focus more on cultivating virtue instead of pursuing external goods.”
So here is what the experts say. What do you say? What does happiness mean to you?
To learn more, please visit:
- International Day of Happiness | United Nations
- Mental Health Awareness Month | National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- University of Oxford, Wellbeing Research Centre
- Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing (ISHE)
- Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
- Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania:
- Measuring the Well-Being of Nations | Positive Psychology Center;
- Humanities and Human Flourishing and World Well-Being Project
- Happiness and Well-Being Project
- Blue Zones Happiness Test