When it comes to measuring the state of our nation, most people look to things like employment rates, housing prices and GDP. But for the past 15 years, researchers at Deakin University have been investigating a different measure to better understand how well we’re doing – happiness.
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Here’s what they’ve found.
Australians are generally happy with their lives
“Even in challenging times, people do a good job of holding their mood happiness steady,” said Deakin University emeritus professor Robert Cummins, author of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index.
Since 2001, Australia’s average wellbeing score has been around 75 out of 100, which researchers say is an indication of good levels of happiness, but also resilience.
“We have an inbuilt defensive mechanism that generally returns people to their normal level of mood after most life events, good or bad,” he adds.
True happiness is attainable regardless of income or health status
Income and wellbeing are linked, yes. However, researchers have found that people can achieve good wellbeing and happiness even with a low income, provided they feel in control of spending habits.
Same goes for health status. While a health problem may trigger a lower level of happiness, over time we adapt to health issues, especially when it comes to slow-onset medical conditions.
However, income and health status may indirectly dictate our wellbeing, says Dr Delyse Hutchinson from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.
“Say you have health difficulties, there may be medical costs, and this may affect your personal relationships. Another example is a marriage breakdown, which can affect relationships with children, you might have to move houses, there are changes in income, and so on. These things are highly related,” she said.
The happiest people are living in rural areas
People in regional and rural electorates are generally happier, while those in suburbs in the major cities lag behind, according to research released in June 2016 by Australian Unity and Deakin University.
Apart from Mayo in the Adelaide hills, the seats of Murray and Mallee in Victoria’s north, Gilmore on the NSW south coast, Maranoa and Kennedy in north Queensland and the big rural seat of O’Connor in southern Western Australia are all in the top 10 for wellbeing.
Blaxland in The Blue Mountains region, Holt in Victoria and Cowan in WA reported the lowest wellbeing scores.
Happiness can fluctuate across the week
While overall or long term happiness is generally stable in Australia, we all experience day-to-day challenges that may affect our short-term happiness.
“We’re all affected by day to day stresses, and we all have mood fluctuations,” said Dr Hutchinson. “Just because you’ve crashed the car you may not be an unhappy person overall but in that moment you may be upset.”
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Personal relationships hold the key to wellbeing
Experts say that in order to achieve happiness we need to have good close relationships, which are underpinned by support, love and shared values.
This doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, but it does need to be an intimate one. For example, someone you can share your thoughts, secrets and fears with, and rely on to support you during life’s ups and downs. According to psychologists, people who are part of these close relationships are more likely to bounce back from challenges when they arise.
Control your finances for a happier life
While money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, financial security does.
According to the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, people who earn less than $100,000 per year but are in control of their finances have higher levels of self-reported happiness than those who earn more but have less financial control.
Older Australians are the happiest
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index found that people aged 76 years and over report the highest average wellbeing score of any age group.
Happiness levels are reasonably high when we are young, they dip slightly during middle age, and then they peak around retirement and into older age.
On average, people over 75 years old are more satisfied with their standard of living, relationships and community; however age-related health concerns may affect happiness on a day-to-day level.
People who volunteer are happier
It’s unclear from the research if volunteering makes people happy or if happy people are more likely to volunteer, however most people who take up volunteering report very high wellbeing scores.
This is particularly evident in full-time volunteers, who tend to score higher than the normal range among the general population.
Not all voluntary positions are equal, however. For example, voluntary carers who are looking after a sick or injured loved one report much lower levels of happiness than the general population.
Find your sense of purpose
Australians are happiest when doing something that provides meaning and a sense of purpose, according to research.
For some people this may be working in a role that is more than just a pay cheque, or using a skill or talent such as playing the piano to teach music. Other people may find a sense of purpose in helping or caring for family members, volunteering, or sharing their knowledge or experiences with others.
What makes you happy? Tell us in the comment section.