How Ruut Veenhoven creates space by helping people to make better informed decisions
Happyplaces Stories (video)
I define space as a fulfilment of life. This is not the same as a moment of happiness. You can feel down for a moment but still be satisfied with your life in general. What I research is what contributes to a pleasant life.
Losers in heaven
Naturally, the environment a role in this. Because I believe that hell is not the best place to be. And in heaven, life is presumed to be great. In research, you also look at the conditions in which people are living. The country they live in, the city, their house. Their physical surroundings. Naturally, you also look at their social environment. Do people meet other nice people in the city they live in? Do they connect with these people? People in countries like the Netherlands are fairly happy. Because we all live in a welfare society.
The facilities are good. We have sewers, electric lights, and central heating.
So the average score of happiness is between 7 and 8. But when you start to conduct research within the Netherlands on who is happy and who is not you will not see a clear correlation between extern circumstances and this happiness. The differences in happiness between Dutch people are mostly caused by delusional ideas. In a situation where the extern circumstances of life are fairly good and the level of happiness is thus fairly high. The better the circumstances, the more people start to notice differences in what you decide to make of your life. The safety of life or the art of life is what you could call it. If we would all be in heaven right now, in ideal circumstances, everyone would be happy. However, between the tens, there will always be a couple of losers who will score no higher than a nine. This difference between levels of happiness is completely caused by life experience. 100 percent. Because let’s face it: the circumstances are ideal.
The next thing you do is to research happiness. Naturally, you want people to be happy. So you look for factors that cause differences in happiness. Some people are perfectly happy living in a squatted house. While others feel the need to live in a villa. Most people think that you will be more happy when you live in a villa. But it is rather difficult to determine whether this is actually the case, or not. Because most people living in villas are well-off. And most of the time, they are in possession of this money because they were healthy and happy when they started working. We know that the places in a viable society, like in the Netherlands are not really of great importance for happiness. And it is also difficult to map out these small differences. Some places attract people. In a nursing home, for example, people generally are not very happy. And in a cafes, there are a lot more cheerful people. But this does not say anything about the place itself. You want to know how the same person feels in a different situation. So to find out how much these places, like buildings and houses, contribute to human happiness, it is possible to research this. But it does not happen very often. Because it is a bit expensive. But when you compare these costs to the money you need for building a house, it is all peanuts. People prefer to invest money in campaigns to suggest that you will find being at the supermarket or the beach an amazing experience. Instead of actually investing if this is truly the case.
The reason why people feel happier in one place than in another is something you could choose to make very complicated. You could come up with all these fantastic theories which is something architects are really good at. You will never know for sure when you solely focus on the theory. You could make up different stories. The only thing you can know for sure is the fact that people feel gradations of happiness in a place. You can measure this. You can measure how they feel at that moment. The question is: is there an objective way to measure this? If, by objective, you mean without taking this person’s individuality into account, this is not possible. Because happiness in relation to life as a whole but also the happiness you may feel right now are subjective experiences. You can only measure these by asking people about them.
There are people who think that it would be better if we could measure this by taking blood samples or looking at brain waves. This is when I think: no, this is not possible. Take the example of the doorbell. If you want to know how loud the ring of this bell is you will have to listen to the sound it makes. You cannot measure this by looking at the wires that go from the receptacle to the bell. Nor by measuring the mass of this bell. Or the shape of the bell-clapper. All these factors together produce a sound. But the sound is the only thing you can measure, and this is also what it is all about. With happiness, it is all about the way people feel. We can only measure this by making them talk to us. With people, you can simply ask them about their happiness. Of course, you should not do this when their fiancé is in the room with them. It has to be done anonymously. The best thing to do, when you want to know how people feel in certain places is to ask them straightaway: ‘How do you feel right now?’ And repeat this every time they are in this place. After this, when you average all these observations you will have an impression of what someone felt like in a certain place and a certain time. When you calculate this for a lot of people you will know how people experience this place. And if you also know how these people feel in different places you will know something about the relative viability of this place.
Could you also measure happiness by looking at its side-effects? There exists a correlation between how happy people feel and how productive they are. This is especially visible in the social and creative branches. Because happiness, when you feel happy, you will be more open towards others. And you will also be better at gauging other people’s feelings. This will provide you with new ideas as well. So when a social or creative company is actually productive it is most likely that the people who work for this company are happy. But this could also be caused by the hight of their salary or by good leadership and market opportunities. So you will never now for sure.
We are talking about happy places and happiness. Which brings us to the question if this is a trending topic that will be forgotten after a short period of time. Or is it something more structural? I believe it is something structural. When you look back at the horrible old times you did not wonder what made you happy. There was inequality and misery. So it is pretty straightforward what makes people happy. But when these things are taken care of and when the average level of happiness has gone up one question remains: What do we do now? You could compare this to your health and well-being. Back in the days, most people died at a young age. There were a lot of diseases and epidemics. Not dying too soon was what made you happy. Nowadays, these problems have been solved. And we also know that we can make it to 80 or 90. When you know that this is possible, you want to make it happen as well. We know that we can achieve happiness. By researching happiness, we also learned that the average level of happiness in the Netherlands is a 7,8 on a scale from 1 to 10. When you scored a 6.5, you will be jealous of those who scored a 7.8. Because you now learned that this is possible. This is one thing…
The other thing is that we have more and more to choose from. We are living in, what is called, a multiple-choice society. We have more things to choose from than we had years ago. In the class society that still existed in the fifties, when I was young, your choices were limited by the class you grew up in. If your father was a butcher, you were likely to become one as well. And it would make sense to marry the baker’s daughter. Or at least, if she went to the same church as you did. You did not really have a say in all of this. Sometimes, the pastor or your mother would present your fiancé to you. Nowadays, these are decisions you can make for yourself. And not just once choosing the life that appears most enjoyable to you because you can choose again and again if it does not turn out the way you hoped it to be. If your marriage does not work out, you can get a divorce. And this is also what half of the population does. When you do not like your job, you can resign. A lot of people do this as well. Making decisions is difficult. And it will be your fault when something goes wrong. But, most of the time, this leads to a life that suits people well. You have to pay the price for all decisions you make but on average, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
When you think of happy places, you also think of happy countries. And the average happiness between countries differs greatly. We know of almost all countries how happy its inhabitants are. People just have to grade their life on a scale of 1 to 10. These grades vary from 2.3 in Togo, on average a 2.3, Just imagine how many zeros there were given, to an 8.5 in Costa Rica. These are immense differences. These differences run in parallel with other factors like well-being and life expectancy. But what causes these differences in happiness between countries? Partly, this is due to poverty and war. But when you leave out these evident factors and look at the countries where there is no starvation and no great conflicts there are still immense differences left. But differences in what? Partly in normal welfare and social security. But, to my surprise, these differences are not so much in the social security as provided by the government. There is a great difference in the quality of the government. I would never have guessed this. People who live in countries with proper civil servants and clear rules are the happiest. And why? Well, in contexts like these, you have more to choose from. When things are properly arranged and when you are independent of relations you will be much more able to go your own way and slowly look for the life that suits you. You can only use this freedom in the structure of a country when you are an autonomous person yourself. So what you also see in countries where, from a young age, children are trained to be independent and to know what they want and who they are is that people are more happy here.
It is interesting to look at the differences between the Netherlands and France. Equally prosperous and both have a high-quality governments. So these are not different from one another. But when you look at upbringing, you will see that children from France in school as well as at home, learn much more to be obedient. Which means that these children develop not as autonomous as Dutch children. But it also means that they often make decisions that do not suit them. When you speak of upbringing, you also talk about culture. Culture in a broader sense.
This brings us to an element that is also of great importance in Latin America. Latin Americans are happier than you would think. They are not really prosperous, nor are they really poor. The quality of their government is adequate but not by far not as good as in, say, Denmark. Yet the people in Latin America are very happy. Or at least fairly happy. Why? I have not yet been able to put my finger on the exact reason. But I guess that this extra piece of happiness in Latin American countries comes from the joy of life which is naturally embedded in their culture. The friendliness, the parties, and the strong friendships apart from the family relations. In many countries, family comes first and friendship comes second. In parts of Latin America, you have the system of compadres, friends who almost feel like family. Friends who take responsibility when you are not doing well. Perhaps this system was able to develop because the government is not very stable. But the good thing about compadres is that you can choose who they are. People who are more like you.
I spent a lot of time creating and filling in this World Database of Happiness. Why is this useful? It is useful to make informed decisions about happiness. You have evidence-based medicines, these are pills and syrups for specific diseases whose effectivity has been proven. Nowadays, we are healthier and grow a lot older due to these medicines. I want to accomplish the same thing with happiness. Finding out what things contribute to whose happiness and in what type of situation this has to be. When we know all of this, we will be able to make better decisions. The government will be able to make better decisions. Designers will be able to make better decisions. And the people themselves will be able to make better decisions. As a result, we will become happier. It is a fact that we grow older thanks to medicines. This will be the same with happiness. This is how every fairy-tale ends. We have a lot of information, but it is not always enough to base our decisions on. A lot of this information comes from comparing people to each other. For example, by comparing the happiness of people who live in Meppel (a small city) to the happiness of people who live in Amsterdam. This will not show you people who live in Meppel are, on average, a bit happier than those who live in Amsterdam. It will not show you that this is exactly because they live in Meppel. It could also be because Meppel has specific factors. So if you really want to learn something, you will have to do a follow-up research. This is also what we do when developing medication. You have to see what happens in the long run.
We give them a pill and come back in five years to see if they are still alive. We conduct a lot of research, but too little on what we actually need to know. Maybe different from medication, is that the effects of happiness are not the same for everyone. Having children, for example, makes people on average slightly less happy. But there are also people who will be much happier after having children. And there are people who will be much less happy after having children. Of course, you want to know to what group of people you belong. When you know this, you will be able to make a more informed decision. From the research we have conducted, numbers are often too small to deduce what type of people become more or less happy after making a specific decision.
Happiness for a better world
When it is actually possible to make people happier, this will be earned back. Happy people stay healthy for a longer period of time and they also pay higher taxes. They are generally more responsible citizens. Companies are able to invest in the happiness of their employees. For some companies this is profitable. Because happy people are more effective workers when it comes to creative and social tasks. So this would be beneficial. But it could also be in the products. And I think this is a big handicap. Companies invest in the creation of illusions about happiness but they do not invest in the measurement its effects on happiness. This does not really matter when it is only about a candy bar but when it comes to big investments, like the house you buy, or life insurances, or sailing boats, you would, of course, like to know if it actually makes people happy or not and what group of people should you advice to choose for something else. Because we know from experience that it will not make this group of people happier. When you speak of responsible entrepreneurship, this is what you should be doing. I hope that, in advertising, the main focal point will move from suggesting happiness to actually offering evidential happiness. So when companies offering products which are meant to make people happy actually start paying attention to the effect on happiness and not just using happiness as a trick to make more sales. I believe that we will then have better products. And that this sector will contribute to a greater happiness for a larger amount of people.