Here is the full text of happiness expert Meik Wiking’s talk: The Dark Side of Happiness at TEDxCopenhagen event conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The Dark Side of Happiness by Meik Wiking at TEDxCopenhagen
So according to the United Nations World Happiness Report, Denmark is the happiest country in the world.
Nevertheless, today before the strike of midnight, somebody in Denmark is going to take his or her own life. And another one again tomorrow, and the next day. This year, we will have more than 500 people who kill themselves, or three times as many as are killed in traffic.
Now these are the global suicide rates. Many people mistakenly believe that Denmark has some of the highest rates in the world. Fortunately, that’s not true. We rank somewhere in the middle.
But why is the happiest country in the world not at the bottom of the list when it comes to suicide?
I believe that part of the reason is that it’s more difficult to be unhappy in an otherwise happy society.
Now I study happiness. Every day I get up and I try to answer one simple question: Why are some people happier than others?
It gets me up in the morning but sometimes it also keeps me awake at night. I’m told when musicians see musical notes, they can hear that music in their mind. The same thing happens to me when I look at happiness data.
I don’t hear music but I do hear the comforting sounds of lives well lived. I hear the sound of joy, the feeling of connectedness and the sense of purpose.
But I also hear a silence. I hear the silence of those people that felt that life was not worth living. And I fear that their silence might be the dark side of our happiness.
So today I want to speak up for those that no longer have a voice, and today I want you to get to an understanding of why we need to start to address well-being inequality and bridge the gap.
So together we will look at income, jobs, loneliness, social media, and the suicide-happiness paradox.
But first, I want to address the skepticism that I know some of you hold towards happiness research. I saw some of you on the first row smiling when I mentioned I study happiness; that’s fine.
But let’s all be honest for a second. Show of hands: how many of you are skeptical towards happiness research, or our ability to measure happiness? All the way up. OK, so it’s around 50%. I’ve seen worse.
So let’s address the issues. I mean, I’m sure one of your concerns is that we might have different perceptions of what happiness is. You might think it’s one thing; I might think it’s another.
So first, we need to acknowledge that happiness is an umbrella term. We read different things into it. So what we do is we break it down. We look at the different components that happiness consists of.
So when we and the United Nations and the OECD and the different governments we try to measure happiness and we try to quantify quality of life, we look at, at least, three different dimensions.
First, we look at life satisfaction. So basically we ask people to take a step back and evaluate their lives: how satisfied are you all in all? Or how happy are you on a scale from zero to 10?
Or imagine the best possible life you could lead and the worst possible life you could lead, where do you feel you stand right now? This is the dimension that Denmark always do well on.
The second dimension is more about what kind of emotions we experience on an everyday basis. So if you take yesterday, were you stressed, angry, worried, depressed, or did you feel happy? Did you laugh and did you feel loved?
Of course, these two dimensions are linked. If you have an everyday which is characterized by a lot of positive emotions, you are more likely to experience or report higher levels of life satisfaction. This dimension, though, is much more volatile. We can see there is a weekend effect on this one.
So the third dimension is also called the eudemonic dimension. That’s just the ancient Greek word for happiness. And it refers to what Aristotle thought happiness was. And to him, the good life was the meaningful life. So people have a sense of purpose.
So let’s take the first dimension, and think about what your answer would be: if I asked you… and don’t worry; I’m not going to ask you to share it with guy next to you. But how happy are you all in all on a scale from zero to 10? How happy are you? You have a number in mind?
So what I would do is I would follow you and the rest of the audience and 10,000 people over the next 10 years, because over the next decade, some of you are going to get a promotion; congratulations. Some of you are going to get fired, and some of you are going to find the love of your life. And some of you are going to lose someone you love.
So what I’m interested in is how those changes in your life circumstances impacts your happiness. What is the average impact on happiness from finding love? That’s what I’m interested in.
And then it doesn’t matter whether you and I have different perceptions of what happiness is.
Now all these questions about happiness and satisfaction and purpose, they’ve been asked and answered a million times across the world. And now we can start to see patterns.
So whether you’re from Denmark or the UK or the US or China or India, what do happy people have in common? That’s what we try to find out.
So basically, we use the same methods that have been applied within medicine. So for decades we’ve been studying: why do some people live to see 100? And because of those studies we know that smoking, alcohol, exercise, and diet matters when it comes to our life expectancy. We try and use the same methods to look at happiness.
So another issue you might say is happiness is subjective. Yes happiness is very subjective. To me that’s not an issue; that’s a good thing. Because what I care about is how you experience your life: how happy you are. And I think you’re the best judge and the only expert that can tell me about how it is to walk in your shoes.
And I think we tend to forget that we study a lot of things that are subjective by nature. We look at depression; we look at stress; we look at anxiety. Those are also subjective.
So what happiness… at the end of the day, it’s about how we as individuals feel about our lives. And I’m yet to hear convincing argument why happiness should be the one thing that we cannot study in a scientific manner. And I think we should, because I think it’s what matters the most.
Okay. So let me ask you a different question: Imagine you could live in one of two worlds. In the first world, you make $50,000 per year. Everybody else makes $25,000. In the second world, you make $100,000 per year, so twice as much as before but everybody else makes $200,000. Our prices are constant. So this is Copenhagen. A cup of coffee still cost 5 euros.
But think about it: Where would you prefer to live? Where you make $50,000, everybody else makes $25,000 or $100,000, everybody else makes $200,000?
Show of hands: how many of you would prefer to live in the first world? So around 20%; that’s a little bit below average. But you guys, you’re weird, you’re TED audience.