What makes us happy?

Professor Robert Cummins

A ten-year study of the wellbeing of Australians has shown that happiness is more than a fleeting emotion

The average Australian is generally happy, according to the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. And our state of happiness has been reliably constant for the last decade, says its author Professor Robert Cummins.

Australian Unity, in partnership with Deakin University's Australian Centre on Quality of Life, has been regularly measuring how satisfied Australians are with their lives since 2001.

The findings form the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, a subjective measure of our national and personal satisfaction. National satisfaction relates to economic, environmental and social conditions. Personal satisfaction concerns our subjective view of our own health, personal relationships, achievements in life, how safe we feel, community connectedness, future security, religion/spirituality and standard of living.

What stands out for Professor Cummins is that in the 10 years that the index has been compiled there has been a general lack of fluctuation in the national mood.

"What's noticeable is the extraordinary stability of the index," says Professor Cummins. "The average level of population happiness has varied by only three percentage points. We are, on the whole, maintaining a positive state here in Australia.

"If we represent ‘mood happiness' on a scale from 0 to 100, the average level in Australia is 75 points. In other words, the average person feels a strength of overall satisfaction with their life that is about three-quarters of maximum."


What is "happiness"?

Professor Cummins is at pains to point out the mood of happiness, which is measured by the index, is a lot more than a fleeting emotion attached to a nice experience.

"The form of happiness we study is a mood rather than an emotion," he says. "Moods represent a deep feeling state that is constantly present even if we lose contact with it sometimes."

He also suggests that happiness is a natural state for humans with the brain maintaining a steady level of wellbeing much as it maintains a steady body temperature.

"We all have this genetic generator of positive mood to give us our good feelings," Professor Cummins says. "This generator is very resilient and most of the time is able to help us bounce back when bad stuff brings us down.

"This ‘mood happiness' suffuses the brain and pervades much of our thinking. It gives us a generally positive view of ourselves and provides the motivation to get on with life.

"While individual set-points are consistent for each individual, they vary between individuals over the range of about 60 to 90 points. So everyone normally feels positive about themselves, but some feel more positive than others."


What affects our happiness?

At the outset our happiness is a combination of our genetics – some people are just born happier than others, says Professor Cummins – and our environment.

From that point, other factors begin to play a part. The old saying about the three rules of happiness – that we all need someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to – has a lot of truth to it.

"Having an emotionally intimate relationship is the single most powerful defence against a cruel world," Professor Cummins says. "A close partner or friend may help build resilience in many ways. They may assist in avoiding negative challenges through advice or active intervention. Moreover, when negative experiences do occur, they are available to offer assistance and to talk through the problem, an age-old and effective remedy to the loss of happiness."


Can money buy happiness?

Interestingly, findings from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index show wellbeing typically increases as income does. But Professor Cummins is adamant that money itself does not buy happiness.

"The joy we get from buying new things is only a fleeting happiness, it does nothing for us in the long run," he says. "The real power of money to keep us happy is by providing protection against things that crop up in life.

"Many people manage to maintain normal levels of wellbeing in difficult financial circumstances."

Materialism, he says, has been shown to be a threat to happiness. In the pursuit to gain wealth to buy things, people neglect other areas of their life, like their personal relationships.


What about depression?

If everyone is genetically wired to be happy, why do people get depressed? Professor Cummins says that all homeostatic systems (ie the ability for our bodies to retain a balance) have limits.

"If negative experiences become too strong, for too long, the system cannot recover. Then happiness lies persistently below its normal range, with a consequential high risk of depression," he says.


Pursuing happiness

Stop looking for it – happiness finds us, says Professor Cummins.

"There is no need to look for it since we are all genetically programmed to have normally positive levels of happiness and contentment," he assures. "If life is reasonably comfortable, without a dominating source of distress, happiness will find you."


The (happiness) state of the nation

  • The Personal Wellbeing Index has increased from 73.48 in 2001 to 76.03 in 2010.

  • Respondents' satisfaction with their standard of living has increased from 74.78 in 2001 to 79.64 in 2010. But satisfaction with health has remained stable (73.97 in 2001, 73.95 in 2010).

  • Satisfaction with achievements in life has remained stable (73.48 in 2001 to 74.18 in 2010).

  • Respondents feel safer (75.4 in 2001 to 78.73 in 2010), more connected to their community (68.98 in 2001 to 71.33 in 2010) and more satisfied with their personal relationships (78.44 in 2001 to 81.52 in 2010).

Professor Robert Cummins, who has held a Personal Chair in Psychology at Deakin University since 1997, and Richard Eckersley, a social analyst at the Australian National University, devised the instrument. Professor Cummins became the index's author, and the first personal wellbeing index survey was conducted in early 2001. The index quickly made its mark in public discourse. In 2004 Professor Cummins was the primary author awarded ‘Best paper published in Social Indicators Research 2003' and in that same year, along with research colleagues and staff from Australian Unity, won the Victorian Public Health Award for Capacity Building Excellence.