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q&a

Is happiness a state of mind, or can it be built into our homes, cities and countries?

The study of happiness has become a major area of study in recent years, with academic researchers and experts at all levels of government looking at a topic that may sound like greeting-card fodder but encompasses big, difficult issues such as income inequality, health and social isolation.

Meik Wiking, CEO of the Danish Happiness Research Institute, was in Vancouver for the first time recently – a city rated as the unhappiest in the country by Statistics Canada measures. The Globe and Mail reached Wiking in Copenhagen – one of the world's happiest places – after his Canadian visit, to discuss his research and what we can learn about how we live and interact.

Why are so many people interested these days in happiness studies and assessments?

Some politicians and a lot of researchers and environmentalists are seeing the happiness agenda as an alternative to the standard GDP paradigm, everything in terms of growth and GDP. We're seeing happiness surveys as part of a measurement of whether society is moving in the right direction.

We're not advocating that happiness surveys should replace GDP, but that happiness could be part of an overall dashboard, how are people doing overall.

And what does that do?

What we measure affects our behaviour. If we're wearing pedometers, we automatically start to walk more.

What is the most recent research you have done?

We did a study in the [Danish] town of Dragor, where we tried to quantify happiness – how do people evaluate their lives, what kind of emotions do people experience on an everyday basis? That gave us a lot of insight. One of the findings for myself is that social relationships are one of the best predictors of whether people are happy or not. That's something we inherently know. Now we have data and numbers.

Now we find the group that has poor social relationships, that group has an average happiness level which is extremely low – what we usually see in politically unstable, poor countries such as in central Africa.

How did that affect the town?

From the city point of view, the mayor felt the biggest advantage of the project was the sort of mental shift it has created among the citizens; it increased awareness that doing something good for other citizens in the community is benefiting your own life satisfaction.

What can cities do about all this? They don't have the resources that states do.

There's a lot. Cities can move faster. Some of the things we've been working on is how to create frameworks for community relationships, ways for people to meet each other, volunteer work. We've suggested cities do some of these things. We tried to do our part by establishing a community garden across the street. It doesn't feed Copenhagen, but last year we had anything from pumpkins to peas to herbs.

Which age groups typically show the lowest life satisfaction?

In a lot of countries, we can detect a U-shaped curve, meaning we're quite happy when we're young and when we're old. But in the middle of our life, in our 40s, that's where a lot of people hit rock bottom. In Denmark, it's 44. The global average is 46.

Why?

One explanation could be that it's at that point where you experience pressure on several fronts – work and trying to manage having a well-functioning family life. The thing is it can also be detected in people who have not established a family, so people who are without kids; it could actually be in some cases biological. It could also be a sociological, a psychological explanation – it might be at that point where we realize the ambitions and dreams we had when we were young are not going to be fulfilled.

So why does it change as people get older, when sometimes health is declining?

We might be better at appreciating all the things that we do have. We also have a sense that later in life, we might be better at disregarding what everybody else thinks and says.

We know from happiness research that we're quite influenced by norms and social comparisons. But we might be better at letting that go in the later stages of life.

Is this age curve exactly the same in every country?

In most societies, young people often record higher levels of subjective well-being. In Denmark, it's the other way around, youth are lower than the average. That is not unique, but there are not a lot of countries where that is the case.

Part of our work is why that happens. Why, in one of the happiest countries in the world, why are the youth less happy than the average, why is it the other way around in other countries?

What do you say to people who ask what they should do to be happy?

First of all, we should realize several things. First that there are many, many, many factors that influence our happiness. It's health, genes, civil status, jobs, relationships. It's trust levels. In places where people report higher levels of trust, there is a higher level of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose in your work. Helping other people is a factor.

Do national policies play a role?

Yes. The reason Nordic countries always do well is they have policies. There's free access to health care, free access to education, generous welfare benefits. In Denmark and the United States, the well-off have about the same life-satisfaction level. The difference lies in the low-income groups and their levels.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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