Life After Full-time Work Blog

Learn about preparing for life after full-time work through posts from Don's upcoming book.

#139 What Makes You Happy?

Are there national or cultural characteristics that shape our feelings?


Time for a break from all that stuff about retirement. Relax with thoughts of happiness. In particular, this question: do the same things make us all happy (which would be very useful for a do-it-yourself book author) or are we all different and defy classification? Or is there a sort of in-between state, in which there are sets of broad characteristics that define some of the approaches to happiness that appeal to us?

You’ll remember – of course you do, as you must have read my book on happiness! – that there’s no specific, objective definition of happiness. It’s not a measurable goal. It’s an emotion – one of a few basic feelings, like anger, disgust, fear, surprise and joy – that results from actions or choices or perceptions. So it’s indirect, and can’t be a direct goal.

We use all sorts of emotional language about it. In the English language, we beam or burst with joy. We’re overwhelmed or go crazy. We’re beside ourselves. We float up to seventh heaven. We purr with delight. We feel warm all over. We glow, we’re in high spirits, our eyes gleam. In Chinese, we shudder with glee, dance with joy, gesture with joyful flourishes.

Those are all instantaneous feelings. Happiness measures are focused on longer-term feelings, sometimes called subjective well-being or life satisfaction. So, what’s the measure? I was surprised, when I researched the subject a few years ago, to find that this is the exact wording of the question used by the US General Social Survey (which, dating back to 1972, is the longest such survey in the world):

“Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

Yes, that’s it, that’s the state of the art. Essentially, rate yourself as 3, 2 or 1. The annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, permits you to choose from 0 to 10. Regardless of the scale, it’s a self-assessment, not an objective measure. But strange and valuable things happen when you aggregate the self-assessments over thousands of people.

First, in every country you get the well-known “U-curve of happiness,” reflecting the fact that we feel (or report ourselves as feeling) happy when we’re young; then reported happiness falls gradually as we age; and then (typically after some age in the region of 45 to 55 – remember, this isn’t personal, these are national averages) happiness increases again, eventually rising even higher than the elevated levels we felt (or reported) in our youth. That’s why I gave my book the sub-title “The best is yet to come.”

Second, those national averages inevitably lead to comparisons of which countries consider themselves the happiest. And, pretty consistently, the Nordic countries show up at the top of the list.

Which leads to the obvious question: what is it that the Nordics do, to feel happier than others? Or, more selfishly, what can I learn from them to make myself happier?

I hate to tell you: there isn’t an easy answer to that second question. OK, then, if there’s no easy answer, is there a more difficult answer, from national characteristics? That’s a question that Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist and former President of the American Enterprise Institute, and now a columnist for The Atlantic, wrote about in an excellent recent article.*

Let me sum up his findings, and add a diagram that I created to capture them visually.


Brooks starts exactly where I would. Would he be happy, living like a Finn? Taking short walks in the forest, going ice swimming? Or seeking “hygge” (coziness and comfortable conviviality), like a Dane? No! In fact, he points out, research shows that people in different countries conceive of happiness in different terms. And that led him to conclude that cultures vary widely in their definitions of happiness.

Which in turn led him to muse about different ways to focus on happiness.

One way is to distinguish between an inner and an outer focus. An inner focus is on introspection; an outer focus is on interaction with others.

Another way is to distinguish between a focus on doing things (a task orientation) versus relationships (a people orientation).

Combine them, and you get four possible approaches to happiness. The table puts them together more vividly than using only words.


What brings happiness? A classification suggested by Arthur C. Brooks

Outer Focus Inner Focus
People-Oriented Good relationships with the people you love
(Example: the USA)
A higher consciousness: spiritual, philosophical, religious
(Example: Southern India)
Doing-Oriented Doing what you love, usually with others
(Examples: the Nordic countries, Central Europe)
Feeling good: experiences that bring positive feelings
(Examples: Latin America, Mediterranean countries, South Africa)


Each quadrant describes the main focus of the particular combination. Brooks then adds his examples of countries or groups of people who seem to reflect each combination.

I think this is a helpful advance in happiness thinking. Thank you, Mr Brooks!


Now, let me ask you: which quadrant appeals to you most? There’s obviously no right or wrong answer, since (as I mentioned earlier) the only person entitled to evaluate your happiness is yourself. And there’s no valid reason for you to fall in with the way Brooks would classify you.

Or perhaps there isn’t one single quadrant which defines your feelings best. Perhaps you find happiness in ways that go beyond one quadrant, perhaps even a bit of all of them.

Whatever your personal answer is, I hope you’ll agree with me that the mere exercise of looking at those four quadrants and comparing each with your own intuitive thinking is an exercise that makes you more aware of what triggers happiness for you. And that therefore this has been a useful thing to bring to your attention.


One final point. I can’t remember where I saw this. But it struck me as being as good a formula for happiness as you’ll find. Just … have fun!



Seriously, we’re all different, and there’s no universal formula for happiness.


* I’m grateful to my longtime friend Leslie Brennan for directing me to this piece. I’m very happy that when friends come across articles like this on happiness, they tell me about them!

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I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.

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