Is the secret to happiness at the top of this mountain?

By Katie Hope
BBC News, Davos

  • Published
Katie Hope at top of mountain
Image caption,
Katie Hope made the long journey to the Rinerhorn Base Camp to "discover happiness"

"Everyone assumes that everyone else feels really awesome, but it's generally not true," says Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University.

Prof Santos has more insight than most into how happy people are.

At the beginning of last year, she designed a new course called Psychology and the Good Life. It was aimed at teaching students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

She expected about 40 students to sign up. In fact, a quarter of Yale's undergraduates enrolled, making it the most popular course ever in Yale's 300-year history.

"It went viral," laughs Prof Santos, who has now made the course available online for free.

She says the fact that even students at one of the top universities in the world weren't happy shocked everyone.

Image source, Yale University
Image caption,
Prof Laurie Santos (far right) led a panel on happiness at the World Economic Forum

But it's not just students that aren't happy.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, amid all the high-powered meetings, networking and speeches, there's barely enough time for lunch.

Yet when I make the long journey via coach and ski lift to the very top of the mountain, which is known as the Rinerhorn Base Camp, for a three-hour workshop on "discovering happiness", I'm accompanied by a European royal family member and several chief executives from large multinational companies.

Some of the people in the room earn hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, but still want to feel happier.

Three steps to happiness

The session starts on the journey when we are told to sit next to someone we don't know and tell them what is going well in our life, and what we thought about when we first woke up.

Image caption,
An uncomfortable beginning...

It's an uncomfortable exercise.

Yet it provides three things that are meant to improve happiness:

  • Social interaction with people, even strangers, makes you feel happier
  • Being grateful for what you have improves how we feel
  • Feeling our lives have a purpose has been linked to a healthier, longer life

Humans have always wondered about how to improve their happiness, but for a long time thought they had no control over it.

The root stem of happiness is "happenstance" - chance, luck or fortune.

Research shows that while genetics plays a large part, accounting for half our happiness, what we do each day accounts for 40%, with just 10% down to our life circumstances.

"We have the potential to acquire happiness even when we were not born happy," says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, who is running the workshop.

Tips for happiness

  • Make more time for social connection even if it's with a stranger
  • Do nice things for others, even small things like making someone a coffee will improve your happiness
  • Count your blessings - think about what you are grateful for
  • Get enough sleep
  • Stay in the moment - when our mind wanders we are less happy
  • Meditate - people who meditate tend to be happier
  • Stop criticising yourself - it makes you feel worse and you will achieve less
  • Don't keep chasing more money - after you reach $75,000 (£57,000), studies show earning more won't make you any happier

It's OK to feel sad

She thinks a big problem is that we often don't understand what being happy means. She says it is a specific emotion, usually in reaction to something, and comes and goes.

A general sense of wellbeing is a more realistic aim, she says.

Image caption,
You don't need to smile all the time, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas (though she did smile for this picture)

That means it's OK to feel negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, but that we should have enough resilience to bounce back.

"Many of us think we need to be enthusiastic and smiling all the time. We don't have that kind of life. Things happen," she says.

But how do we know if we're happy?

Mrs Simon-Thomas says most measurements are based on self-assessment but appear to be broadly accurate.

"It's not a perfect science, but I do kind of know if I am," she says.

Such measurements are being seen as increasingly important.

New Zealand recently announced that its 2019 budget would report on how national spending impacts on wellbeing.

"This is not woolly, it's critical," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, arguing it was more important than GDP, the common measure of growth that countries use to measure progress.

Close your eyes and relax

The science also shows that wellbeing is something companies should care about, because of its impact on improving productivity.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist and founder of the Pundarika Foundation, also at the workshop, says happiness is something you can find within yourself.

Image caption,
Tsoknyi Rinpoche advises taking a break from texting and constantly checking emails

He describes it as rediscovering the "spark" you had as a child, and advocates regular meditation.

Being in the moment, not texting or checking emails or thinking about other things, will bring you a sense of contentment over time, he says.

He asks us to breathe out sharply and then close our eyes and relax.

For me it doesn't work at all. My mind is jumping and I'm thinking about other things. Other attendees say the same.

Rinpoche says it's worth persevering, and that like most things, the more you do it the better you will get.

As we head back down the mountain, scrolling through our emails, it is clear it's going to take more than one workshop to change our mindsets.

But the more we practise, the happier we are likely to feel, says Prof Santos.

And she is an inspiring example. Ironically, for someone who has been dubbed the "professor of happiness", she describes herself as a naturally "morose person".

"But I have to practise what I preach. I've gone up a whole point on the measurement of happiness scale in the year I've been teaching the class," she says.