Since 2013, a 30-something Dane is paid to study happiness. It’s his job. Seriously.
“Working with happiness is a privilege. It’s the most interesting thing to study; why some people are happier than others,” says Meik Wiking, the chief executive officer of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark.
The institute, an independent think-tank founded in 2013 in Copenhagen, Denmark, focuses on life satisfaction, happiness and quality of life.
Its mission is to inform decision makers of the causes and effects of human happiness and improve the quality of life for citizens across the world.
With a degree in business and political science, Wiking has written books and reports on happiness, subjective well-being and quality of life.
Despite jetlag, Wiking flashes a smile ever so often during the interview at the Royal Danish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and declares: “I really enjoy my work!”
In fact, he is so gung-ho about his job that he often works on weekends too.
He says: “I’m interested in what I do. I want to read reports and articles on happiness.”
Before his current profession, Wiking was the director of a think-tank on sustainability environmentalism. “We looked at green energy and how society benefits from being a green economy.”
Wiking was in Malaysia recently to seek inspiration and stimulate public discourse about society, welfare and well-being.
He also shared the happy news that his country, Denmark, ranks No 1 (Malaysia ranks 47th) in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2016 Update. The report ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels. Published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the first report was published in 2012.
Wiking explains that Denmark ranks highest in merriment because of “the Danish welfare model, which is good at reducing unhappiness amongst people”.
Denmark is a welfare state with a high level of taxation. Although the personal income tax rate is 55.8%, its people are supportive of it.
“They feel that they get a lot out of paying into a common pool – an investment in quality of life for all and a tight-knitted social security nest. There’s free access to healthcare, generous unemployment benefits, trust towards political institutions, government and judiciary system because there’s an extremely low level of corruption.”
He admits to being a happy taxpayer and so too, are the majority of Danes.
“If I didn’t pay 50% income tax, I can afford a bigger car but it’s not going to bring me happiness. What brings me happiness is the awareness that people I know and love are taken care of,” he quips.
He raves about the benefits: medical care and knowing that the children will enjoy free university education.
Someone who loses his job for two years would get “day money” (monthly living allowance). However, he is expected to get back into the labour market.
Reasons given for raising the happiness level for countries include gross domestic product (GDP per capital) or wealth, healthy life expectancy, freedom from corruption, freedom to make life’s choices, altruism and social support.
The goal of the institute, says Wiking, is to provide scientific studies on happiness and make well-being a part of public policy discourse. Researchers based their studies on what drives the quality of life and see what they can do to increase it.
In 2013, the institute worked with Dragor, a town in Denmark, on how to improve civil society (relationships between citizens). He foresees a plan to repeat the study next year to see how the institute’s recommendations (policies) have improved quality of life.
“Last year, we conducted an experiment to see how social media affects our perception of reality. We recommended that we should be mindful of the negative effects of social media,” explains Wiking.
Asked whether everyone in his workplace has to appear happy at all times, he laughs.
“Our staff (comprising 10 people) are no different from others in what drives their happiness. It’s satisfaction with our social relationship, health, a meaningful job and good work-life balance,” he answers.
Social relationships, according to Wiking, is one of the keys to happiness.
“People who feel isolated report some of the lowest levels of happiness. Genetics matter too. Other factors include the society we’re part of, living conditions and how we choose to lead our lives.”
Wiking is down-to-earth and most accommodating when it comes to questions. He tries hard to have his eyes opened but inevitably let slip a few yawns, probably due to jetlag from travelling to three countries (Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia) in a week to give talks.
“Everyone has bad and good days,” he says.
“We have the right to pursue happiness and the right to be unhappy from time to time. Unhappiness is a natural part of life. There will be divorces, deaths of loved ones, job losses and sicknesses. And happiness is also a component of life.”
Keeping a gratitude journal is good.
He quips: “We’ve a tendency to focus on negative things. Studies in positive psychology suggests that writing down three things each day or week can help us be more aware of positive things that happened in our lives. It’s a good strategy to improve satisfaction or happiness.”
The way we bring up children helps them to be happy too.
“We teach them to be good friends and citizens, and how to share and be altruistic. Focusing on the softer and holistic areas is one way to do well in the happiness ranking,” he explains.
Unhappiness refers to the conditions we are under and how we react to them. “One of the worst things that can happen is losing one’s job. It’s a source of income, identity and where we get our social relationships from,” he says.
Unhappiness is also associated with high risk of suicide. In the case of low unemployment, there is a higher risk of suicide.
“Our suicide rates have been cut to a third over the past 30 years,” he says of the scenario in Denmark. “We’re in the middle of the pack. Lithuanian has the highest suicides in the world and South Korea is second.”
However, suicide cases in his country have been reduced with better prevention measures and national discourse on mental illness.
“It has become less of a taboo to have a mental illness and talk about it. We also have ‘suicide’ hotlines and better medication.”
On a typical day, what makes Wiking happy?
“It’s being able to ride my bicycle to work in six to seven minutes as I live fairly close to the office and enjoy the fresh air and the smell of grass,” he enthuses.
“Now, we can sit outside in Copenhagen to have lunch. It’s also conducive to happiness because we’re in darkness (when daylight is from 8am to 4pm) for most of the year. We become appreciative when the sun is here. Now sunrise is from 4.51am to 9.39pm. We have longer days, over 16 hours of daylight.”
On the happiness scale of zero to 10, Wiking’s daily score is “a solid nine.”
“It’s not 10 because there should always be room for improvement. When I find the woman I’m suppose to spend my life with, then I will be a 10.”
Asked about his recipe for happiness, Wiking replies: “On an individual level, the easiest way (to be happy) is to do something active, meaningful and with other people. If you can include these three ingredients, you’re ahead!”