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Happiness & Wellbeing

We may have found the secret. Close and supportive relationships are part of the happiness puzzle. Some spend a lifetime pursuing happiness. A new study thinks it may have finally latched on to the answer. The report, What Makes Us Happy?, was a culmination of 15 years of bi-annual surveys of ordinary Australians’ attitudes towards happiness.

It found close and supportive relationships, financial control and a sense of purpose built a solid foundation to achieve prosperity.

“The most extraordinary finding is the stability of this mood happiness,” Australian Unity Wellbeing Index author, Deakin University emeritus professor Robert Cummins, said.

“Happiness is an awkward word because, for many people, it means licking an ice cream, and that’s actually what we call an emotion. It’s fleeting.

“What we’re measuring is something quite different.”

Researchers asked participants to assess their personal satisfaction across seven areas – standard of living, health, achieving in life, personal relationships, safety, community connection, and future security.

But the impact of external measures, including the economy, government and social conditions, were also assessed at a national level.

The essence of wellbeing

A positive sense of wellbeing comes down to a ‘golden triangle of happiness’ made up of three core elements.

Strong personal relationships are vital. Although not necessarily one at a romantic level, it must provide closeness and support.

“It doesn’t need to be a sexual relationship, but it needs to be an emotionally intimate relationship where you can share troubles and sorrows and joys,” Prof Cummins said.

“Often, of course, that’s in the context of the family. It doesn’t need to be, but for most people that’s where they find that kind of intimacy.”

Financial control and sense of purpose made up the other key points.

“It’s not that more money is better, it’s that we need a certain amount of money in order to lead a reasonable life,” Prof Cummins said.

“Money is also a very good defensive resource because if there’s a thing we don’t want to do, we can pay someone else to do it.

“Waking up in the morning and having something important to do is very important … it doesn’t really matter what it is that gets us out of bed … as long as you get a sense of fulfilment and of course purpose out of doing that thing, whatever it is.”

Happiness is limited

Satisfaction with government surprisingly peaked in April 2008, when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. It dropped to a 12-year low in July 2013, before sharply rising after the Abbott government was elected.

Although prone to jumps and dips, prosperity was not limitless.

Throughout the 15 years, personal wellbeing remained between the “normal range” of 73.9 and 76.7 points, out of 100.

This could be explained by ‘homeostasis’, the regulatory properties in a system.

“It’s sort of analogous to body temperature,” Prof Cummins said.

“We maintain our body temperature to within a couple of degrees and in the same kind of spirit we maintain our mood happiness to within a very narrow range as well.

“If we challenge the system too severely, then this homeostatic system collapses, it can’t deal with it anymore and then we lose this normal positivity on a long-term basis and that has the tragic consequence of encouraging us to feel depressed.”

National wellbeing was “much lower and more volatile”, and hovered between 55 and 65 points.

Satisfaction with the Australian economy peaked in October 2007 and dropped to its lowest level in seven years in October 2008, around the time of the global financial crisis.

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