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Start the year on a positive note

Staying In

Three books to dispel the gloom

Brid Conroy

‘Wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year’. We utter these words to each other as the year comes to a close. This year, particularly, we have had plenty of time to ponder what exactly we mean by ‘happiness’ and ‘prosperity’. Are they defined by our levels of income and employment, our relationships, our physical health, our mental health? Which is most important? Indeed, how would you rate your own happiness on a scale of 0-10? And what effect does the community in which we live have on our happiness?
‘The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course’, by Clark, Fleche, Layard, Powdthavee and Ward, published by Princeton University Press, is a summary of various scientific studies into what makes people happy – and a great read for those who appreciate a rigorous, empirical approach.
In the last 50 years, as governments try to better understand what really matters to people, citizens in many countries have been asked, ‘How satisfied are you with your life?’ The findings of these studies show the possible need for a rethink of priorities in our societies.
For example, it seems that when income is doubled, it adds only 0.2 more points to our happiness on the scale of 0-10. By contrast, unemployment reduces our happiness by about 0.7 points on that scale. But here is a startling point: the aggregate happiness of the rest of the community goes down by another two whole points when unemployment is high.
What then is the effect of the quality of human relationships on our happiness? As with being employed, people need to be needed and to be in meaningful relationships, be it family and loved ones, but also with colleagues, bosses and our local community. Another important indicator of individual happiness is mental health. Suffering from depression or anxiety is more common than unemployment. Happiness is also hugely affected by the ethos of a society – for example, the degree of trust in a society affects everyone in it. As trust rises from 0 percent to 100 percent, happiness increases by one whole point on the ten-point scale.
‘A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World’, by Daniel Goleman, published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, combines scientific studies with spiritual teachings. It’s a joy to read.
We are in a sense challenged by this book to really think further about what kind of world we want to live in. Studies conducted by Goleman with seven-year-old children in the United States show that regardless of our backgrounds, we are altruistic by nature, caring first for others before ourselves. Further studies then showed that we when we are altruistic, we are happier.
‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, by Rutger Bregman, published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, is another great positive book about humanity and what is possible. One of the chapters tells the story of experiments done when a plane has crashed. Do we think we are a type of society A, where when a plane crashes we crawl over anyone to get out of the plane or are we a type of society B, where we help others before or as well as ourselves? When surveyed, respondents thought we were type A but the research has shown that we are actually type B. We do care about others, and in caring for others we care for ourselves too.
And certainly this last year has shown us that by taking care of others we take care of ourselves. Wishing us all together a very happy and prosperous New Year.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.