Gratitude, exercise, kindness, avoiding being steered by others' expectations for your life and instead following your own inner truth. The same themes and recommendations pop up again and again when it comes to happiness advice. Which makes sense. Plenty of science suggests these simple steps can make a huge difference to our mental well-being.
There's only one problem. Almost all of the research backing up the usual happiness tricks is done in wealthy Western countries. And happiness, one new study suggests, isn't just about who you are and what you do but about where you live as well.
The geography of happiness
We often think about happiness as a personal trait -- people are happy or not based on their personal life circumstances and character. Those things matter greatly, of course. But happiness is also social. Take the same person with the same values and material circumstances and relocate them to a different region or country and their happiness level can shift dramatically. Some places are just more conducive to happiness than others.
Which might leave you asking, what are these magic happiness-inducing places so I can pack up a moving van? But it's not that simple. As Kira M. Newman explained for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, this new study crunches 15 years' worth of data on life satisfaction and values around the world and concludes that the match between your personal values and the culture you're living in has a hefty impact on happiness.
Some values make people happy everywhere. Loving your family and friends is a good move whether you live in Malaysia or Missouri. But other approaches to happiness provided varying results depending on geography, Newman reports. Being religious, for instance, tends to make people happier in the U.S. and Latin America but less happy in China. While in China being interested in politics boosts happiness, in Russia it seems to nudge people toward misery.
Why does attending church or town council meetings make citizens of some countries happier than others? The researchers suspect these variations are down to how well an individual's personal values line up with the values of their society. If your approach to life is celebrated where you live, you're more likely to be happy than if you have to swim against the current of local opinion to pursue your chosen lifestyle.
Maybe pack up that moving van after all?
Which is interesting as far as it goes, but why does this matter to those who aren't deeply involved in the minutiae of happiness research? The broad takeaway here is that when it comes to happiness, "'one size fits all' is probably incorrect," the researchers write.
Oft recommended happiness practices are fine and good. But context matters too. You can make time for all the gratitude journaling and nature walks you want, but if your personal values don't line up with those of your neighbors, creating a happy life for yourself is still going to be an uphill battle.
If that's the case for you, maybe you should consider renting that moving van after all. The right place to point it toward is personal, but you are going to have an easier time enjoying your life if your values match the values of those around you.