"Comparing ourselves with others kills our happiness."

Martijn Burger
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Chief Happiness Officer. Was there ever a better job title? And it belongs to Martijn Burger, or to give him his official title: Academic Director of the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation. He and his team study the phenomenon of happiness and what makes us happy. "We overestimate the connection with money and underestimate the value of face-to-face contact."

TEXT: Inge Janse

PHOTOGRAPHY: Lotte Dirks

"If you took at face value what the Dutch system affords us, you’d assume we were all very happy"

Why do you study happiness?

"As a research institute, we have a social mission, which is to contribute to greater happiness for a greater number of people. By providing evidence-based information about happiness, we enable people to make more informed choices."

Why is happiness research important?

"Well, thankfully, it happens to be something we all want as human beings. Happiness isn’t the same thing as having fun. What we’re interested in is something more sustainable: what’s a person’s quality of life? And how can they enjoy a satisfactory quality of life? Our research can give people insights into this. And our findings are also useful from an economic standpoint: happy employees make for a more productive, creative and healthy workforce. Useful for the government, too: happy citizens make better citizens. They cause less trouble and are more likely to pay their taxes."

Your team is currently studying the difference in reported happiness between urban dwellers and their rural counterparts. Why this particular differentiator?

"I myself have a background in regional economics and have always wondered at the migration of people to cities. They’re supposedly great places to live. But when you look at the statistics, you find that urban dwellers report much lower levels of happiness than their rural counterparts. In the Netherlands, this disparity is largely due to the selection effect of cities in that they tend to attract more single people, more of those looking for work, and more ethnic minorities, all of whom are unhappy for a variety of reasons. At the same time, cities tend to show a wider spectrum of happiness. Young, successful, highly educated people who make frequent use of what cities have to offer are usually happier in cities than in the countryside."

According to forecasts, two-thirds of the world's population will be living in cities by 2050. The motives for this urban migration are thus based on an illusion?

"The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has done some fantastic research in this area. He interviewed two groups of students, one in Midwest America and the other in California. When you picture California you imagine beaches, Disneyland, palm trees and lively entertainment. But in reality, the state is home to lots of poverty, and the cost of living there is relatively high, which means people have to work long hours to survive. So when Kahneman asked students how happy they were, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two groups. But when he asked the students from the Midwest how happy they thought they’d be if they lived in California, they said they’d be happier there. In contrast, the ones in California thought they’d be unhappier in the Midwest. He calls this a focusing illusion. In other words: it’s practically impossible to consider every aspect of a situation when making a choice, and we typically focus solely on a few elements that stand out. As a result, we incorrectly estimate how happy we are. The Midwestern students were probably thinking about the Californian nightlife, palm trees and beaches when they answered, but not about the high cost of living."

Let's assume the average ea magazine reader is over thirty, educated, reasonably well-off, and has two kids. Where would be the best place for him or her to live?

"To be happy in a city, you need to be young and highly educated, and able to afford the city’s amenities. The elderly, and to a slightly lesser extent families with kids, report slightly higher levels of happiness in the countryside. For the other demographic groups, it makes no difference where you live. Unemployed people, for instance, are just as unhappy in the city as they are in the countryside."

So what are main factors influencing happiness?

"First, your health and social relationships. Followed by the combination of work and income; thus, having money and a sense of purpose."

  • Martijn Burger

    NAME: Martijn Burger

    EDUCATION: Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences (Utrecht University, 2000–2003, with honours), Master of Science in Economics and Business (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2003–2005, cum laude), Master of Science in Sociology and Social Research (Utrecht University, 2004–2006, cum laude), PhD in Regional Economics and Economic Geography (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2007–2011, cum laude)

    FUNCTION: Assistant Professor at the Erasmus School of Economics (2011–present), Academic Director of the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation (EHERO) (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2014–present), and Chief Happiness Officer at the Erasmus School of Accounting & Assurance (ESAA) (2017–present)

"When people find a new job after a period of unemployment, they don’t rebound to their previous level of happiness"

Are there any common misconceptions about what makes us happy?

"The connection with money is overestimated. In the U.S., the relationship between happiness and income reaches its limit at about $70,000, above which more money does not make people much happier. But materialism is deeply ingrained in our system. At the same time, we often underestimate the value of face-to-face contact. We’re having lots more online contact than we’re doing face-to-face, but the former’s contribution to happiness is largely marginal. In fact, for lonely people the effect is actually negative. Comparing ourselves with others who seem happy kills our happiness. And that's the big problem: we always compare ourselves to those who have more. The lowest score I’ve ever come across on the happiness index was from Chad, at 2.5. People there suffer from armed conflict, poor health, loss of loved ones, unfulfilled basic needs, absence of job opportunities, etc. On the other hand, if you took at face value what the Dutch system affords us, you’d assume we were all very happy. But instead of counting our blessings, we continually compare ourselves with people who have even more."

To what extent is happiness possible despite misfortune?

"We become accustomed to good fortune quite quickly. You see this when people get a pay rise, win the lottery or get married. But we don’t get used to misfortune, such as unemployment or poverty. What makes it even worse is the scarring. When people find a new job after a period of unemployment, they don’t rebound to their previous level of happiness. They remain scarred by their loss of self-confidence."

Is our combination of democracy and capitalism the most favourable system for happiness? Or would we be better off under communism or in a dictatorship?

"Democracy might not be the most ideal system of government, but it still rates above all others according to the figures. The happiest countries are all places where people have the freedom to make personal choices, where there’s a strong system of social welfare and where incomes don’t differ widely. Think of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The Netherlands also ranks high on those lists. This is why it’s important to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from any growth in a country’s wealth."

Which major issues would you still like to explore?

"The first relates to the fact that happiness research often yields very broad statements, such as: “cities are worse for happiness”. What we’d like to know is what works for whom and under what circumstances. Imagine an app that helped people make choices based on their personality profile. Governments, too, would benefit from this as they’d be able to monitor more nuanced measures than economic growth. It would contribute to a better quality of life at the individual level. Then, I’d like to research the knock-on effects of happiness. If we can demonstrate this empirically, we’d be better placed to convince more political parties to include it in their decision-making."

Finally, on a scale of 0 to 10, how happy are you?

"Well, I’d say 8+, which is slightly above the Dutch average of 7.6. Around 15 per cent report a 6 or lower. Most people say 8. The Dutch are generally quite happy with their lives."