What would make you happier? A new flat screen TV? A pay rise? A bigger house – like the neighbour’s? A better relationship?
If so, you’re not alone.
Experts say most of us nominate better relationships and more money as things that would improve our happiness. But are we right?
Join the debate as we take you on a journey into the human psyche to find out more about this complex emotion.
What kinds of people are likely to be unhappy? What are the factors that contribute to people’s happiness? Does it involve what their circumstances are? Where they live? Why are city-dwellers so unhappy?
We’ll ask: why have our happiness levels not increased in line with our living standards? Are longer working hours helping us buy things that make life easier? Or are we just running faster on a hedonistic treadmill that’s getting us nowhere?
What happens to the happiness levels of people who have suffered trauma – such as a terrorist attack or an accident resulting in permanent disability? Can they really recover?
And what about the nature of happiness – is it a choice? Or is it something we’re born with?
Insight brings together happiness experts, a well known playwright, a TV game show host, a magazine editor, an endurance swimmer, and a Buddhist nun to find out what makes us happy.
JENNY BROCKIE: Insight will talk about all of that in a moment but first, Amy Laging has been out and about canvassing some early ideas about happiness.
WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY STORY:
REPORTER: Amy Laging
BOYS AND GIRLS: Smiling.
Eating ice cream.
Going to exciting places like Fiji.
Watching 'Star Wars'.
Going on holidays.
I like to sing.
Going to my grandma's house.
See my dad after school.
Being in the garden with my sisters.
Be nice to my brother.
When people play with me.
When people be nice to me.
I don't know.
My guinea pigs.
REPORTER: Why are they happy?
BOY: Because they get to eat all the food.
My friend Zach.
REPORTER: Why is Zach happy?
BOY: Because he's always doing funny things and he makes people happy.
REPORTER: And why is mummy happy?
GIRL: Because I eat my breakfast when I'm told to.
REPORTER: Why's your mum happy?
BOY: Because she does lots of work.
REPORTER: And that makes her happy?
REPORTER: Why is he happy?
BOY: Um…um… Um… He loves me.
JENNY BROCKIE: Of course he loves him. And, Bob Cummins, I wonder if, as you study happiness, are there clues in what those 5-year-olds say as to what makes us all happy?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS, DEAKIN UNIVERSITY: Indeed, Jenny. We run the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, which measures the wellbeing of the Australian population. We've been tracking the Australian population in terms of their happiness now for about five years.
And one of the aspects of our measure – our measure is just seven questions that we ask people about their satisfaction with areas in their life – and the one that is most important is the one that dominated through all of those little kids' accounts and that is connection to other people, our relationships. This seems to lie really at the heartland of our wellbeing. If we haven't got that, then it's very hard to achieve happiness through other means.
JENNY BROCKIE: And that's obviously something that starts very young and that is identified as a very dominant thing very young.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Indeed. We, I think, are programmed to be social people and, unfortunately people who can't achieve that very easily, people who live alone, are at risk of not actually having this and this puts their whole wellbeing at risk as a consequence.
JENNY BROCKIE: Sarah Whyte, you're 18, and I wonder when you look at that, do you think you're more or less happy now than when you were when you were five?
SARAH WHYTE: I think I'm probably more happy because I know that the choices I get to make in life are my own. I mean, being happy, like, when you're five, it's more who surrounds you and what… Like, it's up to the other people to make you happy where as now my choice to go to university, to do, like, extra jobs, to be around my friends are my choice so I'm happy with my choices that I get to make.
JENNY BROCKIE: So that sense of control helps you to be happy?
SARAH WHYTE: Yeah, definitely. And when I get unhappy my mum's like, “You've made these choices so, you know, live with it.”
JENNY BROCKIE: A mum thing to say.
SARAH WHYTE: It brings it back to reality that I did make these choices and, therefore, I should be happy with the choices I make and if I'm not happy, then I can change my choices.
JENNY BROCKIE: Marian, what about you? You're 26. Do you think it's harder to be happy as you get a bit older?
MARIAN RIZKALLA: Yeah, not because you're getting older, that's not what makes you unhappy. But, I mean, I can't remember the last time I saw a butterfly and went, “I am so happy”, you know, at seeing just a simple butterfly. But I think…
JENNY BROCKIE: But do other things make you happy?
MARIAN RIZKALLA: Yes, of course. But I think because social interaction is so important, like we've said, as you get older you might kind of get let down by other people, you might go through relationships, you know, personal or through work, whatever, and they kind of leave a bad mark on you and, you know, and then that might lead you to become kind of disillusioned.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well Michael and Sheila White where does that leave you as you get older?
MAN: Grumpy old people.
MICHAEL WHITE: We think that the older we get, the happier we get because when you're young, in your 30s, you've got the mortgage to worry about, all your expenses, your children's school expenses to worry about but now we've reached our age, now the house is paid for, we've got no worries in that respect.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you're happier than you were when you were younger?
MICHAEL WHITE: Yes, definitely. Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bob, is that born out in the research?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: It's amazing that the accounts here are perfectly in line with the very large database that we have now. We have at this stage measured about 30,000 people Australia-wide in relation to this and it's perfectly consistent. People in their late teens, early 20s are fine – very high levels of happiness – it then starts to drop off a bit in middle age, I must say, as people have the realities of children, mortgages and jobs that they're not all that keen on actually, but where can they go? And then they leave work, the children miraculously leave home and they're left, as has been described, in a financial situation where they're not necessarily rich but it's predictable.
JENNY BROCKIE: So what is that contingent on? What's the bottom line you have to have in that situation to be reasonably happy?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: I think you need enough money to be able to lead a life as you want to lead it, but people will adapt themselves pretty much to how much money they've got. But you also need this relationship thing as well. And if you have both of those and you're elderly, then it seems to us that wellbeing does indeed just continue to increase, as long as you don't have, along with that, some medical illness that gives you pain – and that's a downside.
JENNY BROCKIE: Jackie.
JACKIE FRANK, EDITOR, MARIE CLAIRE: Isn't it more because it becomes a choice, what happens, I think? Because to me the happiest I've ever been is having my children. My children bring me the most joy in my life than anything I've ever done – and I've travelled the world, I've launched magazines, things like that, and the children are what bring me pure, utter joy.
And I think what happens… I was listening to the 24-year-old who said, “Well, I've been a bit let down,” things like that. I think what happens is you have more life experience and therefore you have to suddenly make choices so you can choose that your cup is either half full or half empty. And whereas, when you're younger, you know, you don't have that where as you're more informed and you see the other side of life but it's up to you to actually make that decision.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bob, what do we think makes us happy as opposed to what might really make us happy. What do we think makes us happy?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Unfortunately we think that money is going to make us happy and the whole of our thinking in terms of society, the way that governments plan their programs, the reasons that we do the things we do is in order to accumulate wealth.
And, again, what the data show is very clearly that money is very important when you actually don't have enough of it. If you are a poor person, then life…
JENNY BROCKIE: Then money can make you happier?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Money can, certainly. Well, you're being defeated by the awfulness of the environment that you're living in and your wellbeing is being defeated. But once household income, gross household income gets up to about $90,000 or $100,000 a year – and this is quite a usual situation in Australia now – we can determine no reliable trend to increase wellbeing after that income. So it's very limited.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well, a lot of people would think $90,000 or $100,000 a year is doing pretty damn well, I think.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: This is as a gross income for a household.
JENNY BROCKIE: Giselle, you're 21. Would money make you happier?
GISELLE RUGE: Oh, definitely, I come from the lower end of the scale with income earners, I know that. And I'm also studying part-time, I'm also working full-time. I'm actually pursuing a career in modelling as well. And I know that without the factor of having to work full-time for an income, I know I'd be able to focus more on my studies, actually study full-time.
JENNY BROCKIE: So to give you more choices?
GISELLE RUGE: Yeah, it would.
JENNY BROCKIE: How much do you compare what you have to other people? How much is that a factor in whether you're happy or not about money?
GISELLE RUGE: I definitely compare it to what other people have. I know a lot of my friends are on the higher ends of the scale with income earning. And, I mean, I'm a huge car enthusiast and a lot of them have these really flash cars and I'm driving around in my older model CommodoreWHEREas one of my dreams is to own an RX7 Series 8 and to actually be able to own that.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you think that would make you happy?
GISELLE RUGE: I know it's very materialistic but it's something that I actually want to own and I know by owning that it would make me happy – and on a continuous basis as well, not just for a short term.
JENNY BROCKIE: Do you think once you got it you'd be happy after you'd had it for a while? Do you think it would still make you happy?
GISELLE RUGE: No. Well, my partner, he's actually got a twin-turbo Supra. I've been with him for 18 months and even – he's had it the whole time.
JENNY BROCKIE: And he still loves it?
GISELLE RUGE: He still loves it and I still love driving it as well, so it's continuous.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK. Fair enough. Andrew O'Keefe, you hand out money on 'Deal Or No Deal', a game show on the Seven Network. Now, hundreds of thousands of dollars are up for grabs on your show. Let's have a look at you in action.
ANDREW O’KEEFE, ‘DEAL OR NO DEAL’: Double or nothing. 10 grand. These are the possibilities. Girls, is it double or nothing? Let's pop the locks. Yeah! Excellent work! Beautiful! $90,000! That's what I call a wedding present. Let's see the money. Here come three of the most delightful things on the show – Emma Gurney, Lenny and a cheque for $90,000!
JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew the whole idea of the show is that money makes people happy, isn't it?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: Well, that's game shows, Jen, yeah, absolutely. The god of game shows is definitely Mammon, I think. But it's funny – with people who come on the show, I find with them it's not how much they win, but it's what they imagine they're going to do with the money.
That young couple, for example, they won $90,000. They wanted to get married, go on a honeymoon and put a deposit on a house. They got enough money to do that. It made them happy. The very next day we had an old lady who had been a survivor of Treblinka, she'd come out here with her husband, they had 13 grandchildren, all she wanted was enough money to take all the family to the beach for the weekend. So she pulled out of the game at $6,000 and there was still a great possibility she could have gone on to win $80,000 or $90,000.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you're saying it's about people's expectations of what they can do with the money?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: The people who are happiest tend to have a clear expectation of what they want to do with the money and meet or slightly exceed that expectation. And I think that says something about happiness generally – that we, if we feel that we are in a position to somehow positively affect our lot, we are happy.
JENNY BROCKIE: And how do you manage to look that cheerful all the time?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: There's this fabulous drink called Red Bull, Jenny. No, look, seriously, some mornings you do wake up and you think you've got five shows to do and 150 screaming maniacs and how am I going to get through this, and some mornings you're just grumpy.
But I think you can positively affect your own mood by pretending that you're happy. You pretend that you're happy for 10 minutes, then you walk into a room full of people who are all wired on expectation and they're loving the environment and before you know it, there's this kind of chemical change in your body and you're happy. You think, “How did that happen?”
MAN: It's called “fake it until you make it”.
JENNY BROCKIE: Yes, it is called “fake it”. And does it work for you, Bill Crews?
REVEREND BILL CREWS, UNITING CHURCH: No, I was just thinking, money like that can make you happy like that, but in the end, when your life falls to pieces the only thing that really will get you through it is love. That's the only thing that will get you through it.
And that's the thing I've noticed that a lot of Australian people I meet they're quite happy until something happens and then they haven't got the skills or the wherewithal or the strength to get through it. And those who do get through it are those who have loving networks and that can build on it. But love is what's really needed, not so much happiness.
JENNY BROCKIE: Ross Gittins, is there a difference between hedonism and happiness, do you think?
ROSS GITTENS, ECONOMICS COLUMNIST, SMH & THE AGE: Oh, yes, I do. And I think that, well, hedonism is a part of happiness but it's a very superficial, transient part of happiness. It's the happiness that you get when some money comes your way and you're able to acquire something that you've long had the ambition to acquire and for some fairly brief time you will feel terrific but you get used to that very quickly.
JENNY BROCKIE: And that just doesn't happen with money either?
ROSS GITTENS: No. And then you discover that somebody else has got one that's better than yours and it's all over.
JENNY BROCKIE: We're all told, Ross, that we're much better off economically than we were decades ago. Has it made us happier being better off economically?
ROSS GITTENS: Well, Bob's the person to ask about that but looking at his data, I don't think so. I think we stay pretty much as happy as we ever were despite the fact that there is no doubt that we've got better off materially and that it's not just the rich who've got better off, that most of the people in the middle have done OK too.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK, Tim Sharp, you run the Happiness Institute. What is the Happiness Institute by the way?
DR TIM SHARP, HAPPINESS INSTITUTE: It's a place where we make people happy – surprise, surprise.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK, you run the Happiness Institute, Tim. What about this idea that it comes from within, that you can't teach happiness, it comes from inside you?
DR TIM SHARP: Almost everything we've heard tonight is true. And I think one of the myths about happiness is there's going to be one thing that will make you happy.
I often talk to… We work with lots of people, and I often say it's a bit like baking a cake – there's all sorts of ingredients that need to go in to make the cake taste good. If you take it out, you've just got flour and that doesn't taste that good. You need to do all of these things that people have talked about. Clarity – someone talked about having a clear sense of what you're going to do with the money.
Well, we know from the research that having a clear sense of life purpose is very important, optimistic thinking is very important, relationships is undoubtedly very important. All of these things are important but you can't just do one of them on their own, it doesn't work that way.
JENNY BROCKIE: Chris Berg, I know that you think that economic success does make us happier, it certainly makes you happy. You say you're excited by choice. What do you mean?
CHRIS BERG, EDITOR, IPA REVIEW: I'm excited by the choice the modern economic system has provided for us. The capacity for us to have choice in a huge range of niche markets – you can order extremely technical and extremely specific things over the Internet, you can access huge ranges. You can… If you have a desire to get something extremely specific, you can get it nowadays and that…I find that very exciting.
JENNY BROCKIE: And that makes you happy?
CHRIS BERG: That genuinely makes me happy. It's not the only thing that makes me happy but it is genuinely… I am genuinely excited by the capacity to fulfil my preferences.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK, David Williamson, does stuff – 'stuff' – make you happy like that? Choices, all these choices?
DAVID WILLIAMSON, PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, I think what people have said tonight is that with no money you're very miserable indeed and beyond a certain level it doesn't seem to make much difference. But certainly I think the thing, the reason why or one of the reasons why we have not grown happier, even though we've got a lot richer in the last 40 or 50 years, is the fact that status is incredibly important to the human psyche and we compare ourselves with others.
It's not an absolute level of wealth that we're interested in, it's how well we're doing compared with others. And so as society gets more competitive we spend more and more time grabbing status, less and less time for relationships and more and more time to develop depression.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you see this desire for more and more in terms of status as not just being about material things either, don't you?
DAVID WILLIAMSON: Oh, yeah. I think there's a basic human need for respect and status is commonly the measure of respect but the problem is that in a very materialistic society status is associated solely with wealth.
JENNY BROCKIE: Yes. Yeah, up the back.
SARAH WHYTE: I think if anyone's looking to be happy, in Year 11 I read '1984' by George Orwell. It is…like, it's the worst book but the best book because it just made me go, “Oh, my goodness, I am so lucky, I have freedom, I have choice, I have a loving family. I don't live in a communist society, I don't have telescreens watching me every five seconds.” I think if you want to be happy, read that book and you'll see how lucky you are.
JENNY BROCKIE: Yeah, I wonder about the telescreens. Ross.
ROSS GITTENS: I think David's right. I think we're obsessed by status, we're obsessed by comparing ourselves with other people. The problem with that from a kind of top-down macroeconomic point of view is that it's a zero-sum game.
If everybody's thinking “I'm happy if I'm up the top,” what about the people that aren't up the top and what about the people who get pushed back when I manage to get a bit higher? And that's the problem with that.
The community can't actually make everybody on top.
JACKIE FRANK: But the people down the bottom are actually happy because they're not fighting to get to the top. It's the people at the top who have been fighting and fighting that aren't as happy.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bob Cummins, what about where we live? Do happy people cluster in areas and unhappy people cluster somewhere else? How does that work?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: They actually do, interestingly. And as far as we can tell, the best place to find happy people is in regional centres, country townsWHERE they're big enough to have all the facilities but small enough so that people actually talk to their neighbours, they know their neighbours, their neighbourhood, they have a sense of community, a sense of belonging, exactly the sort of things that you don't get in high-rise apartments in the middle of the city.
JENNY BROCKIE: David Williamson, I'm interested in asking you about this because you're a classic seachanger. You moved from inner-Sydney to Noosa. Now, are you happier as a result?
DAVID WILLIAMSON: Well, I still spend a third of my time down in Sydney so I hopefully get the best of both worlds. But yeah, there's certainly something about a regional centre in the fact that it does encourage and promote community and you feel that you're not lost in the crowd.
CHRIS BERG: This is again, you're exercising a choice that you have and the reason you have these choices is we've had significant development in transportation, communication networks – all part of economic growth which people appear to be attacking in materialism. You have the capacity now to take that seachange.
DAVID WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I think we've created a paradise for extreme obsessives. If you want to chase a 1943 'Captain Marvel' comic, you can get it now but I don't know really whether that's the criteria for happiness.
JENNY BROCKIE: I think where Chris is coming from is look, all this wealth is fabulous, it's giving us all these fabulous choices and there's nothing wrong with consumerism. Is that what you're saying?
CHRIS BERG: No, I'd like to jump to the defence of materialism, the defence of getting as much stuff as you can because essentially the materials that you're buying you buy for a reason. It's not just to horde. You don't take it and put it in your cupboard.
JENNY BROCKIE: But the point is does it make you happy?
CHRIS BERG: No, because it can actually increase your living standards. I mean, for instance, I love my iPod and that gives me the capacity to listen to music while I go to work. I consider that an increase in my living standards. If you buy a DVD player, you can watch more movies, you can watch them better. You buy a wider screen, you can watch, you know, bigger movies.
MAN: But are you happy, though? I mean, you're talking about material things, you seem to be talking about…
CHRIS BERG: You're talking about experiences though, I'm talking about experiences, not material things.
VENERABLE CHONYI, BUDDHIST: Some people have a choice but there are a lot of people who don't have any choice and Bill Crews knows many of these people who have no choice in what they do because of the sorts of families they were born into, because of their life circumstances.
BILL CREWS: I was talking to a kid the other day about this. I said, “I'm going to this happy conference,” you know, and he looks at me, he said, “Give them all a bong.” And I thought… It worried me, it worried me, first of all, because he was so young and it worried me, secondly, because what he was saying was if you want to be happy, there's a drug around or some mind-altering thing around which will make you happy. So that this obsession we have with looking to be happy or feeling that we're not unhappy, we have to find something to do it.
And like '1984', there's the Symes of the world that can do this. But for my thing, real happiness is when you don't realise you are happy, you just suddenly look back and you think, “Gee, I was happy.”
JENNY BROCKIE: Caroline, I'm interested in your view on this too because do you think it's necessarily a good thing to strive for happiness?
DR CAROLINE WEST, PHILOSOPHER, SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: For happiness? I think there's a paradox called the paradox of happiness which says that there are some goods, and happiness is one of them, which, paradoxically, if you consciously seek to attain it, you're pretty much guaranteed not to succeed. Spontaneity is another good like that, you know. If you decide to be spontaneous, you're pretty sure you're not going to be spontaneous.
So a lot of philosophers in what's called the hedonistic tradition have recommended – who thought of happiness as one of the ultimate goals in life – but they've recommended that we don't consciously attain it, instead we engage in other activities that have happiness as a by-product – activities like being socially connected with our friends and family.
JENNY BROCKIE: Being connected to community?
DR CAROLINE WEST: Being connected to community.
JENNY BROCKIE: Or to one another.
DR CAROLINE WEST: Or to one another. Or engaged in projects that we value and regard as meaningful and which absorb us, things like that.
JENNY BROCKIE: So happiness happens while you're not watching.
DR CAROLINE WEST: Happiness is a by-product. And if you ask yourself, “Am I happy yet?” you know, as you're doing those things, that's enough to make the happiness disappear, you lose the flow.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim, is happiness a choice?
DR TIM SHARP: Yeah, look, it certainly is. I partly agree with it but you can prepare the conditions to be ready to accept it when it comes along. We've heard… I think the conversation's been sidetracked a bit with the whole money debate. I think regardless of that, no matter what your conditions are, you can choose how you respond to those conditions.
Now, again, if we exclude the very…maybe the very low socioeconomic class or below the poverty line, and I don't think anyone in this room and probably not many people watching this show, are in that condition.
So if we talk about the majority of Australians who have a very good quality of life, it's not whether you have an iPod, it's not whether you have a BMW or whatever, it's how you think about those things. Those things are not bad so if you think about them in a way – and we know, for example, one of the things that leads to happiness is appreciation – so if you appreciate those things, that may well make you happy but it comes down not to the thing itself but the way you think about that thing.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well you'd be out of business if people couldn't choose to be happy, wouldn't you, because you wouldn't have anything to teach them.
DR TIM SHARP: That's partly true. But we know from the research that you can do this. People can learn the skills that will create the conditions that will lead to happiness.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bob, do you agree with that?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Unfortunately, no. I'm very unsure about this whole choice thing. The overwhelming reason that some people are happy and others are not actually is in their genes.
DR TIM SHARP: That's not true.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: People have set points for happiness which are very predictable. Some people are just naturally jolly people, other people are glum and almost nothing that you can do to them fundamentally, I believe, will change that. And I don't just believe it, the data show this very strongly.
If somebody has a very high set point for their happiness and some ghastly thing happens to them, their happiness will disappear for a while, but it will come back and these people will return to a level of happiness that was approximately where they came from. So these kinds of data are well and truly in it at this stage.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim?
DR TIM SHARP: I must be allowed to respond to that because that's only true to a point. The contribution of genes is undeniable but it's, as far as I'm aware, no more than 30% to 50%. Now, that means there's a significant proportion that is still within our control. Now, OK, there might be a set range but that range is considerable and we can do things that will increase us to the… ..or put us in the upper level of our range.
There's no doubt about that. There's decades worth of solid scientific research that shows people can enhance their happiness.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bob, how do you explain depression if someone appears to be a very happy person and finds that they hit a period where they get depressed? How does your theory explain depression?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: We've got a pretty robust system for keeping ourselves feeling good about ourselves. This involves all sorts of tricks that we pull. If something bad happens to me, I always blame somebody else and I find that works perfectly for me.
DR CAROLINE WEST: Something good happens…
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: And it's…it's mine. Yeah, that's right. But despite these kinds of things…
DR TIM SHARP: That's one of the skills we teach at the Happiness Institute. It's true.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: But despite the great resilience of people, if they are subjected to too much difficulty in their life, it defeats them and if you defeat this system that keeps us feeling good about ourselves, you lose your happiness and the result of that is that you feel depressed.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well, some people do seem to defy the odds when it comes to being happy. Amy Laging has been talking to a man in Darwin who seems unusually cheerful given what he does for a living.
THE SEWERAGE WORKER STORY:
REPORTER: Amy Laging
Richard Somerhaur is a pretty happy man. He has a strong marriage, a lush green property, great pets…
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: That's enough carrots now.
..and what he says is a great job – sewage worker.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: I mean, being a sewage worker, I think it's one of the more important professions, jobs you can have. And a lot of people I know go, “Yuck, I don't want to go near it,” but you know, we got a saying down here – for you it might be poo, for us it's bread and butter. And we work with it and we earn our living with your shit.
As service coordinator at a sewage treatment plant in Darwin, Richard is no stranger to the sludge and goop of human waste and he wouldn't have it any other way.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: So what we do with that apparatus here, with that machine, all the raw sewage goes through and it's like a big meat mincer, it minces it all up.
To hear Richard explain the ins and outs of the sewage business, you can't miss his enthusiasm. And that's despite the heat, the noise…
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: You have to earn your money.
..and yes, the smell, especially out here at the Palmerston sludge ponds.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: You can see the sludge. Really, it emits quite a bit of odour and that's why we built the sludge ponds out here.
The sludge ponds are exactly that – all the stuff that's discharged from nearby restaurant grease traps and rural septic tanks ends up here. It's not for the faint-hearted, but Richard has a unique take on his surrounds.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: What I enjoy to come out here is actually… ..I quite like the Palmerston waste disposal system here, the treatment lagoons because as you can see, there's lots of birds out here, it's quite peaceful, if you don't get bitten by sandflies. Sometimes we get sandflies here. And as you can see, our treatment lagoons they look like, bloody, the Sydney Harbour nearly.
Good afternoon, Charlie, how are you doing?
CHARLIE: Good, Richard. How are you, mate?
Richard has spent some 30 years working in sewage since arriving from Austria. He's worked his way through to a pretty senior position. Richard's colleagues say he's a top boss.
CHARLIE: Got to love him, got to love him. No, really good. Understanding and very patient I find, very patient. If things go wrong he's usually on the ball and keeps everything going smoothly. Really good.
Richard's wife, Greta, sings his praises too. Well, most of the time.
GRETA: He's a very generous and very helpful person. Anybody who needs help he just needs to ask and Richard is straightaway there.
RICHARD: And what else, dear? Sometimes he's a miserable bastard, really.
GRETA: Sometimes he's quite grumpy.
RICHARD: Bloody mongrel dog.
Apart from the occasional grumpiness, Richard says they have a pretty good life in Darwin.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: Yeah, it's a good life. I mean, it's a quiet life. You can get away from people. The only noise we hear is when the bloody horse gets on the veranda over there, and when the train comes past.
Back at work, Richard reflects on his life and frame of mind.
RICHARD SOMERHAUR: Happy? Yes. Because I see every day above ground as a bonus. Every day above ground I come to work, I'm not coming to work and be all happy because, like I told you in the morning, in the morning we say when somebody comes to work and walks into the office, we say, “Shut up because happy people shit us”, you know. But I mean we are a good bunch of people down here and I think we do the job quite well.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well, Bob, why do you think Richard's happy with that kind of job when a lot of people would just hate the job he does?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS:
I think he's got everything. He has…obviously the social connections are there, he has a great sense of purpose, he has a great sense of himself as being very fulfilled in the job that he does, great connection, then, to the community that's being serviced by this facility – yep, that sort of defines a happy person pretty well.
JENNY BROCKIE: Now, Richard has a certain amount of control in that job. He's responsible for other people. Is having some control a key to happiness? It can be for some people.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: It can be not for others. It all depends whether that works for you. It's very individual. Some people hate the idea of having control over other people because they can't actually exert that control.
JENNY BROCKIE: What about control over your life, though, or a feeling you have some control over your life?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Everybody needs to feel that they're in control of their own life. This is terribly important. And if you can't control the external world, then you have to control the internal world, control your own reactions to the world. And if you can do that, then that is a very good formula for keeping yourself feeling good as well.
GIRL: I love the fact that I have no control whatsoever about what's going to happen to me every day and what's going to happen to me in the next 10 years. I don't know and I don't care and I love that.
JENNY BROCKIE: Good for you. Good for you.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: I don't believe that.
JENNY BROCKIE: And what's more, he's going to tell you it's your fault.
GIRL: That's right.
JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: I found something very illuminating about Richard's package, I mean, other than don't ask for bread and butter at his place obviously, but the people who work with him said he was happy because he was generous. He at the outset said sure it's a stinky job, but it's an important job.
Most of our discussion has focused around factors that affect us positively or negatively as individuals but I think you know, the esprit de corps is as equally as important to happiness.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you manage to seem happy even when you're delivering very bad news. Let's have a look at this.
CONTESTANT, ‘DEAL OR NO DEAL: I always wanted to be remembered for something. If it means that I leave 'Deal Or No Deal' with nothing, so be it – I'll double it all.
ANDREW O’KEEFE: He's going down in a blaze of glory… Randomly selected, is one word – the word is 'double' or the word is 'nothing'. I use all my voodoo magic for you to take home $300, Adrian. Girls, what is it? It's… Yay! Adrian, you had to do it. You went there. We got there. Nothing. He's going down in a blaze of glory… Hey, guess what?
CONTESTANT: What's that?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: You still get a novelty oversized Styrofoam cheque. Bring us the money!
CONTESTANT: Thank you very much.
ANDREW O’KEEFE: How does it feel be to holding a cheque that says nothing, Adrian?
CONTESTANT: Very hollow.
JENNY BROCKIE: How do you do that?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: Well, you know, you have to leave people feeling that they've had a good time even when they haven't on a game show. That's the essence of it, basically. You know, if they win big, you say, “Yes, we achieved our dreams!” If they lose, you say, “Oh, well, we've had a bit of fun and here's your styrofoam.”
JENNY BROCKIE: OK, so the feel-good element transcends the reality?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: Oh, yes, indeed. People don't switch on a show at 5:30 to think about the world necessarily. They switch on the show at 5:30 because they're cooking dinner and because they're about to get some bad news at 6:00 and they want some light relief.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bill Crews, you don't look at all happy watching that.
BILL CREWS: No,no, there's something pathological about it, in a way, that is worrying because you can't provide nothing as something and people go there with all that happiness inside, you know, all that and go away with nothing. You'd have to go away… If you were a Buddhist, you'd have to go away and meditate for a long time.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well, Chanyi, you're a Buddhist.
CHANYI: It's dangerous. Well… When we talk about happiness from a Buddhist point of view, we say most of what people talk about as happiness we say is like licking honey off a knife because we have these moments when we feel great, and particularly when those moments are coming from something external, but those moments always pass and because they always pass, then the dissatisfaction is going to come in.
For that guy, that moment of it passing is going to hit him like a tonne of bricks as soon as the camera's off him and it's going to be very difficult for him. And while people have been talking about choice, I've been reflecting on the fact that when we talk about choice, we're talking about the mind and what the mind is doing and of course from a Buddhist point of view, happiness is something which is in the mind.
And it makes me think of the Tibetans who have been imprisoned by the Chinese who have gone through such appalling torture – monks and nuns and laypeople and some of the Tibetan Lamas, when they were taken off into prison for the Chinese they said, “Oh, this is terrific, I wanted to do a 3-year retreat and I've been too busy to do it.”
Now they knew they were going into appalling conditions but they had an element of choice because there was something very powerful internally which gave them the stability despite the external circumstances. And unless we have some of that internal stability, then we're always going to be in danger of being thrown by the external circumstances.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tony, I'm sure you're keen to say something about this. You had a horse riding accident seven years ago that left you a partial quadriplegic. And this photo here was taken, I think, just five minutes before your accident.
TONY DUNN: Yeah. When I was told that I probably had lost use of all limbs, the first thing I thought of was well, “I'm no good to Carol, We've started a vineyard, I'm going to be a drag on everyone, suicide is probably a good option.”
It wasn't seriously contemplated but I was in that frame of mind that… And I think I was fairly rude to her when she came in. I just wanted her… I wanted to push her away, I didn't want her tied down with what was left of me.
And then it was purely a statement by one of the doctors that set the fire going in the belly. And I thought, “Well, I've got a goal now, I'm going to show you that I can do what I've claimed I'm going to do.”
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you make a choice? What was the process?
TONY DUNN: Yeah, the choice was – forgive the pun – I'm not going to take this lying down. I'm going to get up. A doctor had said to me that I was dreaming and he was going back to Ireland and I was SEP. And the medical staff told me SEP meant 'someone else's problem'. And I thought, “Well, bugger you. I'm going to show you.” So he did me a wonderful favour.
But that wasn't happiness, that was a goal-driven thing. And as I achieved each goal over the years, I think I became… I liked myself and unless you like yourself you're not capable of liking others as far as I'm concerned. I was comfortable with my existence I didn't feel as though I was a burden. I had something to offer Carol, I had something to offer my friends, the wine business. We won gold medals.
JENNY BROCKIE: Yes! And are you happy now?
TONY DUNN: I wasn't…I wasn't aware of it until Amy rang me and said, “Are you happy?”
JENNY BROCKIE: Amy's our researcher.
TONY DUNN: And I said, “Yeah, I am.” And I've been boring everyone senseless since she rang, saying, “I'm happy.”
JENNY BROCKIE: What a great story. I love that story. Bob Cummins, resilience, how important is resilience to happiness.
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: What a fantastic example of an extremely resilient person. We have…we are born with the machinery that allows us to recover. We have all of these tricks, all of these adjustments that we make. When things go wrong we adjust our horizons, we adjust the kind of person that we think we might want to become, all of these things are possible.
JENNY BROCKIE: But do all of us do that?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: No. Some people… It's like any individual difference – some people have it in spades, other people have it only just.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bill, you must see that a lot in your work?
BILL CREWS: Yeah, I was thinking about that. A lot of the people I see right at the bottom, right down there are the most resilient of all. And I kind of talk to them and I think, “My God, if that happened to me, I'd be jumping off a cliff,” that often it's not just those up the top that are resilient, the ones at the bottom who have been through these appalling things where, say, they've been part of the stolen generation or something's happened in their lives – they've been kind of farmed out to somebody or they've been sexually abused or something or other – and here they are, telling their stories. They might be on the bottom of the heap at the moment but they're often an inspiration.
JENNY BROCKIE: How much of all of this is about where we set the bar? Are people who set the bar for being happy lower more inclined to be happy than people who set the bar high?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: I don't think we set the bar in a conscious way. This is part of what we call the set point. Some people are just naturally low.
JENNY BROCKIE: And by set point you mean the point at which you can be happy?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: The actual level of your happiness. So if we think of a scale from 0 to 10, then people are naturally positive on that, people are five or above, but some people are around five on that scale, some people are up around nine and they're like Teflon-coated. It doesn't matter what happens to them…
JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you keep pointing to Andrew when you say that?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: Is he talking about my suit when he says Teflon coated?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Best example.
JENNY BROCKIE: Caroline, is there…
AMBER DAVIS, 1ST VIOLINIST, SYDNEY SYMPHONY: Can I make a comment on that? I think that it all seems very complicated, this happiness thing, you know. We start off the program with children who have a very simplistic view on happiness and it's very simple things make them happy. I think it seems that these parameters that you're talking about with happiness, most people, unless something dreadful happens to them or they come to some gross realisation because something dreadful happens to somebody else that they love, they're on a default setting.
JENNY BROCKIE: Amber, I'd like to just follow up with you here because you're a classical violinist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Now what makes you happy? Is it music that makes you happy or playing music?
AMBER DAVIS: No. I'd say no, it's not music that makes me happy. It's connection that makes me happy. And I relate so much to, you know, like the streets of New Delhi or places where people feel very connected to one another. It's that connection where you… ..you're sharing something with a whole lot of other people and then with a whole lot of strangers and you're all feeling the same thing.
JENNY BROCKIE: And that happens in the orchestra as well?
AMBER DAVIS: Yes, it does, definitely.
JENNY BROCKIE: Describe that feeling for me when you're playing.
AMBER DAVIS: It's similar to… Well, you have no parameters in that you lose time, you tend to live… ..it brings you completely into the now. You have no past and you have no future. You have no better, you have no worse. You're absolutely and utterly in each moment and you find that time has no meaning in this state where you can appreciate silences and you seem to have a hell of a lot of time to do anything, even if it's really difficult. Everything slows down and you appreciate incredibly sort of small details like how the conductor's hand waves or the slight breeze that comes across the stage, or that pin-drop silence or looking down and seeing some really ancient lady looking like she's about five, you know.
JENNY BROCKIE: Just because of the effect of the music?
AMBER DAVIS: Yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Chanyi, do you connect with that as a Buddhist?
CHANYI: I connect with it very much. And one of the things I was thinking about as you were talking was His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying how important this connectedness is. And he sometimes says that one of the aims in his life is to treat everybody he sees as a very special friend. But it's not just the connectedness from one person to another but emphasising that this interconnectedness is part of our place in this whole planet.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tammy, you've been watching all of this with great interest. You're a long-distance swimmer and you've swum the English Channel and the Murray River. You push yourself with high personal expectations but did you connect with what Amber and Chanyi were saying then?
TAMMY VAN WISSE, ENDURANCE SWIMMER: Absolutely. What Amber was saying about time standing still and seeing everything happen in slow motion really struck a nerve with me because I've felt that many times before too.
And you never know when it's going to strike, you can't predict it. It may happen once in a year in a particular swim or a particular environment but it may not happen for a long time again so it's not something that occurs very quickly.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is it happiness?
TAMMY VAN WISSE: I think it is. I think it's a state of being euphoric and everything is working well and everything around you just seems to be in harmony and because of that your mind's happy and your body's functioning so well and it all just seems to fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tim Sharp, all of this is a phenomenon, isn't it? It's known as a phenomenon called 'flow'.
DR TIM SHARP: Exactly. And one of the things we know about happy people is that they're better at experiencing flow, they're better at utilising their core strengths, their qualities and attributes and engaging in activities that give them flow.
One of the other things, just to pick up, because a few times through the conversation you've gone back and asked people, “But is that happiness” or “Does that make you happy” and one of the things we teach is that happiness is a broad concept, much broader than most people realise. I think a lot of us have a very narrow definition of happiness and we just think of joy and excitement but I've come to talk about the spectrum of happiness which is everything from the higher rails of forms but also the lower rail of forms like calm and satisfaction and they're just as important.
JENNY BROCKIE: Yes, lady here.
LADY: The happiest moment was seeing my first grandchild born. I've now got five. And, oh – the cuddles, the kisses, it's just something that only a grandparent can tell you about.
JENNY BROCKIE: And different to being a parent?
LADY: Absolutely different!
JENNY BROCKIE: Why is it better?
LADY: You can give them back.
JENNY BROCKIE: Tony.
TONY DUNN: I think what I've learnt in the seven years since the accident is that I've learnt a lot about myself, I've learnt… I think it was a wake-up call for me to sort of sort yourself out. And the feel… I mean, people are talking about… ..Tim was talking about, sort of, this flow feeling. How I feel 24 hours a day is like Caroline and I saying goodnight of an evening and she gives me a cuddle and we have a kiss and that feeling is that feeling I have all day. It may not be conscious but it's that cosy connection…
JENNY BROCKIE: Oh, she's crying.
TONY DUNN: She does this all the time.
JENNY BROCKIE: I don't blame her.
TONY DUNN: It's sort of…it's like being wrapped in cotton wool. I know that sounds really fuzzy but that is the feeling I have. I can deal with anything.
JENNY BROCKIE: So it's about a loving relationship?
TONY DUNN: Yeah, I could deal with anything. If something goes wrong, OK, it's a bit of a problem, we'll sort it out. Nothing's a drama.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK. Just a quick whiz around a few of you. Andrew, are you happy?
ANDREW O’KEEFE: Oh, yes, of course, Jenny. I mean, I have a job that makes people happy, if only fleetingly, and when it doesn't, you know, it's not my problem, I can go to a household that's happy.
JENNY BROCKIE: Bill Crews, are you happy?
BILL CREWS: Yeah, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Personally are you happy within your own life?
BILL CREWS: Yeah, yeah. I think I've been… I've had the rare privilege of seeing into other people's souls and that is an experience you don't forget and teaches you how precious all life is.
JENNY BROCKIE: David, are you happy?
DAVID WILLIAMSON: I just heard the definition of happiness as having grandchildren, Well, I've got seven. And I've just seen the latest one, Atticus, down in Melbourne. Atticus.
JENNY BROCKIE: And you're happy?
DAVID WILLIAMSON: Well, yes, yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Sort of?
DAVID WILLIAMSON: I'm getting used to the name, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Well, Atticus, yeah, OK. Bob, are you happy? Or would you ever own up to not being happy?
PROFESSOR BOB CUMMINS: Never, no. I'm perfectly average, actually, yes, just an ordinary happy person.
JENNY BROCKIE: And Tim? Well, you, hey.
DR TIM SHARP: Well, I have to be.
JENNY BROCKIE: You have to be. Professionally you have to be.
DR TIM SHARP: I consider it an honour to spend my life trying to help other people be happy and it's a wonderful thing to try to do.
JENNY BROCKIE: We are going to have to leave it there. I would like to thank everybody very much for joining us tonight. It's been a terrific discussion. Thank you.