“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of.”

6 Mar 2014

Albert Camus may have said it but The University of Queensland economist Paul Frijters is more than happy to prove otherwise.

He is often most content when unearthing the fundamentals of happiness and what makes people just that.

Frijters, who has a PhD from the University of Amsterdam is a professor of economics at UQ an adjunct professor at the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences.

He has a long and accomplished track record in research specialising in happiness, health economics and econometrics with a particular interest in how socio-economic variables affect the human life experience.

Among his numerous consultancy and research portfolios is the research directorship with the ongoing RUMiCI project that monitors rural to urban migration in China and Indonesia.

It’s little wonder that such a distinguished record earned this 2009 Best Australian Economist Under 40 a recent ARC Future Fellowship.

The subject of the research project is How to make other people happy. The contribution individuals can make to the happiness of others.

For Frijters it means putting teaching to one side until 2017 so he can fully focus on the project and its outcomes.

Much of that relies on co-operation from like-minded researchers. Frijters describes it as a synthesis-type project.

“I get together with many co-authors from around the world to try to figure out what we already know about how we can make other people happy and to fill up all kinds of gaps in our knowledge,” he says.

Among other results from the study will be a book intended as a hands-on practical guide. Frijters describes it as “a thinking person’s guide to making other people happy”.

The key to happiness has been under scrutiny for many years by psychologists, sociologists and economists.

According to Frijters there is a sea of results on happiness but with a focus on how individuals make themselves happy.

The notion of how individuals make others happy throws up a very different paradigm with different questions at the core of the study.

One example questions how the people of one country can assist in raising the happiness of the people in another.

“The issue of aid comes in; the issue of international trade. What can we do to help people be happy in their communities,” says Frijters.

“These are things that have hardly been looked at - things that we can do for our fellow humans have been thought about but not in a really structured way and this project proposes to do that.”

The subject of happiness has always been close to Fritjers’ economist heart. His PhD, completed in 1999, was an exploration of welfare and wellbeing.

“Happiness also has a natural attraction for me as an interest in humanity. There is a natural attraction for an economist to think about the goal function - what is life about both for myself and for society - so this has been part of economics for donkey's years,” he says.

“In a sense economics has, from its very inception, been about the total amount of happiness of society as a whole.”

This expert on happiness has some interesting ideas on defining, from an economics perspective, the state of mind we perceive as happy - or not.

“The way that we define happiness is effectively the feelings that people have about what happens, so it's defined by language,” he says.

“For social scientists, happiness is what you and everybody else thinks of as happiness. We think of it as a summary measure of how well you think your life is going against the kind of life you think you would like to lead.

“Happiness to an economist is the thing that you want for yourself, the thing you want for you kids, the thing you want for your community, so happiness is used within our language to describe the quality of life. To describe, as a summary measure, how other people are going.

“That's exactly what we economists are interested in and that's why happiness is interesting - because of this summary measure of life.”

Frijters also points out that cultural differences can have an effect on the happiness quotient and to some societies, contentment, which he describes as a much smaller concept than happiness, takes precedence.

However, he says, that is not true of Western societies.

“Western society happiness certainly includes contentment but also includes a lot of other stuff,” he says.

“You want your kids to do well. If your kids don't do well you may be content, but you may not be happy.”

Frijters debunks the notion that every person will have a different definition of what happiness is.

“The whole point of language is that we can communicate with each other. Everybody has their own subtle notion of what happiness is just as everybody has a subtle notion of what a tree means to them. But because we speak to each other all the time about happiness - we say that our friends and our family and that we ourselves are happy - people's notions of what happiness is become aligned to something that is internationally recognisable,” he says.

“Happiness starts to be the thing that we associate with smiles. We associate it with societal success, with contentment, with achievement, with a lack of pain, with all the things that are seen as desirable, want-able and gettable in our society.”

Frijters says there are some fundamental signs of happiness: we smile a lot, we are not overly worried or not overly stressed.

Societal success is usually associated with higher levels of happiness along with good health. He says the happiest group in Australia is aged between 60 and 75 – the so-called Golden Years of life.

So, finally, what makes Frijters happy apart from the wrestle with the meaning of happiness from an academic point of view?

“Sex, that's a good one. Sports - cycling, a bit of soccer. Good food, spending time with my kids makes me happy.  Thinking great thoughts makes me happy. Just how society is run. I think about the news and politics - I find that enjoyable to do.

 “I like to think about how to make other people happy. Such as in this project.”