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Happy days: Anthropologist Dr Stephen Juan

Sunday, April 23, 2006
A live interview with Dr Stephen Juan, an anthropologist at Sydney University who is here to discuss why Australia is richer but not happier.

Interviewer: Dr Juan thank you for joining us tonight in our live online chat.
Dr Stephen Juan: Thank you for having me, it's a pleasure.

Rven asks: You hear that "Laughter is the best medicine" ... how true is that?
Dr Stephen Juan: Very true. There is a great deal of medical evidence that shows that truly a laugh a day keeps the doctor away. Laughter has been shown in many studies to suppress the body's natural suppressors of the immune system and that results in the immune system being stronger and hence disease is staved off better.

HeWhoLivesWithMostToysWins asks: Is it the never ending quest for more 'things', bigger 'toys', a 'better life' that leaves us no time to concentrate on our happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: That's an excellent observation. Once individuals achieve basic security through material possessions, adding a great deal beyond this does not result in the same proportion of added happiness, so one can become obsessed with the chase of material possessions in the delusion that they are going to automatically achieve happiness. But it simply doesn't work that way.

Mamta asks: Some people seem to be happy being miserable. I know someone who worries for no reason and loves to look like she is miserable so that people pay attention to her (and she gets the attention). Could someone actually be happy to appear miserable?
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes, there is the expression, 'misery loves company'. It is very true. I know such people as well who seem to be most happy when they are most sad. They do gain a lot of attention this way. It's a poor substitute for genuine happiness that they have probably not experienced.

Rob asks: Even of the saying 'money doesn't mean happiness', one could argue that money does help with the little extras in life that are often out of reach…
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes, money certainly helps. We do live in a material world and basic clothing, basic food, basic shelter does cost money. But that doesn't mean one should be obsessed with obtaining more and more money in the hope by doing so they will attain more happiness. Studies show that when security is attained, a certain level of happiness is achieved, but when the material possessions go far beyond this there is not a great deal of extra happiness that is attained.

emily asks: Do friends play a big part in happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes they do. As I said in the 60 Minutes segment, humans need to be connected and they do this through their relationships of family, work colleagues and friends. This is a surer source of happiness than material possessions that do not respond to you the way a friend does because possessions are not alive.

jasper asks: What would be your definition of happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: This is a very good question. Everyone has a right to define happiness for themselves. I prefer to keep a very broad definition of happiness and use words in that definition such as contentment, security, pleasure, joy and meaning. I am not really sure how I would more specifically define it than that.

Ranga_koo asks: Do you think that we are all intrinsically happy? And have just lost touch with this 'inner happiness'?
Dr Stephen Juan: That's an interesting observation and I wonder about that myself. When you see the joy of children as was shown in the 60 Minutes segment, you wonder what has been lost as we mature from childhood to adult. Why is it that we can't maintain the love of life, the simple joys that we seemed to experienced so readily when we were children? Perhaps knowledge is a two-way street, which on the one hand you learn more and are more knowledgeable about the world, but you also lose that innocence and that joy and that simplicity that gave you so much happiness. Perhaps this is one of the great ironies of being a human being.

Ridgeback asks: Do we loose touch, or is it taught out of us by the education system and other areas of society?
Dr Stephen Juan: This is a good question. It could be the education system that changes us, the media, our family, our friends, our Government. They want us to behave in a particular way following their agenda rather than our agenda. Under these circumstances it is very difficult to continue on the path to happiness. It's easy to be detoured and become unhappy. So it is important that children learn from their earliest days to resist the messages from all others including those who do have their own best interests in mind, but nevertheless you have to find your own happiness and remain on that path, regardless.

dav asks: What is the root cause of unhappiness? Desire?
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes, desire and unmatched needs, lack of security, frustration and fear. These all contribute to making people unhappy. When individuals start acting from their fears for example, then they are more likely to make mistakes in choices that will result in them being very unhappy. Many people unfortunately are driven by these negative factors in motivation.

Rose asks: What is the difference between contentment and happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: This is a very interesting distinction. Not having a dictionary with me right now I won't be able to make a fine determination on this. However like the definition of happiness it differs from individual to individual. Contentment as I see it is related to satisfaction and pleasure that comes from being satisfied. This is an aspect of happiness but happiness involves other aspects also.

incuria asks: Are there cultures that find happiness more easily than others? What can we learn from those cultures?
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes this is a wonderful question and pleases an anthropologist to hear such a question, as anthropologists deal with the reality of other cultures. Some cultures seem to be able to find happiness easier than other cultures. Often it is an issue of greater difficulty in basic survival, but not always. The quest for happiness is a cultural universal. There is no culture that has found the recipe for happiness for all of its members but some do come close. These cultures have some common factors; one of them, perhaps surprisingly, is that they have gentle techniques of child rearing and this involves close physical contact between mother and baby, lack of physical punishment and a gentle economic order as well as supported education. Unhappy cultures have a great deal of violence both within the group and outside of the group. They are far more warlike. A warring culture is an unhappy culture.

Interviewer: Do you see God as a way to happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: There are many ways to happiness and there has been, in the development of human civilisation, many definitions of God. The search for happiness often involves the search for God and vice versa, because the search for happiness is largely about meaning and about beginnings and also about endings. Different concepts of God are essential in these pursuits.

njbeasley asks: Can you have happiness without human contact?
Dr Stephen Juan: It has been shown through many studies that isolated people without human contact do not live as long and do not live as healthy lives and are more subject to such illnesses as depression, compared to those who do not live isolated lives. However, theoretically the Robinson Crusoe type of individual could be happy alone on the desert island. But this individual would be a rarity. In my experience as an anthropologist I can see many exceptions to the general rules of behaviour, so it could be that someone who prefers to live as a recluse could also attain happiness.

chirpy asks: As a primary school teacher, how can I help kids to be more accepting and consequently happy when many have so many hardships? Any activities or ideas please!
Dr Stephen Juan: This is a very, very important question. I wish it had a simple answer. I train teachers at Sydney University. I confront this problem all the time. My view is, because of the various backgrounds the children come from, one never knows their sorrows their pain or their suffering so what one has to do is try to boost the self-esteem of every child in your care, in every way you possibly can, and to model acceptance yourself and acceptance in all the children, so that they will learn how to be an accepting person by seeing you, who they will of course look up to you as their teacher. You may be the only positive role model they have in their life, so your function in this area is extremely important. As a practical thing to do, there would be many ideas, but one would be that as problems emerge in your classroom, deal with them in a positive way, telling the children what it is you are doing and why it is that you are doing it. Outline for them the principles you are following in ways they can understand. Seven-year-olds are known for having a developed [sense] of fairness. Even a seven-year-old will understand a policy based upon fairness. That would be one way to start. I am sure you, as a conscientious teacher, are already doing this. Good luck to you.

daniel asks: Is the rate of depression increasing?
Dr Stephen Juan: The rate of depression is increasing if you look at the proportion of Australians who are now on pharmaceutical drugs to treat depression. Ask your local chemist and the chemist will confirm this — as mine did about three weeks ago when I asked her just this same question.

MSK asks: Are there a certain combination of factors that are common between people who live happy lives?
Dr Stephen Juan: There are some factors that appear very often among the happiest people. The first is connectedness in social relationships. These individuals have many friends, have close family ties and are in a relationship. For example, married people are happier than unmarried people. People who have many friends and are active socially are happier than those with few or no friends and who are inactive socially. Other factors are things such as outside interests, people who have hobbies, who have an active mind and continually challenge themselves to have new activities. People who look for new experiences in life — these individuals, in all surveys that are done, indicate they are happier than others who do not.

tellme asks: I serve this country in the Defence Force. I have served overseas in a war zone, I have a pregnant wife and pay ridiculous taxes, and out of control house prices — can't even afford to buy a house to provide my family with some security. I worry!
Dr Stephen Juan: You pose a difficult question. There is no simple answer except that one has to always count one's blessings and try to look on the bright side and realise that many people are far worse off. Australia is a wonderful country with a wonderful standard of living and so many wonderful things in its favour — truly the lucky country. However, if this sounds hollow to you, then all I can say is try to be happy with what it is that you have. I'm sorry if this answer is inadequate. We have developed a country in which our leaders do not often have working people's — common men and women and the quiet achievers of Australia — interests prominently in mind. Thank you for your efforts in defending us. Please try to stay hopeful.

Bob asks: Do you think the more knowledge we accumulate on life, the harder it is to be happy? Ignorance is supposedly bliss.
Dr Stephen Juan: Yes, I have been hearing ignorance is bliss my entire life. Studies show that knowledgeable people are happier than ignorant people. When you have knowledge there is less fear. One major source of fear is ignorance. If ignorance can be eliminated then happiness is more likely to be attained. A child learns this when they stop being afraid of the dark. Knowledge is a good thing because it empowers and it is a means to gain competence and mastery of the world in which we live. In saying so, knowledge can make you realise how profound some problems are and how difficult some problems are to solve. Any researcher into cancer will tell you how complicated that problem is to solve and it's tempting to simply ignore the issue and get into something else. Still, you have to go on because knowledge has a moral responsibility attached to it. A knowledgeable person has a duty to use that knowledge properly and for the benefit of people and not against people. When one has knowledge one can do a great deal of good and that's better than any bliss that can come from ignorance.

Zac asks: Do you think believing in fate and your future being already decided helps enhance happiness? Not worrying about the outcomes.
Dr Stephen Juan: There are two things in this question, one is the notion that time is unfolding and all actions are already set and we merely are to experience that which cannot be changed. Then there is the notion that we can alter our actions through time and hence we can make ourselves better, more successful, happier. It's a philosophical question as to which one is true. For myself I prefer to believe that we can change the conditions we live in and make ourselves happier and those around us happier. But this is an act of faith. Faith is important in happiness too.

Paul asks: As humans we experience different types of happiness. Do we confuse them with emotions?
Dr Stephen Juan: Happiness necessarily involves emotion. Emotions are linked to our brain and our bodies and our sensations so it's very difficult to tease out that which is emotional and that which is intellectual, and that which is spiritual. They all relate to each other in a mix that produces in us our attitudes and our behaviours. Including happiness. Happiness itself is emotionally laden you cannot have happiness without it having an emotional impact.

Mamta asks: I find a direct correlation between happiness and my energy level. I seem to be happiest when my energy levels are high. Is it possible to boost energy levels by thinking happy thoughts or just laughing out loud?
Dr Stephen Juan: Good question and yes that is true. Happiness does make one feel better and that in turn affects ones body and this of course makes one happier and it becomes a snowballing effect. We have research that shows that laughter produces in the brain, endorphins, which are natural painkillers that make the body feel better. When you laugh you produce more endorphins, making the body feel better, making you sleep better, digest your food better and be more intellectually alert. All of these are very positive things. Laughter is a way of making yourself function better, live longer and live healthier. It's a very inexpensive way to attain better health and with a smile on your face while doing so.

HeWhoLivesWithMostToysWins asks: Isn't the reality that everyone is only happy in small windows of time, no one is happy all of the time, the quality of your happiness is more important than quantity?
Dr Stephen Juan: It is a question of degree. Some people are happy all of the time or at least nearly all the time. They are, in my experience at least, rare, but they do exist. As for the last part of your question, the quality of happiness is more important than the quantity and I think that is true about most things. Quality is more important than quantity. That is a philosophical question and there may be exceptions but, certainly generally, quality of life is more important than quantity of life measured in years. One can suffer greatly over many years, have a long life but have that life a very unhappy one.

holly asks: Where are these laughing classes held?
Dr Stephen Juan: This I don't know, that wasn't my part of the story. I would suggest you contact the 60 Minutes program and they will tell you who they spoke to.

daniel asks: Can you please suggest some books or URL's regarding happiness?
Dr Stephen Juan: If you wish to look at the medical aspects of this question then one author is Hans Selye who wrote on the connection between happiness and health famously. As for websites I suggest you search laughing clubs Australia and see what comes up. I'm sure there will be laughing groups that emerge.

Interviewer: Unfortunately we are out of time, do you have any final comments for those that have joined us tonight.
Dr Stephen Juan: Good luck to everyone, keep laughing, stay happy. Life is wonderful, life is beautiful.

Interviewer: Once again, thank you and goodnight.
Interviewer: This concludes our live chat with Dr Stephen Juan, April 23, 2006.
Produced by in Sydney, Australia
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