OPINION: The price of happiness and contentment

Symbol of family protection by a general agent

The knowledge that your family will be looked after should something untoward happen is undoubtedly comforting, says financial expert Peter Sharkey - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

You would expect the Danes to have a Happiness Research Institute. The nation that gave us gripping Scandi drama replete with complicated plots, nasty-looking characters and often frustrating dead-ends set against a bleak, rain-sodden backdrop is, at heart, a happy bunch.

It’s more than six years since the Institute’s chief executive, Meik Wiking, published The Little Book of Hygge, which examined why Denmark is considered the happiest place in the world. It became a huge international bestseller and was translated into 32 languages.

Mr Wiking, who is still the Institute’s head honcho, enjoyed further success with The Little Book of Lykke, which explored how Danes and other nations nurture happiness (lykke is the Danish word for happiness) according to half a dozen categories the intrepid Mr Wiking created to measure such things. 

The six ‘pillars of happiness’ emerged from a further analysis of the World Happiness Report, published by the Copenhagen-based Institute, though they appear far from definitive.

Nonetheless, Mr Wiking maintains that happiness can be gauged by ‘measuring’ a society’s attitude towards togetherness, money, health, freedom, trust and kindness.  

It could be argued that at least one of those pillars, kindness, is a spontaneous reaction to another’s misfortune, which makes it extremely difficult to measure.

But let’s ignore that for the time being and agree that three pillars - health, freedom and money - would probably feature on most people’s half dozen categories when it came to gauging the amorphous concept of happiness.      

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Of this trio, it’s easy to make a case for health topping the list. Those of us in a position to should constantly remind ourselves how lucky we are to enjoy good health; indeed, many people apportion a greater value to health than they do to material possessions.

Perhaps this is why Denmark features so highly in any measure of national happiness. In Copenhagen, for instance, almost half of all daily commutes to work or educational establishments are undertaken by bike. Danes have little need to disappear to the gym for hours on end; they already get more exercise than any country on earth. 

Finland - in the news this week after deciding to join NATO - also occupies a position near the top of the national happiness league table. Finns maintain their good health by constant visits to the sauna, which explains why municipal saunas are to found in just about every town and city across the country. 

Finland’s population of 5.3 million people is well served by an estimated 3.3 million saunas, be they in homes, offices, factories, hotels, ships and even in corporate boxes at sporting venues. 

Finnish sauna operators usually apply some sensible rules regarding usage. No eating or drinking is allowed in most, while in others if you speak you should not discuss your job, title or religion. No wonder they’re so relaxing. 

Yet instead of analysing half a dozen different characteristics in order to define happiness, perhaps we should mix them together and come up with another word. How about contentment? 

I would define this as being at ease with life, which might sound a little hippy-trippy, but as you get older one of the greatest sources of contentment is the knowledge that your family will not suffer, financially-speaking, should you have the misfortune to be knocked down by a bus, or be incapacitated and unable to work for a lengthy period.

The knowledge that your family will be looked after in such circumstances is undoubtedly comforting and, while it might sound a tad contrived (it’s unintended if it does), one of the most effective ways of guaranteeing this is to buy some form of insurance cover. 

Life cover in particular is comparatively inexpensive and delivers a broad range of monetary benefits to your successors once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

Income protection is another insurance-based product, in this instance one designed to pay a monthly benefit should you be unable to work, perhaps due to incapacity caused by a serious illness or an injury which results in a loss of earnings.  

Like happiness itself, the extent of income protection cover varies, although the best will pay up to 60pc of the first £60,000 of annual income and 50pc of any annual income exceeding £60,000. Moreover, employment- related, non-means-tested state benefits tend not to be deducted from the monthly amount paid by the insurer.

Weaving in a reference to insurance cover when two-thirds of this article has focused on happiness might appear odd, but knowing that your family will be safe should anything untoward happen undoubtedly confers a form of contentment on a par with cycling to work or taking a sauna. Perhaps Mr Wiking will include reference to it in his next book.

For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey’s regular blog, The Week In Numbers.