Just Focus on Happiness – Ageing Asia Day 3

Should the pursuit of happiness be the most important goal of life? Does it only do good?  Before I answer the question, let’s examine what one CEO has to say on the matter. For Dr. Hans Becker, CEO of the Humanitas Foundation, who runs Apartments for Life in Rotterdam, Holland, happiness is clearly his ultimate goal.

An economist by training, Dr. Becker takes a very utilitarian view to elderly care, providing an alternative option for Dutch people who do not want to stay in traditional nursing homes and hostels.

Alternative it is! His concepts at times consist of the elderly riding elephant’s and camels, having 3-4 pets, drinking copious amounts of wine and champagne, and listening to opera performances, violin sonatas, and attending concerts featuring Dutch superstars.

His guiding philosophy is simple: the goal is human happiness –not ‘cure and care.’ Happiness consists of two things: (1) an individual aspect (a person, even one handicapped, wishes to have control over his own life); (2) a communal aspect (a person needs to have a sense of belonging and is a herd animal). Everything else, such as care and cure, is secondary and may possibly also be negative. If the pain is greater than the gain then it is not worth it. In this case, one should focus only on well-being and abandon the cure.

Everything is geared towards improving happiness and the totality of atmosphere and ambiance. This remains true whether residents choose to dine at restaurants, drink at the bar, go to the hairdresser, get a manicure, or visit the animal farm, sculpture garden or reminiscence museum.

Humanitas offers apartments (minimum 72 square metres /three rooms) that can be purchased or hired out, all of them designed with the elderly in mind.

Health care providers such as: nurses psychologists, welfare workers, nutritionists, doctors, speech therapists, etc. are also available on-site. However, Dr. Becker is quick to point out that in no way do they dominate the culture or ambiance. There is no feeling of being in a hospital or institutional setting here.

The core values are:

  1. Being in control
  2. Active participation
  3. Extended family approach
  4. Yes culture-all staff have a positive attitude to any requests from residents

Humanitas also takes great effort to prevent clustering by blending the healthy with the sick, the rich with the poor, and the native with the ethnic. They do this by ensuring that the food served is relatively cheap (around 5.50 Euros a meal), luxury services are accessible to all, over 40 different activities are available for everyone to choose from every week, and that all spaces are big enough to accommodate everyone and foster discussions.

Dr. Becker pointed out that in Holland most people entering a nursing facility are usually dead after two-and-a-half years. His solution: everyday should be a party. One woman he showed on video singing mike-in-hand, looking like she was having the time of her life, apparently was dead 10 hours later.

The Humanitas approach has been extremely successful. They expanded from 350 apartments in three complexes in 1995 to over 15 complexes holding over 1,700 apartments in 2008. Also, even though the Humanitas Foundation is non-profit, Dr. Becker admits to making a 60 million Euro profit. He also confessed to owning quite a number of jaguars.

He claims he is able to make a profit because happiness in its very essence is not very expensive. It also, surprisingly enough, leads to fewer complaints so he does not need to make many changes/investments.

However he is also quick to acknowledge that he has over 1500 volunteers helping with day-to-day operations. He also has the benefit of the Dutch welfare and health system. The Government heavily subsidises elderly care. In addition to a monthly pension (fyi…the gross pension benefit available to all Dutch citizens was 999.72 Euros in 2008 and has a tendency to increase every year), disability insurance is also available. So are some of the services provided, such as the once a week visits of physiotherapists for each patient.

Moving on to the more abstract issue at hand though, lets further examine the concept of happiness  a bit and check out its evidence-base. Should happiness be the ultimate goal for life? Is the pursuit of happiness always a good thing?

According to a 1998 study that surprisingly hails from the Rotterdam in the Netherlands (same place as where Dr Becker is from), while there may not be a definite conclusion on the matter, enjoyment of life does seem to broaden perception, encourage citizen involvement, and facilitate social contacts. It also helps buffer stress preserving health and lengthening life somewhat (a recent article in the WSJ on depression confirms thinking on this).

While the study did not mention evidence of harmful effects of happiness, a recent article does suggest that happiness may unfortunately lead to some serious side-effects. Too much cheerfulness can make you selfish. It can also make you gullible and less successful.

While the two sources examined are not sufficient enough to definitively conclude anything, given the structure of the population in question. I feel a somewhat more confident concluding that, while the consequences of happiness may be grim, from the perspective of the elderly and those currently nearing the end of their life who may not live to even experience the negative consequences of happiness, no matter what or how great the side effects could potentially be, it’s clear that, for this case, the benefits of happiness will almost always outweigh the costs.

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Source of photo: http://www.gelderlander.nl/algemeen/dgbinnenland/7576806/Klachtenregen-over-ouderenzorg.ece

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