The Science Of Happiness

Perfectly Happy
Drake Bennett, Boston Globe, May 10, 2009

I am passionate about happiness. I find myself reading all I can on the subject. I think most people spent too much energy and resources trying to attain happiness in ways that are often counterproductive. Most people are terrible at relationships, take too few risks and work to stay within predefined social constructs to their detriment.

Science can help focus our energies on those things that are more likely to appreciably increase happiness. It seems a bit counterintuitive–especially to those of us who struggle financially–that winning the lottery doesn’t make people happy. The research also illuminates one reason long-term relationships often fail: the initial happiness surge of new love eventually wanes.

In recent years, cognitive scientists have turned in increasing numbers to the study of human happiness, and one of their central findings is that we are not very good at predicting how happy or unhappy something will make us. Given time, survivors of tragedies and traumas report themselves nearly as happy as they were before, and people who win the lottery or achieve lifelong dreams don’t see any long-term increase in happiness. By contrast, annoyances like noise or chronic pain bring down our happiness more than you’d think, and having friends or an extra hour of sleep every night can raise it dramatically.

Surprise, surprise! Having friends increases happiness. :)

The patron saint of the happiness maximizers is Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher who two centuries ago gave the world the ethical theory known as utilitarianism. The theory itself is simple: in any situation, the best thing to do is that which brings the greatest aggregate pleasure or happiness.

I studied utilitarianism in a philosophy course I took at college and agree with much of the theory. It’s important to access–as much as it is possible–whether our choices will maximize our happiness or not. Detractors of the theory characterize this mentality as selfish. Is there anything wrong with being selfish? If my happiness increases being in a strong relationship with another, I will try to maximize their happiness for my own benefit. Quid pro quo. We should all be motivated by a selfish desire for our own happiness.

Perhaps the best known study in the literature was published in 1978 by the psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman. They compared the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners, paralyzed accident victims (both paraplegics and quadriplegics), and people who were neither. What they found was that lottery winners didn’t report themselves appreciably happier than the control group, and while the paralyzed did report themselves less happy than the controls, the difference was not as dramatic as the researchers had expected. More recent and rigorous studies have yielded results broadly similar: getting married or getting a raise or a new house all give a boost to our happiness, but eventually we drop to levels near where we were before. By contrast, happiness dips and then rebounds after people lose a limb, their sight or even – though the data is more conflicting here – a loved one.

We need to act in ways that increase the frequency of the boosts to our happiness. This is why it is important to make new friends, experience new adventures, and possibly even to have a fling (extramarital love affair) every now and then.

One might argue that happiness itself is not and should not be the end-all goal in our lives. Perhaps that is true. Is there anything wrong with granny and gramps quietly quilting their lives away in peaceful solitude with few moments of elation and glee?

Others have begun to think about how happiness data might change where people live. For example, the trade-off between house size and commute length is familiar to every suburbanite, but as Cornell economist Robert Frank has pointed out, the two things affect our mood in different ways. While we quickly adapt to a bigger house and start taking it for granted, research suggests that a long, trafficky commute is something we never adjust to, and that even grows more onerous with time. Work like this could give added heft to arguments for policy measures like higher gas taxes, and for zoning laws that concentrate housing and cut down on traffic and commuting distances – arguments that now tend to be cast chiefly in environmental terms, but which also might push people toward decisions that make them happier in the long term.

This is important. We are poor evaluators of what might make us happy in the aggregate. Perhaps research will give us more clues and enable us to make better decisions. Hopefully there will be debates and public awareness campaigns that will enable us to shift our resources from those things that we only thought made us happy to the things that really do have that potential.

2 Comment

  1. I’ve read the studies about the comparative happiness of lottery winners verses trauma and tragedy survivors, and it really isn’t surprising. In fact those people who go through struggles would likely be happier and more resilient over time as they learn from and successfully overcome their challenges.

    You ask if there is anything wrong with being selfish. I think everything we do is selfish to some degree. Even when we do something nice for someone else, we benefit from their reciprocity, and from the good feelings we have knowing that we made them happy; we feel good about ourselves.

    I don’t think happiness should be a complicated goal; I want to appreciate and enjoy life, seeing happiness as a journey. Along the way you build relationships and discover passions and interests that make you happy.

    1. Very articulate and thoughtful comment, Kirsten. Thank you.

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