What Makes You Happy?
So, what has science learned about what makes the human heart sing? What Makes You Happy? More than one might imagine along with some surprising things about what doesn’t ring our inner chimes. Take wealth, for instance, and all the delightful things that money can buy. Research by Diener, among others, has shown that once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life and a good education.
Sorry, neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness. Youth? No, again. In fact, older people are more dependably satisfied with their lives than the young. And they are less prone to dark moods. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people ages 20 to 24 are sad for an average of 3.4 days a month, as opposed to just 2.3 days for people ages 65 to 74.
Married people are generally happier than singles, but that may be because they were happier, to begin with on sunny days. Nope, although a study showed that Midwesterners think folks living in balmy California are happier and that Californians incorrectly believe this about themselves too. On the positive side, religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit. Though it’s tough to tell whether it’s the God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois by Diener and Seligman found that the most salient characteristics were shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness. However, the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them. Word needs to be spread. It is important to work on social skills, close interpersonal ties, and social support to be happy.
Measuring the Moods
Of course, happiness is not a static state. Even the happiest of people the cheeriest 10% feel blue at times. And even the bluest have their moments of joy. That has presented a challenge to social scientists trying to measure happiness. That, along with the simple fact that happiness is inherently subjective. To get around those challenges, researchers have devised several methods of assessment.
Diener has created one of the most basic and widely used tools, the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Though some scholars have questioned the validity of this simple, five-question survey, Diener has found that it squares well with other measures of happiness, such as impressions from friends and family, expression of positive emotion, and low incidence of depression.
Researchers have devised other tools to look at more transient moods. A popular Csikszentmihalyi pioneered a method of using beepers and, later, handheld computers to contact subjects at random intervals. A pop-up screen presents an array of questions. What are you doing? How much are you enjoying it? Are you alone or interacting with someone else?
The method, called experience sampling, is costly, intrusive, and time-consuming, but it provides an excellent picture of satisfaction and engagement at a specific time during a specific activity. Just a month, a team led by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University unveiled a new tool for sizing up happiness: the day reconstruction method.
Participants fill out a long diary and questionnaire detailing everything they did on the previous day. And whom they were with at the time and rating a range of feelings during each episode (happy, impatient, depressed, worried, tired, etc.) on a seven-point scale. The method was tested on a group of 900 women in Texas with some surprising results. It turned out that the five most positive activities for these women were (in descending order) sex, socializing, relaxing, praying or meditating, and eating.
Exercising and watching TV was not far behind. But way down the list was taking care of children, which ranked below cooking and only slightly above housework. That may seem surprising, given that people frequently cite their children as their biggest source of delight which was a finding of a Time poll on happiness conducted. When asked, “What one thing in life has brought you the greatest happiness? 35% said it was their children or grandchildren or both. (Spouse was far behind at just 9%, and religion a runner-up at 17%.)
The discrepancy with the study of Texas women points to one of the key debates in happiness research. Which kind of information are more meaningful global reports of well-being (My life is happy, and my children are my greatest joy) or more specific data on enjoyment of day-to-day experiences (What a night! The kids were such a pain!)?
The two are very different, and studies show they do not correlate well. Our overall happiness is not merely the sum of our happy moments minus the sum of our angry or sad ones. This is true whether you are looking at how satisfied you are with your life in general or with something more specific, such as your kids, your car, your mobile, your favorite game, your job, or your vacation. Kahneman likes to distinguish between the experiencing self and the remembering self.
His studies show that what you remember of an experience is particularly influenced by the emotional high and low points and by how it ends. So, if you were to randomly beep someone on vacation in Italy. You might catch that person waiting furiously for a slow-moving waiter to take an order or grousing about the high cost of the pottery. But if you ask when it’s over, “How was the vacation in Italy?”, the average person remembers the peak moments and how he or she felt at the end of the trip.
The power of endings has been demonstrated in some remarkable experiments by Kahneman. One such study involved people undergoing a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable procedure in which a flexible scope is moved through the colon. While a control group had the standard procedure, half the subjects endured an extra 60 seconds during which the scope was held stationary; movement of the scope is typically the source of the discomfort.
It turned out that members of the group that had the somewhat longer procedure with a benign ending found it less unpleasant than the control group, and they were more willing to have a repeat colonoscopy. Asking people how happy they are, Kahneman contends, “is very much like asking them about the colonoscopy after it’s over.
There’s a lot that escapes them.” Kahneman, therefore, believes that social scientists studying happiness should pay careful attention to people’s actual experiences rather than just survey their reflections. That, he feels, is especially relevant if research is to inform quality-of-life policies like how much money our society should devote to parks and recreation or how much should be invested in improving workers’ commutes.
You cannot ignore how people spend their time,” he says, “when thinking about well-being.” Seligman, in contrast, puts the emphasis on the remembering self. “I think we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences,” he says. For him, studying moment-to-moment experiences puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. Happiness goes deeper than that, he argues in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness.
As a result of his research, he finds three components of happiness: pleasure (“the smiley-face piece”), engagement (the depth of involvement with one’s family, work, romance, and hobbies), and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Of those three roads to a happy, satisfying life, pleasure is the least consequential, he insists: “This is newsworthy because so many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure. It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important.
Can we get Happier?
One of the biggest issues in happiness research is the question of how much our happiness is under our control. The University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken published a paper looking at the role of genes in determining one’s sense of satisfaction in life. Lykken gathered information on 4,000 sets of twins born in Minnesota from 1936 through 1955. After comparing happiness data on identical vs. fraternal twins, he concluded that about 50% of one’s satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming.
Genes influence such traits as having a sunny, easygoing personality; dealing well with stress, and feeling low levels of anxiety and depression.) Moreover, he found that circumstantial factors like income, marital status, religion, and education contribute only about 8% to one’s overall well-being. He attributes the remaining percentage to “life’s slings and arrows.” Because of the large influence of our genes. He proposed the idea that each of us has a happiness set point much like our set point for body weight.
No matter what happens in our life good, bad, spectacular, or horrific we tend to return in short order to our set range. Some post-tsunami images last week of smiling Asian children returning to school underscored this amazing capacity to right ourselves. And a substantial body of research documents our tendency to return to the norm. A study of lottery winners done in 1978 found, for instance, that they did not wind up significantly happier than a control group. Even people who lose the use of their limbs to a devastating accident tend to bounce back, though perhaps not all the way to their baseline.
One study found that a week after the accident, the injured were severely angry and anxious, but after eight weeks happiness was their strongest emotion. Psychologists call this adjustment to new circumstances adaptation. “Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be,” says Kahneman. The reason is that they are not paraplegics full-time. They do other things and enjoy their meals and their friends.
Also, they read the news. It has to do with the allocation of attention.” In his extensive work on adaptation, Edward Diener has found two life events that seem to knock people lastingly below their happiness set point: the loss of a spouse and the loss of a job. It takes five to eight years for a widow to regain her previous sense of well-being. Similarly, the effects of a job loss linger long after the individual has returned to the workforce.
When he proposed his set-point theory eight years ago, Lykken came to a drastic conclusion. It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller. He has since come to regret that sentence. I made a dumb statement in the original article. It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely up or down. His revisionist thinking coincides with the view of the positive psychology movement, which has put a premium on research showing you can raise your level of happiness.
For Seligman and likeminded researchers, that involves working on the three components of happiness getting more pleasure out of life (which can be done by savoring sensory experiences, although, he warns, “you’re never going to make a curmudgeon into a giggly person”), becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful. There are numerous ways to do that, they argue.
At the University of California at Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky is using grant money from the National Institutes of Health to study different kinds of happiness boosters. One is the gratitude journal a diary in which subjects write down things for which they are thankful. She has found that taking the time to conscientiously count their blessings once a week significantly increased subjects’ overall satisfaction with life over a period of six weeks, whereas a control group that did not keep journals had no such gain.
Gratitude exercises can do more than lift one’s mood. At the University of California at Davis, psychologist Robert Emmons found they improve physical health, raise energy levels, and, for patients with neuromuscular disease, relieve pain and fatigue. “The ones who benefited most tended to elaborate more and have a wider span of things they’re grateful for,” he notes.
Another happiness booster, say positive psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness visiting a nursing home, helping a friend’s child with homework, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or writing a letter to a grandparent. Doing five kind acts a week, especially all in a single day, gave a measurable boost to Lyubomirsky’s subjects. Seligman has tested similar interventions in controlled trials at Penn and in huge experiments conducted over the Internet.
The single most effective way to turbocharge your joy, he says, is to make a “gratitude visit.” That means writing a testimonial thanking a teacher, pastor, or grandparent anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude, and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. “The remarkable thing. It is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later.
But it’s gone by three months.” Less powerful but more lasting, he says, is an exercise he calls three blessings taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later. Seligman’s biggest recommendation for lasting happiness is to figure out your strengths and find new ways to deploy them.
Increasingly, his work is done in collaboration with Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan. He has focused on defining such human strengths and virtues as generosity, humor, gratitude, and zest and studying how they relate to happiness. As a professor, I don’t like this, but the cerebral virtues of curiosity and love of learning are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.
Why do exercising gratitude, kindness, and other virtues provide a lift? “Giving makes you feel good about yourself,” says Peterson. When you’re volunteering, you’re distracting yourself from your own existence, and that’s beneficial. More fuzzily, giving puts meaning into your life. You have a sense of purpose because you matter to someone else.” Virtually all the happiness exercises being tested by positive psychologists, he says, make people feel more connected to others.
That seems to be the most fundamental finding from the science of happiness. Almost every person feels happier when they are with other people,” observes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s paradoxical because many of us think we can hardly wait to get home and be alone with nothing to do, but that’s a worst-case scenario. If you are alone with nothing to do, the quality of your experience really plummets. But can a loner really become more gregarious through acts-of-kindness exercises?
Can a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist learn to see the glass as half full? Can gratitude journals work their magic over the long haul? And how many of us could keep filling them with fresh thankful thoughts year after year? Sonja Lyubomirsky believes it’s all possible: I’ll quote Oprah here, which I don’t normally do.
She was asked how she runs five miles a day, and she said, ‘I recommit to it every day of my life.’ I think happiness is like that. Every day you must renew your commitment. Hopefully, some of the strategies will become habitual over time and not a huge effort.” But other psychologists are more skeptical. Some simply doubt that personality is that flexible or that individuals can or should change their habitual coping styles.
If you are a pessimist who really thinks through in detail what might go wrong, that’s a strategy that’s likely to work very well for you,” says Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “In fact, you may be messed up if you try to substitute a positive attitude.”
She is worried that the messages of positive psychology reinforce “a lot of American biases” about how individual initiative and a positive attitude can solve complex problems. Who’s right? This is an experiment we can all do for ourselves. There’s little risk in trying some extra gratitude and kindness, and the results should they materialize are their own reward.
Read More – What is Happiness in Life
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