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« Dems or Repubs? Feh | Main | Enter Fenster »

September 02, 2004

Being Happy

Dear Blowhards --

I've had a good time recently reading up on what scientists and behavioral economists have learned about happiness. I'm a mere fan of this work and so have got nothing to add to what the pros say -- nothing much beyond, "Hey, it's about time you people looked into this," anyway. But I hope some visitors will enjoy a bouquet of happiness facts, tips, and links.

Some of what happiness researchers now think they know:

  • Everyone seems to have a pre-programmed "set point" for happiness -- a level of happiness they're genetically programmed for, and to which they'll always tend to return. There isn't much that can be done to change this set point.
  • Genetics and inheritance seem to be responsible for as much as half your tendency towards happiness or unhappiness.
  • Even huge positive changes in a person's life -- getting married, winning the lottery -- only affect happiness levels for about six months.
  • The rich are certainly happier than the abject poor. But for most people, more money doesn't tend to lead to much additional happiness, at least once basic material needs have been met.
  • Three of the hardest things to cope with emotionally are widowhood (or widowerhood), longterm unemployment, and caring for a sick loved one.
  • The best way to deal with a case of severe, long-lasting unhappiness is to take a mood-boosting pill. In many cases, a six-month course of treatment will effectively jolt the depressed person out of his or her rut.
  • Pursuing sex and status don't make people happy. They're things that we, being human, do -- but they don't necessarily lead to happiness.
  • People who are forever chasing after happiness -- who crave blasts of euphoria -- tend to be much less happy than people who are willing to let life (and their moods) take their own course.

Some tips for being happy:

  • If your job isn't especially rewarding, pursue a hobby you love, one that delivers experiences of "flow."
  • Don't focus too much on making money and buying things.
  • Maintain a wide variety of friendships, and don't spend too much time alone.
  • Cultivate gratitude and forgiveness, including forgiveness towards yourself.
  • Don't try to feel great all the time -- that's not the way life works.

Hey, why aren't these facts and tips better-known than they are? Geoffrey Miller has a hunch:

Popular culture is dominated by advertisements that offer the following promise: buy our good or service, and your subjective well-being will increase. The happiness research demonstrates that most such promises are empty ... Some journalists may have realized that the happiness research challenges the consumerist dream-world upon which their advertising revenues depend — their failure to report on the implications of the research for consumerism is probably no accident. They are in the business of selling readers to advertisers, not telling readers that advertising is irrelevant to their subjective well-being.

And a bunch of happiness links to explore:



UPDATE: Thanks to Tyler Cowen, who has posted some thoughts here. Tyler also points out a Bryan Caplan happiness posting here, and a Will Wilkinson one here.

posted by Michael at September 2, 2004


Um, I think I posted about my hesitations about the methodology of such studies a long time ago. Are these guys working entirely through self-reported surveys, or what? I seem to recall a world-famous researcher into the psychology of economics who spent years (or maybe decades) trying to develop a reliable, repeatable scale for reporting happiness...and giving up. The same researcher pointed out that it is extraordinarily easy to manipulate surveys of happiness...make a simple comment ("gee, your social life seems a bit under par") before asking the question ("how happy do you feel") and you skew the results negatively, big time (as in, people would suddenly burst into tears.)

In other words, it looks like these methodological problems with "happiness research" are serious, real and call the whole happiness research enterprise into question.

I wonder if the people hawking these suggestions don't begin the research thinking that it would be a good idea to do all the things they recommend, and then go looking for data to support their beliefs.

Not to be a cynic, or anything.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 3, 2004 12:53 PM

I'm as cynical as Fried - and also resist the idea that happiness is a singular aspect. The difference between saying person X is generally more happy and saying that person X is "a happy person" is to significant to be ignored - as it almost always is in papers.

" The best way to deal with a case of severe, long-lasting unhappiness is to take a mood-boosting pill. In many cases, a six-month course of treatment will effectively jolt the depressed person out of his or her rut."

Six months is often given as the natural course of depression - medication, talk therapy, denial, or volleyvall lessons not being relevant to the outcome.

And let's not get started on these kids today and certain middle-class gals consider "unhappiness" socially correct.

Me? I'm in camp happy, but this doesn't mean I don't have sorrow and moral outrage and pensiveness in my day to day life.

Posted by: j.c. on September 3, 2004 01:43 PM

I'm with the 2Above, too. I wonder what linguistic philosophers make of the term "happiness". It refers to something, one gathers, but what, exactly? As F. suggests, you have to know pretty well what something is before you can measure it, not to mention bottle it.

That doesn't mean it's a will-o-the-wisp. Plenty of capacious human terms seems to gather a bunch of disparate things together before naming them, blunderbuss-style. Like "religion"--is it a mystical experience, a means of social control or something else? All of the above, and at once. Ditto happiness: freedom from stress but also positive stress; cheerfulness and somber satisfaction at a job well done. I'd think some of the suggestions as to "how to be happy" might help you on one dimension but hinder on the next.

Posted by: Fenster on September 3, 2004 01:59 PM

FWIW, here's what Ed Diener, one of the best-known of the happiness researchers has to say:

Q: What is subjective well-being(SWB)?
A: Subjective well-being is the scientific name for how people evaluate their lives. People can evaluate their lives in terms of a global judgment (such as life satisfaction or feelings of fulfillment), in terms of evaluating the domains of their lives (such as marriage or work), or in terms of their ongoing emotional feelings about what is happening to them (feeling pleasant emotions, which arise from positive evaluations of one's experiences, and low levels of unpleasant feelings, which arise from negative evaluations of one's experiences). The English word "happiness" means several different things (e.g., joy, satisfaction), and therefore many scientists prefer the term "subjective well-being." However, subjective well-being is an umbrella term that includes the various types of evaluation of one's life one might make - it can include self-esteem, joy, feelings of fulfillment, and so forth. The key is that the person himself/herself is making the evaluation of life - not experts, philosophers, or others. Thus, the person herself or himself is the expert here: Is my life going well, according to the standards that I choose to use?

Q: Is happiness really a single thing?
A: As mentioned above, SWB is really an umbrella term that includes several different components, and these components are somewhat independent. That is, one can be high in one and low in another. Thus, one must to some degree understand the components separately. If one wants to be "happier," this might mean increasing positive affect or decreasing negative affect - and these two things might require very different actions. Similarly, there are even some behaviors that produce higher satisfaction (completing a boring but necessary task, for example) but produce lower positive affect.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 3, 2004 02:06 PM

2Blowhards makes me happy. Thanks for thought-provoking posts like this.

Posted by: Outer Life on September 3, 2004 02:08 PM

And to top it off, 95% of diets fail!

Posted by: ricpic on September 3, 2004 03:19 PM

I got another question. Isn't the notion of a happiness set point in contradiction with giving advice on how to be more (or less) happy? Apparently major life events, positive and negative, only impact your set point for a few months at how much impact on your happiness set point will anything provide?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 3, 2004 07:34 PM

You surprised me: I expected you to blame the "political class."

Posted by: David Sucher on September 4, 2004 09:24 AM

What I prefer is contentedness with occassional moments of joy.

Posted by: Deb on September 4, 2004 09:31 AM

M. Blowhard - thanks for the quotes from Ed. I've read a lot of Ed and would running scream in terror if somehow I was saddled with the task of creating a bullet point outline of any of his work. Too much fish nor foul in there. Quanitify, I say - Quantify!

Fried – Don’t you doubt that smack about major life events having a limited effect? Have you observed or can you imagine the long-term effect of major life events like hitting the 5-year mark cancer free or finally getting that new kidney? That stuff’s fun for the whole family. (Nice to see you, BTW.) (Nothing against our new Moop.)

Really, I'd be happier if people who peer at brains and the mind and the noble homunculus (a.k.a. “Evil Homer”) had more of a focus on making people behave. To the hyperactive I say, we can teach a dog to sit, why not you? (I say this as a complete hypocrite, which not only does not invalidate my point but also adds weight: the bouncy and restless know better than most that one can - say in court or at a funeral - manage to be still.)

If you want to bring the political class into it, we can share stories of being at art events where guests (members of various groups celebrated as minority/disenfranchised) of the art event expressed surprise and confusion about the artist's attempts to "reveal" their "unhappy state."

Hey! I'm doing some work with a children's art project next month. My original plan was just to keep an eye out for bullying and make sure my co-volunteers didn't rag the children for drinking cow's milk. New idea: Perhaps I'll ask the kids to create art showing how sad it is for all the rich white girls who have to take zoloft. Would that increase the happiness in the world?

Posted by: j.c. on September 4, 2004 01:22 PM

Soooooooooo .... Since happiness is a pretty gooey subject, scientists shouldn't study it, is that what all you skeptics are saying?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2004 08:04 PM

Hey all ... had to quit writing because I didn't have time to read so much blowharding, assimilate it all, and then produce a decent thought. But hey, I've decided to lower my standards. I'll write now after a quick skim-which means I may not say anything relevant at all. But ...

this post is totally cool. My mom has always tried to make me happier. (I always try to get her to think more.) The concept that we're born with a happiness set point made me breath a sigh of relief. I'm okay, she's okay. I have three children. Each appears to have their own set point also. This became blazingly obvious when my 3rd child seemed to giggle her way through the birth canal and slide onto my breast with glee. She's still Miz Positive ... must take after my mom.

Hey, maybe they should study newborns!

Posted by: laurel on September 5, 2004 07:16 AM

Hey, Laurel's back! We missed you, girl. Here's hoping all's well. And happy too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 5, 2004 10:32 AM

This skeptic is saying that scientists can muse about happiness all they want, but when they start putting their results down in three-decimal-point percentages, I’m gonna get a wheelbarrow and start shoveling.

As a note for Laurel, they do study newborns. My advice to mothers is, if someone with a clipboard and a video camera starts rattling keys at your baby and making funny faces assuming baby’s response will determine if he’ll get in to Harvard, grab the baby and run!

I don’t see how anyone could dispute that people have different temperaments – or that most people can learn to behave according to social rules.

There’s a cursory look at training-oriented therapy in the current NYT. (Use if you aren’t registered.)

Is anyone else remembering the Miss Manners column on the difference between "You just think you're happy" and being happy?

Posted by: j.c. on September 5, 2004 12:13 PM

Dennis Prager, a Jewish theologian and talk-show host here in L.A., makes many of the same points in his book "Happiness is a Serious Problem."

Posted by: Bryan on September 5, 2004 01:58 PM

why should u attempt to measure happiness? isnt it better to leave it undefined?

Posted by: peejay on September 6, 2004 04:47 AM

If your job isn't especially rewarding, pursue a hobby you love, one that delivers experiences of "flow."

Care to elaborate on what is meant by an experience of "flow?" The opportunity to learn as you go? Enjoying the process more than the result? Changing from one pose or position to another, as in yoga?

I love listening to scientists try to study this stuff. But it seems they go from vague results to even vaguer suggestions! Gotta start somewhere, though.

Posted by: Nate on September 6, 2004 12:15 PM

Um, flow ... maybe they are referring to the Stephen Covey book _Seven Habits of Highly Effective People_. Doesn't he talk about flow, & quadrant 4 activity, etc? I don't know, it's been a while. He didn't make up the concept though, did he?

Posted by: Laurel on September 6, 2004 12:49 PM

It often is funny watching scientists try to puzzle some of these things out, isn't it? Hey: humans breathe! They eat! They love! Who knew?

Flow=that feeling you sometimes have playing sports of being "in the zone," or that experience we all sometimes have of being so absorbed in an activity that we lose track of time.

Here's the classic book about it, "Flow," by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 6, 2004 03:46 PM

Flow is what happens when you are doing something and someone has to touch you to get a response from you.

It's what happens when you look at your watch and realize that you've been doing it without a thought to anything else for hours.

It's what happens when mind and body become so completely in tune that you dont have to think through your next movement, sequence of movements or change in your movements. They happen automatically.

I can usually get into the "flow" while spinning wool into yarn on my wheel or knitting a complex pattern.

Posted by: Deb on September 6, 2004 11:33 PM

Hey, why aren't these facts and tips better-known than they are? Geoffrey Miller has a hunch

I would add two things:

1) Some journalists do report that "money won't make you happy." Though most of them keep trying to make more of it. Which leads to:

2) Most journalists themselves are trying to make money and buy things (what New York Times reporter doesn't want a book contract and a house in the Hamptons?). For them to take the happiness research seriously would mean that they would have to question their own lives. For them to accept "these facts and tips" would mean that they would have to say "I goofed" and then try to force themselves to change. That's not easy for anyone.

Since the research is complex and has methodological problems, it's easier just to ignore it.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on September 7, 2004 10:15 AM

Also see here! (and here :)

Oh and Joseph Scumpeter on the concept of social value :D


Posted by: Glory on September 7, 2004 12:01 PM

Hey Michael, didja see the big piece written by Alain de Botton in Monday's NY Times? Headlined "Workers of the World, Relax," the essay charts--from Plato through Marx--the origin of the attitude that work should be spiritually fulfilling, that it should i.e. make you happy. I remember you saying the same thing constantly way back when.

A snippet: "It was not until the late 18th century that the model [of happiness through work] was extended beyond the artistic realm. In the writings of bourgeois thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Diderot, and Rousseau, we see work recategorized not only as a means to earn money, but also as a way to become more fully ourselves. It is worth nothing that this reconciliation of necessity and happiness exactly mirrored the contemporary re-evaluation of marriage: just as marriage was rethought as an institution that could deliver both practical benefits and sexual and emotional fulfillment (a handy conjunction once tgought impossible by aristocrats, who saw a need for a mistress and a wife), so too work was no allged to be capable of delivering both the money necessary for survival and the stimulation and self-expression that had once been seen as the exclusive preserve of the leisured."

Posted by: Vanessa Del Blowhard on September 8, 2004 11:54 AM

Was it Aristotle who said that "Happiness is the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life that affords them scope"?
What more do you need than that?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 11, 2004 07:20 PM

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