The Week (a weekly magazine I recommend) put out a little report on “the science of happiness,” with the question being asked: “Can we train ourselves to live happier, fuller lives?” Happier is worth exploring, and so is fuller. Some of the questions I aim to explore briefly in this blog include: What makes people happy? Does money help? Can happiness be improved? To what degree are greater fulfillment, meaning, joy and contentment within our control? I also tap into some scientific findings and wisdom perspective by psychologist Mark Leary of Duke University.
The first question The Week article focuses on is: What makes people happy? Though this is an age-old question, and some ancient answers have been floated, social sciences such as psychology have made strides in recent years in investigating the concept of happiness – which along with other “positive” traits and values such as optimism and meaning – have not always been deemed particularly amenable to scientific inquiry (or very respected in scientific circles). The “positive psychology” movement has been helpful in putting this and other such topics at the fore.
“Scientific research suggests that most of the things that people believe make them happy really won’t (at least not in the long-run),” notes Mark Leary, Ph.D. It’s a mystery, and psychologists can help us figure out how to live better. He continues: “We all get fooled because we know that we feel happy when something good happens in our life – we get a new car, or a new relationship, or a new house – and we have a little bump in our happiness. …[B]ut what about three months from now, or six months from now?”
“Use, do not abuse; neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy.”
Dr. Leary is pointing out the transient ability of a stimulus to improve mood. Humans seek and long for acquisition and newness, but they also adapt amazingly (tragically?) to the new level. Our “set point” always pulls us back. Some of us have better genes than others when it comes to mood. I haven’t had the best cards in this regard, and at times it has been tough for me. My dad was miserable much of the time, his sister was an alcoholic who accidentally killed herself, and my father’s niece is quite a case – psychiatric treatments, experimental electroshock therapy, and so on. I have good days and bad days. Nowadays, mostly good! I do have a hard time not feeling that more money, more career success, or getting into such-and-such master’s program will make me “happier.” It’s not all that different from a drug. I pity the sucker who feels that more boats, more planes, more investments will “do the trick.” Indeed, the rich are no happier; they commit suicide at the same surprisingly high rate that the other social classes do.
So what is the number one thing human being strive after, desire, and hope to enjoy? If you said money, power, or prestige, think again. It’s relationships. The 75-year-old Harvard University longitudinal study of issues such as happiness, success, intelligence, work, and achievement has found this to be undoubtedly true. Indeed, philosopher Bertrand Russell noted that “[t]he pursuit of social success, in the form of prestige or power or both, is the most important obstacle to happiness in a competitive society.”
“…[W]ork is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies, and rest.”
The three main causes of happiness appear to be 1) life circumstances, 2) genetics, and 3) behavior. “Here’s the thing that most people have trouble believing when they first hear it: [Sonia Lyubormirsky’s] research shows that only about 10% of people’s happiness is due to their life circumstances,” Leary reports.
In addition to the main cause of happiness — positive and fulfilling relationships, the runners-up include health, creative and fulfilling work, and not being stuck in a rut/routine. Basically, feeling good physically and stimulating, rewarding contribution to some cause greater than the self. Some of what we can do is in our environment, but it’s not going to be a huge lever. Here is what happiness expert Sonia Lyubormirsky has come to believe: “Happiness is not out there for us to find. The reason that it’s not out there is that it’s inside us.”
One of my favorite quotes has always been “Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
Can challenges make one happier, The Week asks? As dopamine is a significant route to perceived satisfaction, one can kind of trick one’s brain a bit by engineering consistent, small successes in one’s goals. Fulfilling goals one at a time is better than having one massive goal one is concentrating and working on for years – but without much trackable forward progress. If one is writing a book, one has to break it up into manageable chunks to keep motivated and to prevent it from becoming a real drag. So, setting up a lunch with a loved one, having discrete achievable goals in which one feels capable and eager to achieve, and not having a ceaselessly predictable and boring routine to cope with are very helpful.
Yes, pets count as relationships!
Exercise is key. I also find that taking omega fatty acids, such as salmon or krill or borage oil, is very helpful to one’s brain chemistry. And it’s all about the brain chemistry! Nothing happens in one’s mind that isn’t mediated, controlled, and sanctioned by the 3-pound piece of meat in your skull. Learn how to make it function better and you’re ahead of the curve.
“No social system will bring us happiness, health, and prosperity unless it is inspired by something more than materialism.”
Does money make one happier? Well, yes, to an extent. If one is poor or even lower middle class, there are stresses that impede a relaxed and positive attitude. Once a person gets upwards of $70,000, $80,000, though, the effect of money on happiness starts to level out. Anything beyond that only has a temporary lift associated with it. Thus, making $150,000 does not make one twice as happy as if one were to make $75,000. Physicians and lawyers beware! “It’s not so much that money makes people happy, as it is that money can help to solve problems that would otherwise lower our happiness,” psychologist Mark Leary shows.
If one makes a lot of money, one has to be very judicious. Try engaging in experiences that have intrinsic value if you want to be happier; don’t just keep buying larger televisions. Give some of it away! Remember, Leary points out that: “The average millionaire is no happier than the person who makes $75,000 a year.” Philosopher Tom Morris adds this to the discussion: “A reporter once asked John D. Rockefeller how much money it takes for a man to be happy. He replied, ‘A little bit more than he’s got.’
“People who spend more of their money on the activities and causes that are important to them express more satisfaction with their lives.” ~ The Week‘s Article on Happiness
Leary wisely points out that, if money makes us happier, then we as a society ought to be much happier than we were fifty or sixty years ago. “In 1940, 1/3 of houses still didn’t have running water and indoor toilets! But national polls show that people actually rated themselves happier in the 1940s than they do today.” He draws a parallel with physical appearance; being obese is no route to happiness, but if we get a facelift or a hair transplant, it will hold for a while, and then the joy will recede. It’s called hedonic adaptation.
“Happiness is for getting us to use our intestines, ovaries and testicles. People so reliably pursue food and sex because eating and copulating release neurochemicals that make them feel happy. And the reason this neurochemical rule is part of the human heritage is that the genes responsible for it have, understandably, done well for themselves.”
We have created quite a weird society, with our iPads and fancy cars and Facebook. I am really not sure if Facebook makes us even 1% happier. Amy Morin points out that: “It would seem logical to assume that people use Facebook because it somehow enhances their lives. But oddly, research suggests the opposite. Studies show Facebook use is associated with lower life satisfaction.” So much for social relationships via the World Wide Web!
Marriage is part of happiness, but think of the divorce level! Indeed, “getting married gives people a happiness boost for two years. …[T]hen people’s happiness ratings slowly return to where they were before they got married,” is how Professor Leary sums up research findings on the subject. It can feel a bit absurd, I suppose. But that desire for newness and achievement and stimulation is part of our two-sided evolutionary past. We have many benefits we enjoy due to how we have evolved, but it is not all coming up roses. It’s the human condition.
So, to what degree is happiness stable and unchangeable, or able to be improved by us? “Although psychologists maintain that we have a “set point” of happiness – one that we return to time and again throughout our lives, even after a trauma or a lucky break – experts increasingly argue that contentment is something we can cultivate and increase with a set of learned skills,” The Week points out. Probably about half of happiness is due to one’s genetics. The rest is up to fate, and ourselves.
“O happiness, our being’s end and aim/ Good pleasure, ease, content – whate’r thy name,/ That something, still that prompts the eternal sigh:/ For which we bear to live, or dare to die.”
Incidentally, age is related to happiness in that mid-40s is the lowest average happiness, and it rises after that. As long as you have enough money to last during retirement, you stay busy, you’re not socially isolated (unless you are in a rest home, in which case those who isolate are the happiest), and your health has not been neglected (and you get lucky), you should do well. Time ebbing away has a way of focusing the mind and causing us to “not sweat the small stuff.” Developmental psychologists tend to find that some aspects of our cognitive abilities stay well intact until the very final years, so it could be a time of relaxation, wisdom, lightheartedness, and grandchildren/pets/volunteering/lawn bowling if you play your cards right!
Gratitude is important. Counting your blessings. If you are mindful and actually take time to think in this positive and optimistic way, things will improve in your grey matter – and remember it’s all about the brain. Focus on positive, and positive things are going to happen in your brain.
“The activity of happiness must occupy an entire lifetime; for one swallow does not a summer make.”
Here is a story attributed to a Native American legend: An elder described his own inner struggles as such: Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. They constantly vie for attention and power. Asked which will prevail, the elder replied, Whichever I feed. Deep! So concentrate on the good, the hopeful, the lighthearted, and you will feel better.
Meditation, charity, volunteering, and living one’s values are helpful and give us cause for hope in this (politically) dark time. Be a part of something! Join the local Unitarian Church, socialize, do positive things for others. Don’t just concentrate on what’s wrong with your life, or stay in and eat and watch TV.
I’m not terribly into religion, and frankly, the data seem kind of contradictory about whether believing in a higher power helps. It probably does, if one isn’t all wrapped up in evangelism, ideology, and dogma. Just concentrate on feeling that you are special, that you were created for a purpose, and help others.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
That’s about as good as religion gets. “To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future.” (
Laugh! It’s fun. It’s beneficial. “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it,” happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky believes. Try these jokes on for size:
I was in McDonald’s, and I saw this kid take his Happy Meal toy and throw it on the ground. His mom said: ‘Hey, you play with that! There are children in China manufacturing those!’
They say that moving is one of the most stressful things in life. Death in the family is the second most stressful, and moving your dead spouse is the third.
“Use those talents you have. You will make it. You will give joy to the world. Take this tip from nature: The woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best.”
I know lots of women who have had children. But I’m not sure it’s for me. ‘Feel the baby kicking! Feel the baby kicking!,‘ says my friend who is deliriously happy about it. To me, life is tough enough without having someone kick you from the inside.
When I went away to college, my parents threw a going away party for me, according to the letter.
When I was young, I used to think that wealth and power would bring me happiness… I was right.
Live in the moment. The only time we really have is now. Regrets about the past, worries about the future, and my personal bugaboo – perfectionism – rob us of our time. And we never know how much we have left. These are truths. I suggest you be a little spontaneous, irreverent, and pleasure-seeking. Don’t be immoral about it, but count your happiness as a genuine goal and don’t be easily dissuaded.
“[Optimism] is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.” ~ Sonja Lyubomirsky
My wife was really in the zone when she wrote me the following (and she also meditates, goes to church, and really loves our dog, Freckles. She keeps in good touch with family, works hard, and likes to chill and watch movies. All are positive and helpful. I remind her that diet and exercise are also important. Anywho, she wrote this, and it’s good advice!
Let’s just be and enjoy one another’s company and be happy we have more than enough money to live a more than comfortable lifestyle and we are lucky enough to love each other and not have a terminal illness, as of yet or hopefully ever, and have pets and delicious food when we want it and have the luxury to be lazy sometimes and just breathe and rejoice that while we don’t deserve it, we’ve been blessed with a fantastic spot on this planet for the small time we get to be on it, and that that may change in the coming years, so now is the time for rejoicing and joy before any of the sorrow.
“The people in the marches were joyful, did you notice that? Did you feel it yourself? The best smiles I’ve seen in years. Is it not indeed joyful to embark on a life of great meaning?”
Let’s not kid ourselves, life is tough. Bad things happen. It can be a long, challenging, boring, absurd experience. Woody Allen noted: “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.” My late friend John A. Marshall waxed existential with this interesting take on happiness and values:
“We are thrown into this world – and we’re going to be exposed to some hard realities, some cruel shit, and then we’re going to die. There’s no God to help us. Our parents are totally inadequate. So it’s you alone in the universe. However, if we can grasp this – and obviously every mainstream religious person in this country, and a bunch of others, fail to because it is too coarse a fact to come to grips with – then after grasping it, IF we can do something positive with it, then we’re being human. If we can love rather than be solipsistic, then we are growing. If we can accept the vicissitudes of our lives with values like strength, grace, and humor, then we have actually succeeded in a major way.”
Good job, John. I miss you. Now, in order to follow my own advice, I will look at your picture, read a few of your quotes, and try not to think of your death as a loss to me, but in a much more positive light. Try to cherish our relationship while it lasted. As you pointed out, there are no guarantees, and as science shows, gratitude is healthy! “Be happy while you’re living because you’re a long time dead.”
“The science of human happiness is called Wisdom, and those who know best how to achieve and maintain happiness we call Wise. The long heritage of that ancient science of sages who have pondered the secrets of happily living with ourselves and with others is called the Wisdom Tradition.”
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
“People who regularly practice appreciation or gratitude—who, for example, ‘count their blessings’ once a week over the course of one to twelve consecutive weeks or pen appreciation letters to people who’ve been kind and meaningful—become reliably happier and healthier, and remain happier for as long as six months after the experiment is over.” ~ Sonia Lyubormirsky
“Employment is nature’s physician, and is essential to human happiness.”
“Life is a paradise for those who love many things with passion.” ~ Leo Buscaglia
“Yesterday I was clever and tried to change the world; today I am wise and will change myself.” ~ Mevlana Rumi
“Happiness is love. Full stop.”
“In its truest form, optimism doesn’t mean always being happy, and it certainly doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to bad things. It’s not something you’re necessarily born with, or into, either. It’s a choice, and sometimes a daily battle, to stay open and receptive and keep looking outwards, to keep engaging proactively with the world instead of retreating inwards and strengthening the hard, protective walls you’ve built to try and shelter yourself from your fears.”
“People who have the most positive emotion, the most engagement, and the most meaning in life are the happiest, and they have the most life satisfaction.”
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