What About Being Happy?

Charles Dickens said, “Reflect on your present blessings of which every man has many, but not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”

Epictetus, Greek sage and Stoic philosopher (AD 55-AD 135) said, “There is only one way to happiness and this is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

It turns out that old advice is very sage in regards to being happy. It pays to look on the bright side, as I hope you will agree shortly.

Unhappily, we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the long term, according to Professor Sam Wang, Ph.D. Molecular Molecular Biology and Neuroscience, Princeton University. Lottery winners are an excellent example of this principle. Over a period of time, lottery winners were surveyed and were not appreciably happier than before they won. Even among regular lottery players, those who win are not happier than the losers. In addition, the giant sum of money to big winners often so disrupts the person’s life as to make it considerably worse than before the ‘win.’

Professor Wang teaches The Neuroscience of Everyday Life course. By no great coincidence I have just finished taking that course and the subject of happiness was the concluding lecture. The course is offered by The Great Courses.

This is not to suggest that money is irrelevant to happiness. In the U.S. happiness differences are not strongly dependent on income. Above a certain level, there is no difference. Minimal needs can be met on about $30,000 of income, according to Professor Wang. The determinant seems to be relative wealth. How do we compare with our friends and neighbors?

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice stated that people tend to be less satisfied with their lives when they choose amongst many options as opposed to choosing among few options. Perhaps comparisons tend to invite regret.

Happiness tends to be relatively stable over a period of time. A 17-year study in Germany showed that only 24% changed significantly from the beginning to the end of the period. Only 9% changed a lot.

Some interesting facts from various studies Professor Wang brought up included:
* Being married is positively correlated with being happy. However, having children doesn’t make you any happier.
* Republicans on average are more happy than Democrats.
* Frequent churchgoers are happier than non-church goers.

In what Professor Wang called the Hedonic Treadmill our happiness seems to adapt and to have a set point. Good and bad events tend to change our happiness, but only temporarily, then we quickly adapt back to hedonic neutrality.

People have different set points. Like temperament, happiness is partially inheritable. The same is true of personality, Professor Wang said, about half of the variation in happiness is inheritable.

Some persistent negative factors included:
* Losing a spouse can result in a persistent reduction of happiness
* A divorce is also a source of a decrease in happiness.
* Unemployment decreases happiness and tends to persist.

On the positive side:
* Frequent small events are more likely to raise our happiness level than one large one. An example would be frequent sex. This is more effective than socializing with friends.
* Good sleep is a major determinant of happiness. It is an even better determinant than household income.
* Having a daily routine is a better predictor of happiness than having a variety of experiences.
* Lastly, setting and achieving small realistic goals raises happiness levels.

Professor Wang offered several techniques to increase happiness. The first was to focus on positive events. Write down three good things that happen each day. Explain what caused each of them. This seems to reduce mild depression and the effects can last for months. Identify your character strengths and put them into practice. Finally, remember to be grateful. Write down five things for which you are thankful. This leads to more positive feelings.

Professor Wang noted that ‘spending time with my kids’ seemed to come up at the top of the list. Yet when asked how did they feel at the time, subjects said about the same as doing housework or answering emails. He observed, jokingly, that children appeared to be more rewarding in theory than in practice.

In conclusion, he said that individuals have a strong inborn component to experience happiness. Most life events seem to have only a transient impact. Exceptions seem to be events of which one is reminded persistently like having a life partner.

Two experiences which brought about a persistent reduction in happiness were commuting and chronic pain.

Professor Wang is the co-author of the best-selling book Welcome to Your Brain which has been translated into 20 languages. I alluded to this book in my post entitled Tricking Your Brain into Helping You Lose Weight.



Filed under life challenges

2 responses to “What About Being Happy?

  1. Thanks for posting this. I particularly like the idea of writing down 3 things a day that you are thankful for or that were positive.


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