Happiness

There’s research on happiness. One of my favorite experts on happiness is Dr. David Lykken, who, along with Thomas Bouchard is well-known for his work on the Minnesota Twin Study, has contributed immensely to twin and adoption research. The fact is that there are identifiable happiness markers, and the more of these happiness-making qualities we possess, the happier we feel.

Suze Stern 7 by you.Lykken found that most people, given basic food, shelter, and reasonable security, feel reasonably happy most of the time. One’s level of education, marital status, political affiliation, nationality, gender, race or income made no difference in one’s level of happiness. People who lived in the most affluent countries were, on average, only a bit happier than those living in the poorest countries.

Lykken also identified happy-making traits:

  1. Effectance motivation: productive labor for its own sake.
  2. Nurturance: caring for, nurturing, and being tender toward the helpless and vulnerable.
  3. Self-awareness: developing and maintaining a reliable sense of self.
  4. Future perspective: being able to positively anticipate the future.
  5. Vicarious experience: the ability to empathize and share vicariously in the experience of others.
  6. Aesthetic pleasures: Our mysterious ability to take delight in sensory experiences such as looking at art, listening to music, eating a delicious meal, seeing a sunset, enjoying good sex.
  7. Curiosity: The drive for understanding ourselves, others, and our environment, the delight in discovery.

photo by peggy collins by you.Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, published a highly readable, entertaining, and empirically-based hodgepodge of happiness markers, including the facts that people with children are, in general, more unhappy than childless couples; that once people earn around $50,000 annually, making more money does not make them happier; and that people usually err in imagining what will make them happy.

Gilbert has an interesting video on TED that asks, as an example of just how mistaken we can be, whether you’d rather become a lottery winner or a paraplegic. The audience, of course, bursts out laughing. The fact is, though, that actual research shows that, one year after becoming paraplegic or winning the lottery, paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy. This is not what we expect, which emphasizes the fact that we are not good at accurately predicting likely outcomes before they occur.

Gilbert’s long-term research on happiness and well-being indicate that people often exaggerate the long-Suze Stern 2 by you.term emotional effects events will have on them, and that these exaggerations are usually mistaken. People also tend to repeat the same errors in imagining what will make them happy, forgetting that doing the same old thing leads to the same old results. He also found that people tend to have a basic happiness set-point that doesn’t change much throughout life-that some people are generally more happy or optimistic than others, in other words. People who appear happy, however, may merely lack empathy or healthy curiosity, and those who are the most productive and creative may in fact be those who aren’t satisfied or happy with the condition of the world or their own lives, and make a difference by striving to change it.

Gilbert concludes that happiness is more fleeting than we expect it to be; we must always realize that good times come to an end and that suffering comes to all. The good news is that the negative emotional impact of a difficult event lasts only, on average, about three months. And that’s likewise true of happy events: the thrill we feel doesn’t last. The basic message we may read into this finding is to enjoy it while we can, and to remind ourselves in the midst of suffering that “this, too, shall pass.” It may be conventional wisdom, but we now have research to back it up.

Another interesting researcher and writer on happiness is Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.

flower01 by you.Seligman’s ongoing research has found that the pursuit of meaning rather than the pursuit of pleasure leads to the highest levels of satisfaction. Having meaning and engagement-being absorbed in one’s work-is the very definition of the full life. Pleasure is simply the icing on the cake. The question is not therefore whether a person is happy; the question is whether a person’s life has meaning, and is she absorbed by and engaged with what she does? The more transcendent and aware a person is developmentally, the less pleasure and stuff will matter, and the more meaning and engagement will matter.

You can take Seligman’s Approaches to Happiness test to discover which of the three different approaches to satisfaction you favor. I am (no surprises here) all about meaning. How about you?

Photo by Peggy Collins by you.These researchers have used psychology to discover the skills of happiness, engagement, and meaning, which are different from the skills of relieving misery, those most often taught and used by psychologists and psychiatrists.

The research seems to indicate that not all sadness needs to be relieved or attacked with a bulleted list or prescription against it. Reality is sobering. It seems impossible for a thinking, compassionate person to be aware of the injustice, inequality, and suffering in the world and to walk away, whistling a happy tune. But so many do seem to live their lives with a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that ignores the very suffering that inspires others to change the world, to truly “make a difference.”

And that’s sad.

12 responses

  1. I offer up a new term (or two):

    Enblightenment (n)— Increased suffering brought about by a heightened state of consciousness.

    This stands in stark contrast to En-lite-enment

    I believe it was Bill Harris who said, “The pain is built in but suffering is optional. When you’re awake (conscious), you choose your pain, but when you’re not, it chooses you,” though he may have been quoting someone else.

    One only feels the need to change things in the world when one sees the world as wrong or not as it should be; pretty heady stuff. That doesn’t mean that you can’t nor shouldn’t play though. Not making sense? Imagine Star Wars without Darth Vader or the Empire. The whole thing becomes rather ridiculous and pointless.

  2. Scott, thank you for your comment. I’ve read your comments over at Significant Pursuit several times, and have read your blog before. But I most recently found what you’ve written about the economy and the changes in our society of late both alarming, interesting, and sobering.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and have linked to it, so of course look forward to getting to know you. I am just starting to write about citizenship. I hope you’ll feel free to correct my lack of knowlege or misunderstandings in your field of expertise. I’m learning.

    You wrote about faith. Were we to discuss this at length, we would find we had much, if not most, in common. I am not even faithful to much of anything, which is what makes me cling steadfastly to the Divine (God), because I so need and believe in mercy. I’m still evolving. But I think I get what you are saying. I can understand how I would seem very different from you.

    I’m going to visit the blog you linked, and also get back to work on my missive about the bailout bill. I am that stirred up about it.

  3. I really enjoy your blog; after you left comments on mine I came over to check it out and it’s really inspiring and thought provoking. I especially like what you wrote about meaning — if material possessions and wealth meant happiness, then Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson would be on the top. Whether it’s seeking meaning in a philosophical sense (which I tend to do), or connecting with other humans or nature to seek a more grounded sense of meaning, that does seem key (and, by the way, a fundamental part of a new research project I’m starting).

    I consider myself a happy person, whatever that means. I’m accused of being excessively optimistic or having the ‘happy gene.’ But I also teach courses like “Children and War,” or dig deep into the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, with material that often has me unable to read farther without having tears streaming down my face. I have also been unable to stop an embarrassing choking up in class when talking about the Bosnian civil war and how they shot babies after birth if they had been impregnated from the “other side.”

    Just yesterday a friend that I have had only minimal contact with left a comment on my blog with her blog address: http://cezzarjoint.wordpress.com/

    I read her entire blog three times; it’s a blog of grief over the loss of her twins. It was really emotional (my wife even looked over at me one point and asked puzzedly ‘are you crying?’ I was.) She’s also a superb writer. At the end of the night it had me emotionally drained.

    So I ask myself – am being just voyeuristic in life, experiencing emotions from a distance, secure in knowing that my own real life is comfortable and good? For me it ultimately comes down to two things. The first probably has a different meaning for me than you, at least on the surface, and that’s faith. I am not faithful to one religion, I simply have a strong belief that there is truth in the universe, some sense of ultimate justice, and that this truth is beyond the capacity of humans to understand. Thus we see bits and pieces that look ugly, but that isn’t the whole. It’s not a faith I can rationally defend. It’s inside of me, and it won’t go away. It doesn’t connect to any particular God or philosophy. It may be a delusion, but it feels compelling, so I choose to hold on to it. I’m not sure I could let go if I wanted to.

    The second is a sense of unity, that the world is not only connected, but at some level truly one. I’ve liked the Roman philosopher Plotinus who had this view (and inspired Augustine’s early Christian theology). That means that all suffering and all cruelty is at some level a part of me. To some that would be insulting – Hitler, or a common rapist, or a murderer…all somehow part of myself? Well, again, I’m not sure how it “works.” But if we believe in a kind of whole, then we have responsibility for the choices we make to that greater whole. We are betraying ourselves if we shrug our shoulders at the horrors of the world, or see happiness as a “don’t worry, just ignore the bad stuff” attitude about life. And if it’s a delusion, well, it’s a harmless one. I’m smart enough to know I have no objective proof to demand anyone see things the same way, and that I may simply be wrong.

    Anyway, sorry to write so much, but I’m really impressed with your blog and plan to read more of it!

  4. Though Grace Abounds
    —for Eve

    Though grace abounds,
    floats in earth’s swirling dust,

    sparkling like golden stars,
    when sunlight rushes through

    an open door and falls onto
    a wooden staircase,

    and though angels ride
    through this God-filled air,

    I often let happiness enter
    my own heart only in guarded

    reception through a curtained
    window and in level teaspoonfuls.

  5. Helen, again, it’s not you. It truly is I. I’ll lay it out once I’ve sorted myself. Even when I deleted your comment I knew that you agreed with me. What I didn’t realize is that I had a problem with myself–and Pollyanna! It’s so bizarre that all I can say is it proves again just how spot-on Jung was about people.

    Thank you for being so understanding.

  6. Eve, Please accept my apology. I didn’t keep a copy of my comment, so I can’t be sure what I said. What I was trying to say was, I agree with you and think Pollyanna-type happiness is silly. No one can be that happy-go-lucky all the time. If this offended you, I am sorry.

  7. David, what a concept: useful suffering. I think it is is one of the cornerstones of true religion and spirituality. Prayer is a way of useful suffering, as can be almsgiving, tithing, and good works (to name the ones that come to mind). The Christian idea of bearing one another’s burdens, even when we don’t have to is another way. The way that Buddhists do not eat meat or drink alcohol because of the suffering attached to those things. These are conscious choices people make to suffer through service or self-denial, suffering they believe makes a difference by balancing out the dark and evil in the universe through light and goodness.

    Neurotic people suffer because that’s what they do rather than live consciously. And I can be sympathetic about that, because to live consciously is to suffer, anyway. At least when I suffer unconsciously, it’s all about me; suffering consciously is usually suffering that’s universal and other-directed. It’s about compassion, not self-absorption.

    David, thanks for your interesting comments. You have a way of hitting the nail on the head.

  8. Helen, your comment didn’t mysteriously vanish; I deleted it. But if I wanted you to go away in some permanent way, I’d simply ban your IP address after giving you a sound written thrashing. ;o)

    Your comments and presence are welcome here. Although possibly I misinterpreted your comment, I didn’t like it, so I deleted it. As my mother used to say when exasperated with me, “I’ve had just about enough out of you, young lady!” For whatever reason, we’re not on the same wavelength over here for my past few posts, and the way I decided to handle it is by punting that one comment into oblivion.

    What I’ve wanted has been different from what you’ve been offering. I’m sure that you’ve meant well, because I think you’re a decent, caring, faith-filled person, Helen. But these last few exchanges have been trying for me. And I’m sure that the fault must be mine.

    I’m not just saying this; I mean it. Some interesting and synchronous events that are so specificly targeted to some of my archaic wounds have occurred this week and been handed me by regular readers, of all people. This has been both good and difficult for me. Your comment was so incredibly specific, down to the very precise, scalpel-like words, that I felt I needed to delete it. I will probably deal with this through my writing sometime soon, but at this time it is still so surprising and raw for me that I feel ambushed. I need to deal with that emotion before sorting myself out, and my way of doing this is to delete the offensive post, which would be offensive only to me in particular (you couldn’t possibly know how) and to give you this much of an explanation.

    Frankly, normally I would have emailed you, but since you asked publicly, I’ll respond publicly. I hope what I write makes sense to you, but as with any written communication between people who really don’t know one another, it’s here to be misconstrued as much as it is to be understood.

    But there you have it. I’m sorry I didn’t explain myself via email yesterday. I didn’t trust myself to deal kindly with you at the time.

  9. This was very interesting. I think there are so many different ways to define and feel about happiness … and as the online test suggests, people have different expectations in regard to happiness.

    I think it’s very true that an enlightened person cannot cease to be aware of suffering and injustice in the world, and will be pained on a deep level that causes motivation for change.

    I also think that many people who are unhappy on a daily basis have not achieved that level of suffering at a “higher” level, and are still suffering very much in themselves, if that makes sense? I remember when I first started therapy, I told my therapist that I thought the whole process of therapy was kind of counterintuitive, because if it worked, I’d be enabling myself to suffer more deeply, but in a way that wasn’t about me so much anymore.

    I still think that’s true. I might be happier someday in my daily life, as far as just being more content and in less continual pain, but clearing that mist will allow me to suffer more … usefully? Hmmm. I think that really is what I mean, so I’ll leave it like that.

  10. Heni, I agree with ou on all points, even the allusion to Buddhist thought.

    Another blogger told me recently that she gets pleasure from painting–not art, but her house. This is meaningful work, too, and I agree that we forget this in our prestige-conscious society.

  11. “[H]appiness is more fleeting than we expect it to be; we must always realize that good times come to an end and that suffering comes to all. The good news is that the negative emotional impact of a difficult event lasts only, on average, about three months. And that’s likewise true of happy events: the thrill we feel doesn’t last.”

    Are you sure you weren’t quoting Buddha?

    I made out equally balanced between Meaningful and Good. I can live with that (though the results may be skewed by not quantitatively measuring my pleasure at eating chocolate).

    I think Western culture has forgotten the idea of “productive labor for its own sake”. It’s all about making money and social prestige. It kills me that people who do honorable work, like plumbers and carpenters, are not more respected.

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