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.
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:
- Effectance motivation: productive labor for its own sake.
- Nurturance: caring for, nurturing, and being tender toward the helpless and vulnerable.
- Self-awareness: developing and maintaining a reliable sense of self.
- Future perspective: being able to positively anticipate the future.
- Vicarious experience: the ability to empathize and share vicariously in the experience of others.
- 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.
- Curiosity: The drive for understanding ourselves, others, and our environment, the delight in discovery.
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-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.
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?
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.