The Declaration of Independence enshrines "the pursuit of happiness" as our inalienable right. But what is happiness? Who is happy? And how does one pursue it? A recent issue of Time
explored recent "happiness research" that may provide some answers.
Imagine a "happiness-misery index" calibrated from minus five (despair) up to plus five (bliss). Modern psychology has been preoccupied with misery—that dark realm of mental illness. Historically, psychotherapists’ goal has been to move miserable people up the misery index towards zero. In the process, they have relieved oceans of human suffering.
Until recently, few serious psychologists focused on the happiness-misery index north of zero. What makes the human heart sing? A new “positive psychology” is exploring happiness—optimism, positive emotions, healthy character traits, our experience of well-being...fun! Happiness research recalls some old lyrics: "You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with Mr. In-between".
Happiness researchers learned that neither wealth nor income raises our sense of satisfaction with life, once basic needs are met. Nor does education or a high IQ. Virtues of the head—curiosity and love of learning—are less tied to happiness than virtues of the heart—kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love. Youth isn't a factor either. Older persons are more consistently satisfied and less prone to dark moods. Married persons are more content than singles. Some 900 Texas women reported their happiest activities, in order of importance, to be: sex, socializing, relaxing, praying and eating.
No one maintains a constant state of bliss. The happiest of us are down at least 10% of the time; the miserable are elevated about the same amount. Even the happiest are brought low for extended periods of time by loss of spouse or loss of job. The sources of one's capacity for happiness seem to be roughly 50% genetic and 50% the cumulative effect of "slings and arrows" i.e. life experience.
As one moves upscale on the happiness-misery index, physical well-being improves. Neurophysiologists confirm a correlation between happiness and the development of antibodies, resistance to heart disease, diabetes and upper respiratory infections. It's correspondingly unhealthy downscale. Those who are anxious and depressed are more susceptible to disease.
Laughter—"evolution's whooppee cushion"—exercises the heart and elevates our mood. Men are the leading laugh getters; women are the leading laughers.
Despite a huge growth in affluence since WWII, American levels of happiness have remained essentially flat. But clinical depression is three to ten times as prevalent today as two generations ago. One in fifteen Americans experience an episode of major depression e.g. can't get out of bed. Any suggested correlation between affluence and happiness is thus suspect.
Of course being poor can cause depression, but we know that. One researcher concludes that after income exceeds $50,000 annually, happiness and affluence decouple. Further income increases don't drive up the happiness index. The Forbes 400 wealthiest are only slightly happier than the public at large. Moreover, as Americans move up the economic ladder, they almost immediately stop feeling grateful for their elevated circumstances and focus on what they still don't have. Whatever their income level, Americans believe they need more to live well. Those who anticipate they'll get still more seem even happier.
A psychologist father-son team administered a "subjective well-being" questionnaire to members of many cultures around the world, with some surprising results. Latin Americans (along with Americans) are among the happiest, while East Asians (Japan, China, South Korea) are among the least happy, with somber Lithuanians and Russians at the bottom.
British Economist Sir Richard Layard2
praises the American Declaration of Independence. Public policy should, says Sir Richard, be judged by how government increases human happiness and alleviates human misery. Layard credits focus on public happiness with much of the social progress accomplished over the last two centuries. Building stable and happy families, communities and workplaces deserve to be very high public priorities.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology, became interested in happiness research because he had nothing further to offer clients who neared zero on the happiness-misery index. I felt a similar frustration as a mediator: once the family wealth dispute was resolved, then what? How does a once-contentious family refocus on family happiness so long obscured by their wranglings?
Is this new approach to happiness just another smiley-face pop psychology? Or are the positive psychologists on to something? One thing is sure: all of us want to become happy and stay happy. Some very prominent psychologists — who understand the human psyche best — are trying to help us do just that. Let’s listen to what they have to say. Stay tuned.
[ 1 ] Time Magazine, January 17, 2005, pp. A1-A68.
[ 2 ] Layard, Richard, Happiness, (Penguin Press 2005).