We all want to be happy, and yet many of us live “lives of quiet desperation”, as Henry David Thoreau put it. Is happiness so hard to find?
One of the more astonishing things about happiness is that it has taken this long for science to take an interest in it. Up until recently, psychology was mostly focussed on the many strange and terrible things that can go wrong with the human psyche; an interest in “positive psychology” has emerged only recently.
So, what of the things that are supposed to make us happy? Money, it transpires, is not one of them. A range of studies have concluded that once personal wealth exceeds about $12,000 a year, additional income produces little or no improvement in life satisfaction. Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University authored a study on this subject. He notes: “People grossly exaggerate the impact that higher incomes would have on their subjective well-being.”
What about kids? Well, while family repeatedly shows up as a factor in happiness, the evidence that being a parent is a recipe for contentedness is rather slight. Rather, the prevailing view among psychologists seems to be that the rewards of parenting are more-or-less offset by the tremendous demands of being a parent.
Other things that don’t (statistically) make people happy include a good education, a high IQ, being young (older people are consistently more satisfied with their lives), and marriage – although the jury is still out on this one. Married people are “measurably happier”, but it has been suggested that this may be because they were happier people before they were married.
So what does work? According to a 2002 study conducted by Diener and Seligman at the University of Illinois, friends and family are the biggest source of happiness in life. Religion also has a measurably positive impact, although many psychologists attribute this to the community aspect of traditional religions. The unhappiest people tend to be those who are socially isolated, and there seems to be no better cure for their depression than becoming part of a community.
Deiner and Seligman’s research also compared individuals from radically different cultures. The Maasai, an African herding tribe who live in huts made from dung, are about as content as the wealthiest people in the US. The Amish, who live without modern amenities, rank at the top of the “life satisfaction” scale, as do the Inughuit people of northern Greenland who live in conditions most people would consider to be utterly inhospitable. The idea that progress leads to happiness is rather untenable.
Other factors that seem to contribute greatly to happiness include gratitude and forgiveness. In fact, University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson claims his research shows that forgiveness is the trait most strongly linked to happiness. Again, this may help contribute to the positive benefits of religion, most of which encourage a natural gratitude for life and cultivate a willingness to forgive. Holding grudges appears to be extremely contrary to feeling happy, which is scarcely a surprising result.
Beyond the analysis of what factors contribute to happiness, there is perhaps a deeper reason why happiness can be hard to find. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert believes that human beings are naturally useless about predicting how happy future events will make us. According to Gilbert’s studies, people routinely misjudge the impact of things to come, both in terms of imagining they will be happier than they will be, and in terms of thinking they will be more distressed than they will be by negative events.
Part of the problem seems to be that when we visualise the future, we tend to examine future events in isolation, but of course in real life we experience the unfolding of time as a deeply intertwined series of events – we rarely have the luxury to enjoy only the good, as we are often beset with new and unanticipated problems along with every new delight.
Gilbert believes that even if people knew precisely what the future held, they would still be unable to assess accurately how much they would like it when they get there, and has conducted numerous studies to demonstrate our general inability to predict our response to future events. He suggests we should “have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we’ll feel.”
The irony is, Gilbert also asserts that an ability to predict the future is quintessentially human, and entirely absent from other animals. It just happens that, while we can predict future events through the process of casual inference, we are naturally incompetent at predicting our own feelings in future circumstances. We don’t want the things that could make us happy – and the things we believe we want rarely have that power.
The prevailing view of “positive psychology” remains the
same: seeking happiness in the acquisition of things, or staking our happiness
on perceived future goals, will not lead to contentedness. Rather, we should be
grateful for what we have, forgive others, and form close interpersonal ties in
our communities. It may be possible for the hermit to find happiness, but the
rest of us will have to learn to live together.