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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. 


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"this may help contribute to the positive benefits of religion, most of which... cultivate a willingness to forgive"

Yeah, to forgive other members of that particular religion!
Why is it that when religious people act morally or are forgiving or happy, the cause is seen to be religion, but when they act immorally or retributively, they must be 'bad apples'?

I read a book (can't recall by whom now) that made a pretty good argument about happiness as a byproduct of having a purposeful life. Happiness is elusive, particularly those that ostensibly can devote the most resources (ie monetary wealth) to attaining it--as this study shows, being rich certainly doesn't make you happy. More to the point though, devoting yourself to finding your own happiness is the surest way to never find more than temporary diversions... being happy is a byproduct of having a meaningful life.
The findings of that study hinge on family, friends, community and religion--the joys that take work and strong relationships to cultivate.
Good post Chris.

A good post indeed. And,in a way, quite optimistic, I believe.

Jack: was it "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" by Rick Warren by any chance? It was a best-seller on the subject, although I haven't read it.

zenBen: "Why is it that when religious people act morally or are forgiving or happy, the cause is seen to be religion, but when they act immorally or retributively, they must be 'bad apples'?"

Well there are a number of factors here; in the former case, the data is linked to religion statistically, while in the latter we are dealing with a statistical anomaly.

The number of "bad apples" is grossly outnumbered by the number of harmless religious devotees - so in the former case we are dealing with a representative situation and in the latter we are dealing with a non-representative situation by definition.

How would you feel, as a counter-point, if the IRA were cited as evidence that Irish people are violent? It would be grossly misleading, insulting and prejudicial to make such a suggestion! The IRA were not representative of the Irish people as a whole. Neither (to complete the analogy) are Islamic terrorists representative of Islam as a whole. It is this lack of representation which needs to be borne in mind when addressing religious issues.

But that said, I believe that religion can be cited as a cause whenever appropriate - there's no need for double standards. For instance, it was indeed Muslim beliefs about shirk (idolatry) which were a causal factor behind the despicable bombing of Buddhist statues in and around Afghanistan in 2001, and Christian beliefs about the afterlife were a casual factor behind the atrocities of the Inquisition.

Conversely, to cite religion as a cause of the September 11th terrorist attacks is misleading, since it was the presence of US troops in the Middle East which was the motivating factor - this was a politically motivated attack, not a religiously motivated one. (Was Islam still a factor? Of course, but not a casual factor in this case).

I do not wish to suggest that there are not problems in the practice of religion. However, I do suggest that we should identify the actual problems rather than vilify religion as a whole - it is this clarity that I find missing in most anti-religious rhetoric.

Thanks for raising this question!

"Find something more important than yourself, and devote your life to it"
Daniel Dennett (philosopher and noted atheist).

I have a soft spot for Dennett, even if his philosophy of mind is a bit thin. More than just an atheist, though, Dennett is an ardent "Bright". ;)

Chris: I'm curious if you mean "causal" or "casual"; I'm assuming you mean the former, but would be interested in the explanation if you mean the latter.

zenBen: While I'd like to agree with that quote, I'm pretty sure that most folk need some dreadfully pressing circumstance for discovery of something "more important than (themselves)."

Chris (non sequitur): Really enjoying the depth to the largess of your posts. I've added you to my aggregator, Sir; hope you don't mind. ^_~

Daniel Dennett's fashion sense and grooming habits strongly argue against his Darwinian views on incremental progress. But that's another topic for another day...

Interesting. No mention of Csikszentmihalyi in your post (although he and Seligman are good friends apparently). I tend to agree with Csikszentmihalyi and see happiness as phenomenological in nature. In other words, it is a type of experience, not a state of being.

One interesting point that I think needs to be raised and dealt with is the relationship between happiness and time. For example, you wrote:

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.

To me there is a lot of metaphor here: examine, unfolding, intertwined, beset. Was time previously folded? Can you put a future event under a microscope and stare at it i.e. examine it? These are metaphors, but are they accurate? Perhaps they are accepted because they are accurate, but more likely they are thought accurate because they are accepted.

If so much of our happiness depends on our relationship with the future, what happens if we stop believing that the future? What happens if we think that time is just a functional grab bag of metaphors?

Mark Twain said it best when he said "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."

(I'm still getting around to my games post at the Kryptonite Cafe... I'll get there eventually...)

zanbowser: I did of course mean 'causal'; I considered re-editing my comment (my luxury as site owner), but thought I would rather not obliterate your observation. ;) Thanks for subscribing! I hope you continue to enjoy "the show" - I've lost a few readers in this last month, so I welcome some new voices!

James: I made a decision to omit discussion of Csikszentmihalyi for two reasons: firstly, he comes up all the time in my game work and I don't want to be overly repetitive, and secondly I just didn't need him to complete this piece (which, as with so much that I write, is a component of a future post - it's gets very Machiavellian at times!)

"If so much of our happiness depends on our relationship with the future, what happens if we stop believing in that future? What happens if we think that time is just a functional grab bag of metaphors?"

What a wonderful statement... I think I'm going to have to let that hang there for a while - it's too delicious. :)

Delightful comment - thanks for taking the time!

The Purpose Driven Life was a big hit amoung the Bush administration - just thought I'd put that out there.

I liked this post, reminds me of what I was saying in regards to the transmigration of wealth.

ref depression: "Misery loves company. Too bad company doesn't reciprocate." Sometimes the second hardest thing to do is to find that community - the *hardest* thing to do is for the community to accept the individual. It's remarkably easy for one's support network to evaporate just as one needs it most.

Many religions promote acceptance of individuals as they are, and I've noted how much some church congregations resemble support groups - *everyone* has something up with them! As yet, I have no opinion on whether this is because such people do in fact congregate in congregations [if you'll forgive the language], whether they're actually representative but are more inclined to be open about themselves, or for some other reason entirely. But this may be why religion, in particular, is positively correlated with happiness.

Patrick: I'm not surprised the Bush administration liked that particular book - I do wonder what purpose some of them think they are pursuing... ;)

Peter: I agree with you that a key social problem is assisting individuals in finding communities they can be accepted within. And particularly in the context of depression, someone struggling to pull themselves out of the hole will have a difficult time wanting to connect with a community - even though doing so might help them.

From my experience, the reason that churches often resemble support groups is because a church as a fellowship of people is functionally equivalent to a support group - there is an acceptance of people as imperfect which allows for a sharing of problems. Churches which lack this openness tend to feel stale and overly ceremonial.

The equivalent communities in other religions have similar properties, in part because of the tendency that you mention - namely that traditional religion tends to teach acceptance of people as they are. Of course, sometimes doctrinal issues are allowed to overpower empathy, which is disappointing, but as with any human endeavour, nothing is perfect.

Best wishes!

For a truly extraordinary book on finding meaning through purposefulness, try Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The Purpose Driven Life is populist tripe of the worst sort. For the record, I am a Christian, albeit a quite liberal one. I read the first two chapters of The PDL and threw it across the room in a screaming fit that frightened my cat and my husband, both of whom are normally unflappable.

Chris, thanks for your continued evenhandedness when dealing with religious extremism in all its forms, including and especially my own.

Chris, the book was actually a short, somewhat personal thesis by a friend of a friend... I don't think it was widely published. Unless Rick Warren is a Catholic priest and his book takes a certain amount of time to work through Freudian will to pleasure and Jungian will to power, I think it's a different book :)

Have you heard about a new book called “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Dr. Robt. Emmons? It is based on 8 years of scientifically studying the effects and benefits of grateful living, the first study of its kind. Dr. Emmons is a psychology professor at UC Davis and expert in “positive psychology.” It touches on all aspects of a person’s life that can be improved by gratitude: physical (sleep habits, energy level), mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual. I’m doing PR for the book - help us spread the word about “Thanks!” You can find it at Amazon or at any book store.

Well there we go, it wasn't the Purpose Driven Life at all (I haven't read it myself, incidentally), and TT recommends "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl as a superior choice. Let no-one say the comments here are anything less than educational. ;)

Alicia: I haven't heard of Emmons book before; thanks for the notification! Good luck with the PR.

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