In the American Declaration of Independence it states that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, one of which is the pursuit of happiness. Yet up until very recently, we humans did not have much information about what actually makes us happy. In the US, most people would agree that you shouldn't cheat on your spouse, that you should live within your means, and that it's a good thing to show charity to those less fortunate.
The problem is we don't actually know -- in a scientific sense -- whether these behaviors actually make us happier at the end of the day. It wasn't until the late 1950s that any serious scientific rigor was applied to measuring happiness, and even then it was a nascent branch of psychology without much public interest.
I came to be interested in happiness research as the result of watching "Why are we happy?" For those of you interested in the answer to that question, I highly recommend you take the 20 minutes and view the talk. It got me pumped up enough to read a slew of research papers that have informed my outlook on everyday life and made me a happier person.
In the course of my readings, I decided it would be a good idea to write up my findings in bite-sized chunks so that others can better understand themselves and research the topic more effectively. Think of this blog post as a cliff notes to happiness research. I don't go into detail on any of the points, and if you want further information, I'd recommend reading the resources at the bottom of the page.
- It is often easier to overcome very bad events than trivially bad events because of what is called the region-ß paradox. This occurs because events that are more difficult to overcome trigger critical threshold attenuating mechanisms that allow humans to recover much faster than had the bad event been of a lesser degree. This means that in some circumstances, it is actually advantageous to make situations more difficult than necessary because it's the small stuff that gets you.
- People systematically overestimate the positive and negative effects of future events, this is called impact bias. Example: people consistently rank becoming crippled as negatively affecting lifetime happiness in a large way. People also predict winning the lottery will have a significant positive effect. In fact, after several years, people that experience either event are about equally happy. When asked to focus on a certain event, we forget that being crippled or winning the lottery does not continue to affect our lives in big ways for long periods of time. The change is sudden, big, and then we adapt.
- We experience greater happiness from unexplainable positive events than from explainable positive events. Barring any creepy overtones, if someone gives you $5 and tells you it's for a known cause, you will be less happy than if the same person gave you $5 and walked away without explaining why they gave you the money.
- We think that losing will hurt more than winning will please us, but in reality, losing doesn't hurt as much as we expect. This finding suggests that we should be more adventuresome. The old saying "nothing ventured, nothing gained" isn't a truism for nothing.
- Try not to make choices based on comparison, but based on values. Ex: don't choose a job because of it's comparative "betterness" to other offers you have received, because the comparison no longer exists when you make your choice and begin working. Instead, choose a job because it fits your values (eg, "close to home," "reasonable hours," etc).
- We remember state changes most vividly, and the ending state most vividly. For example, even if a marriage is good for 15 years and bad for 2, the ending state has a disproportionate effect on the happiness derived in the future.
- Typical life events stop effecting your happiness after 3 to 6 months, although in the intervening time period, they can raise your happiness. The implication is that big life-events don't effect us that much (if at all) in the long term.
- Widowhood and divorce are listed as the two most stressful events in adulthood, marriage was listed as #7. In addition, long term studies of marital satisfaction find that during the first years of marriage, life satisfaction declines. Later in marriage, however, satisfaction rises. This is small wonder. During the first years of marriage people merge their entire life with someone else. It stands to reason that after a while, the stress of adapting turns to satisfaction with sharing life's journey.
- Happy people get married more often than sad people. People who get married tend to rank themselves .25 points (on a 0-10 scale) higher on average before marriage than those who do not get married.
- The heritability of well being is thought to be between 50-80%. Stated another way, 50-80% of your day to day happiness level is thought to be genetically determined. This finding is referred to in the research literature as the "set point theory" (not to be confused with the identically named theory about weight loss). Where we are born, cultural aspects of life, demographics, age, gender, and ethnicity all account for a mere 8-15% of our total minute-to-minute happiness. So if you're an optimist, 42% of your happiness is in your hands. If you are a pessimist, you only have 5% to play with.
- Some of the big attitudinal factors that can positively affect happiness are: general optimism about life circumstances, an inclination to avoid social comparisons, and the tendency to feel a sense of optimism about one's life.
- Personal projects are worth pursuing. Accomplishing and continuing to accomplish projects and pursuits of personal importance have lasting effects on day to day happiness. Example: research has found that almost nobody regrets spending time developing skills or hobbies, even when the pursuit is discarded later and never resumed.
- People regret actions more in the present. People regret innaction more in the long term. Example: you are much more likely to regret going on a disastrous trip to Europe the week after returning, but in the long term you are much more likely to have regretted not going at all. One possible explanation for why this happens is that we over-emphasize the effects of ambiguous happiness (what could have been if we had gone to Europe) and minimize concrete badness (that train wreck we caused in Germany).
- We get happier with age, up until around 65, after which happiness tends to stabilize. Only in the very old (some studies suggest 95+) does day to day happiness decline.
- We don't end up regretting circumstances out of our control. Persons that have experienced polio and other life altering (but unavoidable) mishaps don't tend to list those events as regrets when asked. This should make you worry less: things beyond our control generally don't affect our long term happiness.
- Self control is a muscle. Presenting people with two tasks that require self control one right after another shows that the successful performance on the second task diminishes significantly. In other words, self control is a muscle that we can exhaust. This explains why alcoholics and dieters more often lapse when they are experiencing bad moods, frustration, and stress. Although theoretically possible, there isn't much empirical evidence that we can increase our self control with practice.
- It pays to be an extrovert. Extroversion as a personality trait correlates strongly with experiencing more positive interactions as well as achieving higher happiness stability. So for us introverts (myself included), developing your ability to be an extrovert appears to pay off.
- We sometimes overwhelmingly prefer to be less happy. Even though we may prefer eating a lollipop to eating spinach or broccoli, we tend to choose a mixture if presented the choice. This is strange because we enjoy repeated preferred experiences (the lollipop) more in the moment but less in retrospect. We prefer to sacrifice total happiness for higher retrospective happiness, even though studies show retrospective pleasure is by far less important to lifetime happiness than moment-to-moment enjoyment.
- Income expectations do not appear to effect happiness, ie, a person who grew up poor with expectations of continued poverty is not significantly more happy if they earn a lot of money. In addition, there is substantial evidence that income that exceeds $60,000/year doesn't make you any happier.
- People don't always prefer less pain. People care less about total pain (ie, how long a pain is experienced) and more about peak pain level, ending condition, and the time trend of the pain. Example: controlling for peak pain level and the result of the operation, people show no retrospective preference for a 4 minute colonoscopy or a 69 minute colonoscopy!
- The desire to get discomfort out of the way early and quickly appears to be a universal preference. People also tend to prefer sequences of events that end better than they start, even if the total sequence results in less overall happiness. If you offer someone a salary that increases from $35k-50k over a year as opposed to a salary that goes from $70k-50k, people will widely prefer the first, even though it earns them $35k less. The preference for best thing last changes according to a documented "Magnet Effect" which states that if events/decisions occur close enough in time we treat them like a sequence.
The above studies are just a sample of what I've been reading, and I expect to continue my research slowly in my free time. I will probably post here again when I have another batch of interesting nuggets. What I have learned is that there is growing momentum in the quest to increase human happiness and I am looking forward to learning ever more about how to make my life more enjoyable.
Gilovich, Thomas, and Victoria Husted Medvec. (1995). "The Experience of Regret: What, When, and why," Psychological Review 102(2), 379-395.
Kahneman, D., D.L. Frederickson, C.A. Schreiber, and D.A. Redelemeier. (1993). "When More Pain is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End," Pyschological Science 4, 401-405.
Loewenstein, George, and Drazen prelec. (1993). "Preferences for Sequences of Outcomes," Pyschological Review 100(1), 91-108.
Brunstein, J. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 1061-1070.
Charles, S. T., Reynolds, C.A., & Gatz, M. (2001). Age-related differences and change in positive and negative affect over 23 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 136-151.
Diener, E., Sandvik, E., Seidlitz, L., & Diener, M. (1993). The relationship between income and subjective well being: Relative or Absolute? Social Indicators Research, 28, 195-223.
Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247-259
Ratner, R.K., Kahn, B.E., & Kaneman D. (1999). Choosing less-preferred experiences for the sake of variety. Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 1-15.
Hill, C.T., & Peplau, L.A. (1998) Premarital predictors of relationship outcomes: A 15-year follow-up of the Boston Couples Study. IN T. Bradbury (Ed.), The Developmental course of marital dysfunction (pp. 237-278). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Brunstein, C. Joachim (1993) Personal Goals and Subjective Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 65, No. 5, 1061-1070
The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad, Daniel T. Gilbert, Matthew D. Lieberman, Carey K. Morewedge, and Timothy D. Wilson, 2004, American Psychological Society
Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want, Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, 2005 American Psychological Society
Thinking about Values in Prospect and Retrospect: Maximizing Experienced Utility, Joel Huber, John Lynch, Kim Corfman, Jack Feldman, Morris B. Holbrook, Donald Lehmann, Bertrand Mueir, David Schkade, Itamar Simonson
Events and Subjective Well-Being: Only Recent Events Matter, Eunkook Suh and Ed Diener, Frank Fujita, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996
Reexamining Adaptation and the SEt Point Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status, Richard E. lucas, Yannis Georgellis, Andrew E. Clark, Ed Diener, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003
Pursuing Happiness: the Architecture of Sustainable Change, Sonja Lyubomirksy, Kennon M. Sheldon, David Schkade, Review of General Psychology, 2005, Vol. 9 No. 2 111-131