How to be happy

April 2, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

I often jump at the chance to report on new well-written articles regarding happiness, especially when they are based upon science rather than mere anecdotes.

Last year, I started a subscription to Scientific American Mind  It’s a well-written magazine that addresses lively and timely topics.  Be February-March 2007 issue contains an article entitled “Why It’s so Hard to Be Happy.” 

Why is it so hard?  After all (as the article points out), the buying power of average Americans has tripled since 1950, though we are not three times happier.  In fact, our children are more anxious.  Is happiness about achieving goals, for instance?  Apparently not.  The growing field of “positive psychology” shows that happiness

Is not something that can be achieved by hard work or good luck.  The happiest people seem to be those who are fully engaged in the present, rather than focused on future goals.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans have inherited “a remarkable capacity to habituate to, or become accustomed to, the status quo.”  While this is great when we are facing adverse conditions, it causes ongoing pleasant experiences to fade in the consciousness.  In fact, we seem to be especially well-tuned to notice dangers much more than pleasures. “The natural human condition is to take positive experiences for granted and to focus on the bothersome aspects of life.”  The article suggests that humans who were never satisfied had an survival advantage over their easily-satisfied peers. 

A twin study from 1996 indicates that 80% of the variation in happiness is attributable to genetic differences.  We have a “set-point” of happiness to which we return no matter what.  How do you recognize the people with “high setpoints of happiness”? They  have the following qualities: “more extroverted, friendly, trusting and conscientious.”  People with high setpoints for happiness also believed they have more control over their lives and they are less prone to anxiety and mood swings.

The authors rely on research to show that competing for wealth (which requires that we compare our own wealth with that of others) is “a recipe for unhappiness.”  They further suggest that this tendency to compare our own wealth with that of others “may be fueled by the mass media.”  To the extent that we are able to achieve our goals, habituation inevitably takes over and we return to our baseline level of happiness.  The authors also point out that even though there is a correlation between happiness and success, success is a consequence (rather than a cause), of happiness.  Happy people “have other personality traits that facilitate success.”  Happy people are also better motivated and achieve better cooperation from others.

The authors also comment on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written that experiences become “interesting and motivating for an individual because he or she becomes totally absorbed in them.”  In short, those in “the flow,” are fully engaged in what they are doing.

The authors include some bottom line advice on “How to Be Happier”:

  • Do not focus on goals
  • Make time to volunteer (working with those who are less fortunate helps you appreciate what you have)
  • Practice moderation
  • Strive for contentment (don’t equate happiness with peak experiences)
  • Practice living in the moment (spend less energy thinking about the past or future)

Here are some related posts:  Click here to take quick tests to check your happiness level.  Beware the paradox that too many choices reduce our level of happiness. Finally, when attempting to measure happiness, beware the focussing effect.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. gatomjp says:

    David Foster Wallace wrote an hilarious essay about happiness with regard to his experiences on a cruise ship in his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

    In it he describes the gaping maw of infantile want that opens up when all of our desires are met. The brochures for the cruise line enticed the vacationer with complete pampering and utter happiness. Even though they were able to deliver on their first promise, (there is almost nothing one has to do for oneself while on a cruise) the second was harder to achieve.

    Wallace noted that after the intial pleasure at having all of his needs instantly met wore off, a creeping dissatisfaction with even the slightest thing, a missing pat of butter at dinner for instance, began to outrage him beyond reason. He postulated that there is an innate level of unhappiness in every person, the "set-point" as the study in Erich's post suggests. A bottomless void that no amount of pampering can ever fill.

    I disagree with one thing in the Scientific American Mind article. Reaching for goals is very important for happiness, I believe. But it is not the ACHIEVING of those goals that make us happy. It is the working towards those goals that give satisfaction. You know the old saying, "It's not the destination, it's the journey." If you're not enjoying the journey, you sure as hell ain't gonna enjoy the destination.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Discussions of happiness are ancient. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, defined "happiness" as "activity in accordance with well defined virtue". I've always liked a link among happiness, activity and virtue. May all your days be filled with well defined virtuous activity!

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    "…we seem to be especially well-tuned to notice dangers much more than pleasures."

    Seems to me the above assertion would find considerable support from Darwin's theory of natural selection: humans who were especially well-tuned to notice dangers — both natural and interpersonal — probably had a considerable survival advantage over those who didn't.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Yes, but does the fact that Bush and the looney toon right scare the bejabbers out of me mean I'm more, or less, likely to survive?

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