I recently stumbled upon a book called The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, PhD (2000). The book offers quite a bit of solid commonsense advice. For instance:
- Cultivate friendships,
- Turn off the TV (“TV reduces personal contentment “by about 5% for every hour a day we watch”),
- Get a good nights sleep, and
- Money does not buy happiness.
Fair enough. Interspersed with the good advice, however, is quite a bit of advice with which I am not impressed. For instance,
Chapter 8: Accept yourself-unconditionally.
Chapter 12: Have realistic expectations.
Chapter 16: Believe in yourself.
Chapter 23: Belong to a religion.
Chapter 26: Root for a home team (a sports team).
Chapter 34 It’s not what happened; it’s how you think about what happened.
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Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate who has spent his long life making dozens of startling discoveries regarding judgment and decision-making. More recently, he has done considerable work in hedonic psychology. He recently appeared at TED to discuss the “The riddle of experience vs. memory.”[caption id="attachment_11875" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Nruboc at Dreamstime.com (with permission)"][/caption]
There is no person better qualified than Kahneman to describe how the human psyche is rife with “cognitive traps.” In this TED talk Kahneman explains that these traps “make it difficult to think about happiness.” One foundational problem is that humans tend to resist admitting complexity; happiness is a monolithic term for most of us. Kahneman states, however, that “happiness is no longer a useful word, in that it applies to many things. We need to completely give up the simple word “happiness” in order to effectively communicate. One of the biggest problems is that there is a huge confusion between experience and memory when it comes to determining happiness. The distinction is with A) happiness IN your life versus B) happiness ABOUT your life (or WITH your life). The problem with trying to determine one’s own happiness is exacerbated by the “focusing illusion.” The effect of this illusion is that “we can’t think about any circumstance that affects well-being without distorting its importance.” Kahneman gave an example of a friend who claimed that a scratching sound at the very end of a music recording ruins the entire experience. This is utter nonsense, since the scratching sound occurred only at the end of the recording. It didn’t ruin the entire experience. Rather, it ruined “the memory of the experience.” Human beings consist of two selves: the experiencing self (who lives in the moment) and the remembering self (who keeps score and maintains the story of our lives, selecting and maintaining our memories. For the remembering self, a critical part of any story is how it ends. If it ends badly, the memory of the entire experience is contaminated (In this video, Kahneman describes earlier studies regarding colonoscopies which dramatically illustrated this point). Time is a funny thing for human beings. For our experiencing self, a two-week vacation is twice as good as a one-week vacation. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation might not be any better than a one-week vacation–”time has very little impact on the story” for the remembering self.
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In the January 29, 2010 issue of Science (available online only to subscribers), Richard Layard considers whether subjective reports are valid ways of measuring the well-being of a population. After all, we’ve been hearing some rather extraordinary findings of studies over the years based upon subjective happiness. For instance, studies consistently show that higher national income does not increase “quality of life,” (defined by subjective happiness). In fact, based on studies relying on subjective judgment, there has been no increase in happiness over the past 50 years in the United States.
Layard asks a fundamental question: “Can subjective well-being really be measured well enough to be used in policy analyses?” Even though the science of measuring happiness is “very young,” Layard indicates that subjective measures of happiness are well correlated with at least five relevant sets of variables:
The reports of friends; the possible causes of well-being; some possible effects of well-being; physical functioning, such as levels of cortisol; and measures of brain activity.
There is good reason to be optimistic that we will get better at measuring happiness. “Fifty years ago, there was considerable debate on how to measure depression, but by now this has become much less controversial in all likelihood, the measurement of happiness will become similarly less controversial.”
As we fine-tune our methods of measuring of subjective happiness, Layard believes we will be better able to monitor trends of happiness, we will deal to identify problem groups within populations and we will be better able to determine why some people are happy and others are not. Better measurements will certainly allow us determine quality of life better than the many efforts to do so in terms of money.
What’s at stake according to Layard? As we leave behind our crude financial measurements of the quality of life and continue to develop better methods of measuring subjective happiness, “it will produce very different priorities for our society.”
I recently came out of an emotional bad spell – emerging from it felt a lot like hitting the surface after you’ve been underwater just a little too long. This spell of anxiety/fear/depression/whatever it was taught me more than usual because it happened smack dab after I had a really awesome year business wise. I was on a high. Things were so good I had to go buy a suit so I could go to Las Vegas and get an award for being so awesome. That is important to note not because getting an award is important (but it is kind of cool, right?) but because of what happened after the award.
Intellectually I knew that all the activity I had in the funnel would end, and I’d be back in building mode. I knew it and even tried to prepare myself for the letdown. My business is cyclical – I know that. And I like building mode. Building mode is how one gets to closing mode. I just had a run of especially good fortune and my building mode was a distant memory, which I knew was not such a great thing for me. In the midst of my crazy happy frenetic good luck mode, I tried to prepare for what would come after the constant activity of balancing all the stuff in the hopper died down. I know how I can be – I get squirrley sometimes, so I tried to prepare.
There is a saying: “Trying lets us fail with honor.” I failed. I’m not sure I had any honor, either.
“I woke up one morning and I was scared. Not just a little scared, either. I was in full-on panic mode. I remember thinking, “Dammit, Lisa, this is exactly what you worked to prevent.” Yep it sure was. In my defense, I had a crazy end of September/October. We had family in from out of town (stressful), my Mom had spine surgery (surprisingly stressful), the foster greyhound we rescued need to be carried up and down our stairs in order to go outside (it takes both of us – constantly coordinating schedules is stressful), I bought a car (consumerism is, for me, fraught with drama, tension and guilt – stressful, but I sure like the car) and Ginger decided to feng shui our bedroom. Not only was I going through something hard, I had to do it with our bed facing a new and opposite wall. Things like that do bad things to me. I spent an entire sleepless night focused on whether the bed facing the other direction was symbolic of me never closing another deal. During that mental wrestling match I started doubting my employ-ability (I only have one suit!!) and by morning I had tearfully decided my only option was to make this thing work or I’d end up living in a paper box. I went to bed scared, I woke up panicked and I think Ginger wanted to throttle me (I wanted to throttle me).
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What makes people happy? On quite a few occasions, I’ve posted at DI with regard to ideas that I learned through reading various books and articles (a search for “happiness” in the DI search box will give you dozens of articles). What does that reveal about me, I wonder?
Today, I had the pleasure of reading an extraordinarily thoughtful article on this same topic: “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk appears in the June 2009 edition of The Atlantic. You’ll find an abridged edition of the article here.
Shenk’s article is anchored by the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest running longitudinally study of mental and physical well-being in history. It was begun in 1937 in order to study “well-adjusted Harvard sophomores (all male), and it has followed its subject for more than 70 years.” The study was originally known as “The Grant Study,” in that it was originally funded by W.T. Grant. Despite all odds, the study has survived to this day–many of the subjects are now in their upper 80′s. Along the way, the study was supplemented with a separate study launched in 1937 dedicated to studying juvenile delinquents in inner-city Boston (run by criminologists Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck).
You’ll enjoy Joshua Shenk’s work on many levels. He writes with precision, providing you with a deep understanding of the featured longitudinal studies. You will also enjoy his seemingly effortless ability to spin engaging stories (there are dozens of stories within his article) and his exceptional skill at crafting highly readable prose. I’m writing this post as a dare, then. Go forth and read Shenk’s article and I guarantee that you will be thoroughly enriched and appreciative.
The Atlantic also provided a video interview of George Vaillant, now 74, who since 1967 has dedicated his career to running and analyzing the Grant Study. As you’ll see from Shenk’s article, Vaillant is an exceptional storyteller himself. The Atlantic article, then, might remind you of one of those Russian dolls, and that is a storyteller telling the story of another storyteller who tell stories of hundreds of other storytellers. For more than 40 years, Vaillant has not only gathered reams of technical data, but he has poured his energy into interviewing the subjects and their families and melding all of that data into compellingly detailed vignettes of the subjects. Telling stories is not ultimately what the study was supposed to be about, of course, and Vaillant also tells us what those stories mean for the rest of us. Truly, what makes people happy? Vaillant offers answers that you will be tempted to immediately apply to your own situation.
Vaillant has a lot to say about “adaptations,” how people respond to the challenges they face in life. As a Shenk explains,
I’ve often heard about “flow,” but never from the man who was personally responsible for developing the theory: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”).
For the first part of his lecture, you’ll hear that beyond the poverty level, money and material things don’t increase happiness.
From there, Csikszentmihalyi describes a state that brings great happiness. He noticed this state in many people who do things intensely and for long stretches, but not for fame or fortune. He presents a few case studies of such people before getting down to the theory itself (he discusses the seven characteristics of flow starting at about 14:00).
Flow envelopes one in what seems to be an alternative reality where one seems to lose awareness of one’s own existence, yet experiences awe and wonder, and where one’s high level of skill dovetails well with the challenges presented in what seems to be a timeless state. Not everyone can get to this level. It requires a high degree of skill that doesn’t come without at least ten years of honing one’s craft, whether it be music, engineering or anything else requiring a high level of training.
What is the opposite of flow? Apathy. What’s a good way to trigger apathy? Engage in an activity that requires little or no skill and no challenge. What’s the best way to become apathetic according to Csikszentmihaly? Watching television (he comments that only 7% of television shows are capable of triggering flow).
What is the challenge of life, according to Csikszentmihaly? To figure out “how to put more of life into the flow channel”
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 [...]