“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole
aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle
Everyone wants to be happy. Like Aristotle, some would even say it’s our life’s purpose – to make ourselves and others happy. It is most certainly my main focus.
But what makes us happy? What can I do to make myself happier? We often hear that being present, in this moment, brings happiness. Remaining wholly present in the now prevents us from worrying about the future, facing regrets about the past, or judging our lives. Very rarely do we feel that in this particular moment, there is some distress that makes us unhappy. We talked a bit about the evidence behind this in the article Meditation: A Guide For Everyone. Meditating helps us keep our minds present, and is supposed to elevate our feelings of happiness.
What about having a good family, friendships, and close personal relationships in general? How about job satisfaction. Is it really all that important to our happiness?
How does money factor in? Can money buy happiness? As I will touch on later, the answer is not what you expect.
Instead of talking about what we feel works, or what we perceive to be true through our own intuition and philosophical reasoning, we’re going to be examining what the research says about happiness.
We’re going to look into the science of happiness. And more importantly, the science behind how to make yourself a happier person!
What is happiness?
What is happiness? I can ask you, “Are you happy?,” and you may answer, but there has to be a more sophisticated method than that, right? How do we even define happiness?
In science, happiness is often defined as overall life satisfaction. It was found that people who are more satisfied with their life tend to experience more moments with positive emotions (called positive affect) and fewer moments with negative emotions (called negative affect) (Diener et al., 1985a).
You accumulate positive affect when you experience positive emotions, like excitement, interest, and pleasure. The more of these experiences you have, the more satisfied you are with your life, and so the happier you are. You accumulate negative affect when you experience negative emotions, like anger, distress and fear. Those with high negative affect scores are less satisfied with their life, and so are less happy.
If you consider dividing someone’s positive affect by their negative affect to represent a person’s “well-being score,” this score would tell us about how satisfied they are with their life, and by extension, it would tell us how happy they are.
According to the research, happiness is 50% determined by genetics, 10% determined by outside circumstances, and 40% determined by intentional activities. This suggests that 50% of our overall happiness level is fixed. Luckily, we have 40% of it to play around with to make up some serious ground. And forget about the present circumstances that are beyond your control; they only count for 10%.
HOW HAPPY ARE YOU?
How do we measure our satisfaction with life? We can’t possibly go through and count over all of our positive and negative experiences. One of the simplest and nicest measures of happiness is the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) proposed by Diener et al. in 1985. Psychologists rely on this scale in their studies, and you can do it now, in under 2 minutes!
Before we get to that, I want to mention that this scale is believed to be accurate despite being self-reported because people are well aware of how much they enjoy their life (Veenhover, 1991).
Now for the test.
Below are five statements that you may either agree or disagree with to varying degrees. Using the 1-7 scale provided below, rate your agreement with each item by choosing the appropriate number for that item. Please be open and honest in your responses. There are no judgements here. The 7-point scale is as follows:
1 = strongly disagree
2 = disagree
3 = slightly disagree
4 = neither agree nor disagree
5 = slightly agree
6 = agree
7 = strongly agree
And here are the questions:
- In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.
- The conditions of my life are excellent.
- I am satisfied with my life.
- So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
- If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
Add up your scores you used for each question, and then consult the following legend:
30-35 Highly Satisfied. People in this category love their lives.
25-29 High score. People in this category like their lives.
20-24 Average Score. People in this category are satisfied with their lives.
15-19 Slightly below average. People in this category are slightly satisfied with their lives.
10-14 People in this category are dissatisfied with their lives.
5-9 People in this category are extremely dissatisfied with their lives.
Take a moment to reflect on your score. Is it what you expected? If not, why not? Were you being as honest as you could during your answers? Perhaps the score is surprising to you, but maybe upon reflection it makes sense. Either way, now you know how psychologists measure whether or not a person is happy.
BENEFITS OF BEING HAPPY
Being happy is a reward in and of itself, but there are several other interesting perks (not just for us, but for those we interact with, as well). People are more likely to help others (Isen and Levin, 1972) and perform well on a cognitive task if they are feeling happy (Fisher and Marrow, 1934). Many studies show that happy people live longer! Happy people also have more success in both work and love (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
Happy people are typically active, open minded, and feel in control of their lives (Veenhoven, 1991).
It’s time to get happy, wouldn’t you say?
HOW CAN YOU BECOME HAPPIER
The definition of happiness itself suggests that if we increase positive moments and decrease negative moments, we will become happier. It’s reasonable then to spend more time doing things that we enjoy, and less time doing things that we do not.
Since most of us spend much of our time at work, having a job we enjoy will greatly increase the number of positive moments we have, while simultaneously not increasing the number of negative moments. In fact, “job satisfaction is strongly and consistently related to subjective well being.” (Huerner and Diener, 2008) Also, the most important parts of a job are our intrinsic liking of the work itself, and our relationship with our co-workers – not our pay! (Agyle and Martin, 1991)
In reality, it can be trickier than just increasing the amount of time spent doing what we love. There is a negative force working against us. It is called the Hedonic Treadmill.
Originally proposed by Brickman and Campbell in 1971, the Hedonic treadmill describes our tendency to “quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill). So, for example, if you marry the person of your dreams, or buy a beautiful, big house, you quickly get used to this change and start taking it for granted. At the very least, you start thinking of these positive aspects of your life as normal.
Luckily, this is not only true of positive affects. People adapt to both positive and negative changes in their lives. Two studies by Brickman et al. in 1978 were conducted, one studied recent lottery winners and the other studied recent paraplegics. After one year, both groups returned close to their original happiness levels. However, the negative affect produced a longer lasting affect than the positive one.
We’ve all experienced this. Something good happens and we feel momentarily great, but when something bad happens we might mope around for a lot longer. Our exaggerated response to negative affects is called negativity bias. In 2001, Baumeister et al. showed that negative events have a stronger influence on our lives than positive ones.
“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his
happiness.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
MONEY AND THE HEDONIC TREADMILL
The poorer you are, the more money would help make you happier. Also, if you were to become filthy rich, so that you didn’t need to work any longer, then money can make you happy. Everywhere in-between, money is not very helpful. The hedonic treadmill takes care of it. Beyond a certain point, materialism distracts from happiness. Specifically, when more money comes at the expense of time with family, friends, and happy moments, then it doesn’t make use happier.
The super-rich (125 million or more) are much happier than the rest of us (Diener, 1985). But, they also don’t have to keep working at jobs that they don’t like. Money helps if you don’t have to earn it in a way that you don’t enjoy.
In 2011, Dunn et al. showed that money can make you happier, provided you spend it right, and if how you accumulate money does not induce too much negative affect in your life. Drawing on empirical research, they propose eight principles to get more happiness for your buck: (Dunn et al., 2011)
- Buy more experiences, and fewer material goods;
Instead of buying a new flat screen TV, go on a trip, see a show, or do something memorable. Experience something!
- Use your money to help others, instead of yourself;
Helping others is extremely rewarding, and increases the number of positive events in our lives!
- Buy many small pleasures, rather than fewer large ones;
This just makes sense. By buying a lot of small pleasures, we increase our positive affect by a larger number, and so increase our level of happiness.
- Eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance;
Don’t buy the extended warranties and insurance..
- Delay consumption;
For this, they mean don’t use credit cards. Pay now, in cash. If you can’t, delay your consumption until you can.
- Consider how peripheral features of your purchase may affect your day-to-day life;
We should consider the possible negative consequences behind consumption. For example, getting a pet requires a lot of work that we might not enjoy. Frequently we focus on the positive things behind consumption, without stopping to think about the negative. Another example would be purchasing a large house, and then not being able to afford furniture.
- Beware of comparison shopping; and
Comparison shopping may distract us from attributes of a product that will be important for happiness, focusing our attention instead on attributes that simply distinguish the available options.
- Pay close attention to the happiness of others.
Gilbert et al. in 2009 showed that the best way to predict how much we will enjoy an experience is to see how much someone else enjoyed it. Use that information, if it’s available.
The problem, it seems, may be in how we spend our money. So, heed their research advice, and spend wisely!
To further motivate you to spend wisely, consider that “although having material wealth appears to be related to happiness, strongly desiring it may be toxic. A growing body of research shows that attitudes of excessive materialism are associated with lower levels of subjective well-being, even among those who are relatively wealthy.” (Biswas-Diener, 2008) Campbell et al. attest to the importance to our happiness of family and marriage, followed closely by friendship (Campbell et al., 1976, Subjective Well-Being, pg. 82)
IMPROVING HAPPINESS BY MANIPULATING THE HEDONIC TREADMILL
“Happiness depends upon ourselves.” – Aristotle
In 2006, Diener showed that we adapt to positive and negative events at wildly different rates! While one person might be deliriously happy for months after winning the lottery, another person might return to normal after only a several weeks. Similarly, one person might grieve the loss of a relative for months, while another will grieve and be back to normal in a few days.
So, how can we extend the time we take to get over positive events, while shrinking the time it takes to move past negative ones? The research suggests that by finding meaning in negative events, and continuously searching for things to be grateful for, we can improve our Hedonic treadmill.
MOVING PAST NEGATIVE EVENTS QUICKLY
To speed up our adaptation to negative events, we need to find meaning in them. These events are often great learning opportunities. Search for a positive interpretation of negative events. Tennen and Affleck (2002) call it “benefit finding.” Even the most terrible events usually have at least a small positive side-effect, often that of learning. Tennen and Affleck showed that this technique helps speed up the adaptation process.
LINGERING ON THE POSITIVE – GRATITUDE
So how can we make those positive events in our lives last longer? Apparently, it’s as easy as showing gratitude. When we practice gratitude, we become consciously aware of how much good there is in our lives, which automatically improves how we judge the quality of our lives. With practice, gratitude can prolong the influence of positive events and how you judge your overall happiness.
In fact, gratitude exercises can do more than lift one’s mood. Emmons et al. found they improve physical health, raise energy levels and, for patients with neuromuscular disease, relieve pain and fatigue. “The ones who benefited most tended to elaborate more and have a wider span of things they’re grateful for.”
Lyubomirsky demonstrated one way of practising gratitude using a gratitude journal. The journal is a diary in which you write things for which you are thankful. Lyubomirsky found that taking the time to conscientiously count your blessings once a week significantly increases your overall satisfaction with life over a period of about six weeks.
Further studies by Emmon and McCullough (2003), Watkins et al. (2003), and Geble et al. (2004), all show that gratitude journalling and telling others about good things in our lives has a positive effect on our well being.
Before I sleep, I like to count 10 good things that have happened in my life, and 10 good things that happened that day. It makes me feel a lot better about my life, and I am often surprised at how many positive things happen in a single day! The first time I tried this exercise, I could hardly find even 5 things. The more I did it, the easier it became: both for finding positive things in my life as a whole, and in any given day. I also find it helps me relax and fall asleep easier.
“Gratitude is one of the sweet shortcuts to finding peace of mind and happiness inside. No matter what is going on outside of us, there’s always something we could be grateful for.”
- Barry Neil Kaufman
In case you’re interested, there are various products to be found for helping you keep a gratitude journal. You really don’t need one, but if you want, you can check out the following:
Also, I dug up some tips for writing in a gratitude journal. I hope they can answer any other questions you might have.
FINAL THOUGHTS – ADVICE RECAP
We covered a lot of information in this article, but it is by no means exhaustive. We didn’t really touch on meditation’s effect on happiness, which we previously wrote about in another article. Still, I hope you found the research both informative and insightful. If you didn’t manage to read it all, I want to recap some of the more important points.
To become happier, you should increase the number of moments you find exciting, interesting and pleasurable. This could involve changing jobs, though not necessarily.
Further, you should try to spend the money you do have more wisely. I presented research that gives 8 principles for using your money to increase your level of happiness.
Though it wasn’t touched on explicitly, having compassion and doing things for others gives us positive moments, and thus increases our level of happiness. We saw evidence of this when we talked about how you spend your money; spending it on others increases your happiness. The moments you spend with family and friends also contribute to the number of positive moments you experience, and thus increases your happiness.
When faced with a negative event, try to find something positive to take away from the experience. Usually, we can learn something from these events if we look hard enough. Doing this will help you move past negative events more quickly, so that they don’t have a lasting effect on your happiness.
Finally, keep a gratitude journal where you write down the things you are grateful for on a nightly, or even weekly, basis. Try writing 10 things you are grateful for in your life as a whole, and 10 things you are grateful for that happened that day/week. It may be hard at first, but it will get easier with time. By practising gratitude, studies suggest you can not only improve your mood (happiness), but also your physical health!
We’re all looking for ways to be happy. It seems to be a never-ending struggle at times. I firmly believe that our life’s purpose is to seek out ways to make ourselves and other people happy. We have presented you with what science knows to work to make you a happier person. It has worked for others, and it can work for you. If you try, put your mind to the task, and believe in yourself and what you are trying to do, then you will succeed. I believe in you all!
“What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.” – Dalai Lama
This concludes our first instalment of the “Science Of …” series! We hope you enjoyed it! We certainly learned a lot. Stay tuned for next week’s article: The Science of Love!
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