How’s that for a topic? This week’s blog post was inspired by the cover of the July 15 edition of Time magazine, titled “The Pursuit of Happiness.”
A very fundamental issue when discussing or analyzing happiness is: exactly what is meant by happiness? Is it feeling optimistic (which is the metric used by some of the survey results included in the article)? Satisfied? Seeing opportunity? Having a sense of purpose? Peaceful? Superior? Joyful? Secure? Satiated? In the flow?"
A second issue: how do we differentiate short-term, or even momentary, happiness from the more stable, longer-term feeling that life is under control, or that things are going the right way? How important is it that we even do so?
I think it IS important. And I also think that macro factors related to our evolving culture (both cultural and technological) are subtly shifting our emphasis to the shorter term.
Whether we’re looking at the rising use of texting and Twitter, the ascendancy of quarterly earnings per share, the prevalence of instant lotto, the speed at which younger people converse, or the frequency of cuts in MTV videos, the world is speeding up. In this environment it is easy to weigh short-term happiness more and more heavily; our attention is increasingly drawn away from the longer-term “how do I feel in general?”
Yet the people with whom I interact that are the most happy (and here I mean most satisfied with their lives, most relaxed) are people who have a sense of CONTROL. Not seeking to control, but possessing that sense of control. Or, ironically, those who have given up entirely the notion of trying to control and "go with the flow" (spiritually stated that would be "All is in the hands of God.")
Trying to control the outside world can be very frustrating. What can be controlled, though (with practice) is your interior world, the world where you make sense of things. As you become more adept at shifting your thoughts so as to minimize negativity, and notice/emphasize the positives in your life, you begin to experience more frequent stretches of happiness, and of longer duration.
A principle point made in the article is that the road to happiness is often a road paved with money.. And this point is not limited to simply earning enough to cover the basics. It suggests that increases in income at most all levels results in a greater level of happiness. To quote the article: “We’ve learned that one balm can fix it all: money. Never mind what you’ve been taught to the contrary, money can indeed buy happiness...”
I am suspicious of the conclusion for several reasons, my suspicion supported by the sloppy use of statistics throughout the article and the fact that the research cited comes from less-than-agendaless sources (e.g. The Economist magazine). I get into the questionable data in some detail in the footnote below. However, leaving aside the arguments about the saliency of income as a contributor to happiness, I’d like to close by pointing out a few other factors singled out by the article (and a few added by me) that it’s important to keep in mind:
1.For many people, a major factor in their happiness relates to how they compare with those they consider their peers. Just yesterday I was on the phone with a new client who stated “I’m satisfied with the amount of money I’m making, it’s more than my peers.”
2.“Money can make you happy, but it’s about how you spend it.” Namely, acquiring things (cars, houses, boats, jewelry, etc,) is far less likely to contribute to a more-than-momentary surge of joy than is acquiring experiences (trips/vacations).
3.The use of social media, broadly speaking, appears to decrease happiness as measured by general satisfaction with one’s position in life.
4.Two major contributors to happiness are completely unrelated to money: faith (as in religion or spirituality) and social connections (good romantic and spousal relationships, friendships, healthy family interactions). Nearly half of regular worshippers say they’re very happy, compared with 26% of those who seldom or never attend religious services. And nearly twice as many married couples say they’re “very happy” compared to singles.
5.What about having kids? The data here is somewhat murky, and it's a very complex subject in that the answer depends on so many variables: age of kids, age of parents, gender of parent, the adult split of child-rearing responsibilities, the temperament of the kids, how many kids in total one has. My net takeaway from all that I've read is that having children does indeed make one happier over a lifetime, but there are likely to be stretches of significant unhappiness (especially when the kids are adolescents). Grandparenting is great, however.
6.Altruism: Studies have shown that people who volunteer are more satisfied with their lives and less likely to be depressed.
FOOTNOTE: First, let me apologize in advance for the attention I am going to pay to the “facts” presented in the article, but the way popular media present information is a pet peeve of mine. I was particularly startled by how fast and loose Time played with the research cited in this particular article. For example, on page 27 the article stated that the U.S. ranked 23rd in happiness out of 50 countries measured in the 2012 World Happiness Report published by Columbia University, behind Iceland, New Zealand and Singapore, among others (actually, Singapore ranks 7th in the study). Yet on page 36 the statement is made that Singapore “...is home to the world’s least positive-minded population”. And the article proudly proclaims the demise of the Easterlin Paradox (don’t fret - I had never heard of it either); the finding that there is a threshold beyond which increases in income produce no commensurate increase in subjective well being. Time states that the Paradox, upon closer examination, does not in fact exist, and that happiness is indeed related to income; to quote the article “there is no such thing as growing numb to money.” A statement is made that “workers making $150,000 are twice as likely to say they’re very happy as people making $20,000 or less. But a study of 40,000 people conducted by CareerBliss magazine found that people making more than 300,000 per year were only 10% happier than people earning under $40,000. Finally, how to explain the fact that average per capita income in the U.S. has tripled since 1960 with virtually no increase in overall happiness? One last beef: most of the statistics cited by Time relate to people who claimed to be “very happy.” My guess is that the number of people claiming that is pretty low in any group you care to measure. I’m curious as to what the #s look like if people who responded just plain old “happy” were included.