Social Scientists Discover Some New Answers -- and Several Old Ones What makes us happy?

March 26, 1995|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence enshrined forever our inalienable right to pursue happiness.

The tricky part, it turns out, is figuring out which way to run in order to catch it.

To find out, social scientists in the past 10 years have turned "happiness" research into a minor growth industry, with nearly 800 separate investigations into the dark mysteries of happiness.

They have discovered that much of what we thought we knew about the sources of happiness and unhappiness in our lives is wrong. On the other hand, a lot of our old folk wisdom turns out to be right.

"By asking who is happy, and why, we can help people rethink their priorities and better understand how to build a world that enhances human well-being," said Dr. David G. Myers. He is a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and author of a book on the subject: "The Pursuit of Happiness" (Avon, 1993).

He has collaborated with Dr. Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, to review the findings of 100 of the latest studies. Their report is published in the current issue of Psychological Science, the journal of the American Psychological Society. This new scientific interest in what makes people happy, they said, is a notable switch from what had been a long history of research into the dimensions of depression, anxiety and other negative emotions.

"Part of it may be that, in the Western world, we've achieved a sufficient level of affluence that we can now indulge thinking about the good life," Dr. Myers said. "We can do studies not just of objective well-being -- economic and physical -- but having attained that, we can move on to subjective well-being."

Perhaps the biggest surprise to surface from the research is how weak the link really is between objective and subjective well-being -- that is, between our tangible circumstances in life and our inner happiness.

Consider this:

* An annual survey of more than 200,000 entering college freshmen found that 75 percent of them in 1993 declared that "being very well-off financially" was an "essential" or "very important" goal in their lives. In fact, it was the highest-ranked of 19 life goals that included such things as raising a family or achieving professional goals.

Strikingly, that 75 percent figure is nearly double the 39 percent who felt that way in 1970.

"Over time, we've become much more enamored of the Robin Leach idea of happiness," Dr. Myers said.

But while we may believe that getting money is the same as achieving happiness, scientific studies of the matter say it's not so. Once we have enough for the basics of life, the research suggests, more money does not buy more happiness.

In America, our real income has doubled since 1957, but we aren't any happier, the studies show. And while people in richer countries generally are a little happier than those in poorer countries, wealth is a weaker predictor of happiness than the number of years people have lived in continuous democracy.

"Rich countries tend to be democratic," Dr. Myers said. "But within the affluent countries of the world, the correlation between personal income and happiness has shriveled to a modest correlation."

Even those people rolling in dough -- big lottery winners and those on Forbes magazine's list of the wealthiest Americans -- get no guarantees. "After a time of adaptation to their wealth," Dr. Myers said, "they are not noticeably happier than middle-class people."

Other things that aren't so

Many of our other assumptions are just as wrong. For example:

* Don't assume that people much older or younger than you are, or of the opposite sex, must be happier or more miserable than you. A 16-nation study in the 1980s found that about 80 percent of us are at least "fairly satisfied" with life, no matter what our age or gender.

* Race doesn't seem to matter much either -- disadvantaged or otherwise. African-Americans, for example, are nearly as happy on average as European-Americans, and less vulnerable to depression.

In their review of the research, Drs. Myers and Diener have also flagged some of the characteristics common to happy people.

"In study after study," they said, "four inner traits mark happy people: self-esteem, a sense of personal control, optimism and extroversion."

What's not clear, however, is whether these things are the cause of happiness, or the effect. Studies of twins in 1988 suggest there may also be a genetic influence on an individual's sense of well-being.

Other things that scientists have identified as sources of happiness only confirm a lot of common assumptions or folk wisdom:

* Intimate relationships: A series of studies in the 1980s found that "people who can name several intimate friends with whom )) they share their intimate concerns freely are healthier, less likely to die prematurely and happier than people who have few or no such friends," the journal article said.

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