How Happy Are You ?

Researchers say many people have no idea what will bring them joy and contentment.The best advice: Live for today.

Health & Fitness

March 21, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

You just think you know what will make you happy. Researchers in the new science of happiness know better. They have evidence that married people on average end up being no happier than they were before the wedding. Winning the lottery will probably reduce your pleasure in the ordinary events that used to make you happy. And being in good health isn't as much of a factor as the right genes when it comes to life satisfaction.

Depressing, isn't it?

Well, there is one bit of good news: Research from around the world suggests that most people are happy, not unhappy. "It's one of the things we're absolutely sure about," says Michigan psychologist Richard Lucas.

Maybe it's the uncertain economic climate, or maybe it's the war in Iraq. But joy seems to be a very hot topic right now.

Both Self and Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O, have articles this month on how to be happier. (The Oprah story mentions life-changing tools and, of course, pretty new shoes). Self-help books on the subject are multiplying out of control. Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois and a pioneer in the field, says he now gets a hundred e-mails a day from people who want to talk to him about happiness.

You might wonder why scientists would make such a fuzzy concept as happiness a subject for laboratory research, until you realize this: If you study happiness, you can give your subjects Palm Pilots and beep them randomly to ask them how happy they are at that moment.

Doesn't that sound like more fun than studying clinical depression?

Plus, you might be able to figure out, as Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness (Simon & Schuster, 2002), says, "how to increase the total tonnage of happiness in the world."

A couple of years ago, Seligman and Diener studied 222 Illinois college students to find out what the happiest 10 percent had in common. It turned out they were extroverts, had more friendships and romantic ties, but didn't exercise more, weren't more religious, and didn't feel they had more good events in their lives than those who weren't as happy. No real surprises there, but like other research in the field, it produced a bit more hard data.

"It's amazing how long happiness has been a problem, but how recently science has turned its attention to it," says Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor of psychology. "It's only been in the last 10 years that what was a hobby of a few has become a central focus in psychology."

Some of the results of this focus, frankly, fall into the "well, duh" category. (Example: Optimistic people are happier.) But some come as a surprise. A classic study of lottery winners and people with spinal cord injuries, for instance, found that neither event changed their lives as much as observers thought they would.

Forecasting joy

Gilbert is looking into how accurately people predict what will make them happy. It turns out, not accurately at all. What we think will bring us pleasure -- a new car, the Terps winning an NCAA championship, a move to California -- usually doesn't bring us as much as we expected, and the positive impact doesn't last as long. (The good news is that we also overestimate the impact of catastrophic events.)

Why that matters, of course, is that we base our present actions on our inaccurate predictions, which makes the Buddhist philosophy of living in the now look pretty good. As Gilbert says, "The future spoils the present."

"The first thing to realize," he adds, "is that you could know exactly what would be in your future and not know how you'll feel about it."

So is there any way to be more accurate in predicting how happy we'll be?

Yes, says Gilbert, "but almost no one wants to do it."

His research has shown that information about how other people felt about an event is pretty accurate in predicting how you'll feel. But almost all of his subjects preferred to rely on their own projections, "even though they're fraught with error."

Curbing desire

The great thing about scientific research, of course, is that there's always someone who has a different spin on the data. Enter University of Southern California professor Richard Easterlin, another pioneer -- this time in economics --who was writing about happiness and money as early as the '70s. In 1970, the average level of happiness was about the same as it was in the '40s, even though Americans' average income would buy about 60 percent more. (Since then the percentage of people who describe themselves as "happy" in Gallup polls has stayed pretty much the same.)

Easterlin has found that getting more stuff won't bring us happiness, a statement that sounds as if it also falls in the well, duh category -- but the fact is, few of us believe it. What's more, Easterlin thinks he knows why.

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