The Pursuit of Happiness

By Marc Resnick:

As many of you know by now, I am a dedicated reader of the happiness literature.  Not the touchy-feely stuff, but the real academic scholarship on the subject.  Despite large individual differences, there are several insights that are consistent around the world.

The old stuff you may already know.  In brief, long term happiness is frequently based on who you are comparing yourself to, which is usually one or more of the following:

  • your work and life community (office, church, neighbors),
  • celebrities (which us unhealthy because they are all rich and beautiful),
  • your own past (the most memorable parts, which are often extremes of the good and bad),
  • the previous generations you can remember (parents, and for some of us grandparents).

This is why when national GDP or standards of living are growing fast, we tend to be happier, but then if it  plateaus, we lose that extra happiness.  It’s not being well off that makes you happy, its comparative well-being that matters.

Some new research I have been reading lately adds to this.  They discovered that we are more likely to habituate to some happy experiences than others.  For example, when something is constant (the size of your home), you get really happy when you first move in, but then that happiness wears down as you get used to the new house.  On the other hand, the length of your commute is hit or miss because of traffic, accidents, etc.  So moving to a house that has an easier/shorter commute makes you happy for a much longer time, although the initial boost is not as large.  One challenge of this is that human cognition is very focused on instant gratification.  So the big initial boost of happiness from the big house usually dominates our choice of where to live.  So we pick the option that gives us more short term happiness but less long term happiness.

This study also looked at easy to measure things v hard to measure things.  If your happiness is more focused on the past (your own or generational comparisons), measurable things are more effective.  The size of your or your parents’ TV in the 1980s will never change.  And it is probably bigger now.  So the comparison is favorable and the happiness boost will be more consistent.  But if your happiness is more focused on the present (community or celebrity), then measurable things are not effective.  Celebrities’ TVs will always be bigger than yours (just watch “Cribs” once to see what I mean).  And at least one of your neighbors will always be boasting about his new big screen high-def TV.  The ones with the small ones keep their mouths shut, so all we usually hear about are the ones that are bigger than ours and the comparison is not happy.

On the other hand, unmeasurable things can really make you happy, even comparing to your neighbors.  So for example, volunteering at a local charity.  You feel good about it and your neighbors can’t really do it “better.”  Or watching a good TV show (often with celebrities in it and maybe even watching with your neighbors).  Everyone gets the same options and people all have different tastes.  Listening to music, reading a good book, etc have the same effect.  People who enjoy these are happier because they are not always comparing to others.  The study uses the example of investing in a better heating system for our home or in jewelry.  The heating system will give you more long term happiness, but the jewelry gives you more instant gratification, so you are more likely to think jewelry will make you happier. We buy the jewelry, but actually the heater would give us more long term happiness.

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