News & Politics

Happiness Science

There's a scientific basis to the truism that money can't buy happiness.
I took a five-question happiness quiz, and it turns out I'm very satisfied but not overly so. If I start feeling down, the quiz advised, I should look inside myself for answers. No, I wasn't reading /Cosmopolitan/ or The quiz was part of a study by happiness researcher Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.

Over the past couple of years, happiness has come into vogue as an object of study. Everybody from renowned British economist Richard Layard to philosophers and neuroscientists have been weighing in on what happiness is and how we can make more of it. While neuroscience struggles to untangle the mystery of whether dopamine boosts our happiness and which parts of the brain are active when people report being happy, social science has an easy answer. Just ask.

Most studies of happiness are based on simple quizzes like Diener's. Like many psychologists, Diener assumes that people will be honest when asked how happy they are and that they can gauge their own happiness levels. Because there's no way to measure happiness objectively, most studies call self-reported happiness a form of "subjective well-being." It turns out that these subjective tests are quite revelatory.

Economist Layard published a book last year called /Happiness/ in which he discusses one of the surprising results of these tests: money doesn't make people happier. The only time people's subjective well-being rises as a result of cash is when the money takes them out of poverty. Middle-class people who become upper-class, however, don't report feeling any happier. In fact, happiness levels in the United States have remained steady since the 1950s, despite the fact that the nation itself has become much wealthier.

If money doesn't make us happy, Layard argues, we should be rethinking our priorities. Most people value happiness above all else, but they live in nations where progress and social good are equated with money. Why not value other things that might make us genuinely happy? After all, the Declaration of Independence promises that the government will safeguard its citizens' "pursuit of happiness." The problem is how to implement a pro-happiness policy.

You'd think there would be a lot of disagreement among scientists about what makes people happy, but in fact there are a few basic things everyone agrees lead to happiness. Strong, intimate relationships with others are integral to happiness, as is self-esteem in the face of setbacks. One of the big happiness killers turns out to be "keeping up with the Joneses," or comparing yourself to other people who are somehow better off than you.

People with a strong sense of self are less likely to engage in this kind of comparing and are also more likely to be stable, which is another ingredient in happiness. Philosopher Joel Kupperman points out in his recent book /Six Myths about the Good Life /that happiness isn't always the nice thing it's cracked up to be. There are clearly immoral kinds of happiness, such as enjoying murder. Then there's the problem of mistaking pleasure for happiness. Pleasure is fleeting and based on objects outside us (like good food or a movie or winning the lottery). It doesn't contribute to a sense of self-esteem. Taking pleasure in our hard-won accomplishments is more likely to lead to the good kind of happiness that builds self-reliance. One can even have too much happiness and never develop the emotional skills required to endure hardship or setbacks.

A healthy consciousness, Kupperman argues, isn't entirely happy. Indeed, he says, good philosophy should make its readers unhappy because it forces them to confront their ethical and logical vulnerabilities. I was relieved to read Kupperman's criticism of happiness, because Layard and many of his cohorts seem to take it for granted that happiness is a good thing. And this leads them down the thorny path of inventing policies to maximize happiness, such as (in Layard's case) preventing divorce, banning television, and handing out antidepressant drugs in even greater numbers than they are already.

It's good to know that there's a scientific basis to the truism that money can't buy happiness. But trying to legislate how people make themselves happy is an ethical and scientific dead end. All we can do is grant everyone the freedom to find fulfillment and enough money to bring them the happiness created by a relief from poverty. The rest is just subjective.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose happiness is bigger than yours.
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