Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Who is Happy and Why?

Some people are cheerful, optimistic, loving and sociable. Others are they dour, critical, pessimistic and unsociable. We each have a genetic set point usually somewhere between these extremes. We know this because identical twins will report remarkably similar feelings of happiness even if raised in separate environments. Obviously our life circumstances and our choices can make a difference in our happiness. But what does research say about the factors that will make that difference?

Most people immediately think “if only I had twenty percent more income then I would be happy.” Income is increasingly either the most desired goal in life or one of the most important goals. Well, real personal income doubled from 1957 to 1990 and there was no difference at all in happiness as surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center. What happens when people do get that twenty percent increase? It does make a difference – for a few weeks. We quickly become acclimated to the new income level and then we want to get the next twenty percent increase.

The same thing happens to big lottery winners. They might be vastly richer than they were before but it seldom makes any difference in long term happiness. Money makes a difference to happiness primarily if there a lack of critical life resources such as food, clothing, shelter and required medical care. This does not mean that we should not try to get more money. This just means that we should not expect additional money to create greater happiness.

What factors do create happiness? In my reading of the research there are three factors that seem most important.

Happy people almost universally have a rich network of personal relationships and they spend a large proportion of their time with other people. This makes a lot of sense when we consider the evolutionary history of humanity. Humanity evolved in a life with small tribal groupings of hunter/gatherers. Food gathering, preparation and child rearing worked better within a band that was working together. Hunting had a greater chance of success if it were done with a band of men working together. The tribal group was critical to survival and the vast majority of one’s time was spent with group members.

Modern society is a bit different. Our extended families are vanishing and when we go hunting for filet mignon we don’t need six of our best buddies to help out.

Martin Seligman is the leader of a Positive Psychology group and a very visible advocate for my second important factor. He and his colleagues say one of the most important things to do is to find what your strengths are and spend much of your time using those strengths. There is a deep gratification that comes from being totally engrossed in some task that demands our focused attention. This makes sense. When our ancestors did this in our evolutionary history the results were typically quite good for those ancestors and their immediate group.

Meditation seems to be a specialized example of this focused attention. If one has such focused attention there is no room for the internal critic that seems central to the creation of depression. The focused attention itself implicitly places a positive value on the self that engages in that focused attention.

The research also seems to indicate that everyone should include our capacity for vigorous physical activity in our list of strengths to be utilized. Those that do that will substantially increase the likelihood of a positive sense of well being.

Modern society does not design jobs based on what would optimally engage our unique strengths. Companies have their tasks to accomplish and they have no reason to care about what tasks would be gratifying for us. And then when people get home what do they do? Most of our free time is spent in front of the boob tube.

A third important factor is to do something to make the world better for others. Many researchers presume that being generous toward others by definition will reduce the fitness of the generous person. A reduction in resources to them translates into a reduced ability to provide for oneself and one’s immediate family. They see a big problem in understanding how a spirit of generosity will evolve. Why would it be important to have this generosity of spirit?

In a tribal group there was no money. If you are wealthy in the sense that you had excess meat from a hunt, the best place to store your surplus would be the stomachs of others. The meat would spoil if you did not do this. Your wealth then becomes your enhanced status within the group and the expectation that people will reciprocate when you were in need.

It is a bit more complex than just that. Death by violence was extremely frequent in human prehistory. It was so common that during much of human evolution there were not enough men for the women. Polygamy became very common. Who got the additional women? The high status men that gained that status because they found pleasure in being generous. The higher status within the group gave the man with a generous spirit a significant advantage in the competition for the women. It makes sense that this generosity of spirit would become hard wired into our genes.

Seligman claims that there is a tenfold increase in clinical depression compared with our grandparents generation and that rampant individualism is responsible. An important part of this is the lack of wider meaning when there is no attachment to something that is larger than we are. Without wider meaning a personal failure of any form has greater impact.

In conclusion, it is my position that we are hard wired to be happy. However, we have to live a life that is consistent with that wiring. We must nurture a rich network of personal relationships. We must find ways to use our strengths in activities that are deeply engaging and we must find meaning in life by finding some way to work for the wider good.