7 key lessons from the happiness research

7 key lessons from the happiness research

Even the Wall Street Journal has developed an interest in happiness! I hope you enjoy these 7 happiness tips…

What’s at the Heart of Happiness?

August 26, 2007

No, happiness isn’t a lottery ticket away.

I am fascinated by academic studies of human happiness, because they bring scientific rigor to issues we all grapple with. We think more money will make us happier and yet studies suggest Americans are no more satisfied than they were three decades ago, when the standard of living was much lower.

So if winning the lottery won’t do the trick, what will? Here are seven key lessons from happiness research. It is indeed possible to boost our happiness — but it’ll take more than a fat wallet.

1 What matters is what we focus on.

Those with higher incomes aren’t necessarily happier. But when asked how satisfied they are with their lives, high earners are more likely to say they’re happy.

Why? The question makes them ponder their position in society — and they realize they’re pretty lucky. The implication: If you have a hefty portfolio or hefty paycheck, you can probably bolster your happiness by regularly contemplating your good fortune.

Meanwhile, if you are less well off, avoid situations where you feel deprived — and seek out those where comparisons are in your favor. Rather than buying the cheapest house in a wealthy neighborhood, settle for a town where people have similar salaries. When you think about your net worth, forget your well-heeled sister and focus on your cash-strapped brother.

2 Don’t go it alone.

Studies have found that married folks are happier than those who are single.

“Marriage provides two sources of happiness,” says Andrew Oswald, an economics professor at England’s Warwick University. “One is sex and the other is friendship. Marriage has one of the largest impacts on human well-being.”

Similarly, spending time with friends can boost happiness. Studies indicate that commuting is one of life’s least enjoyable activities, that looking after the kids is more of a struggle than we like to admit and that eating is one of life’s great pleasures.

But all of these things can be enhanced by adding friends. Commuting with others will make the trip less grim, playing with the kids will be more fun if there’s another adult along and eating with others is better than eating alone.

3 We like to feel secure.

Midlife is a period of relative unhappiness. This dissatisfaction may stem from the lack of control felt by those in their 40s, as they juggle raising children and the demands of work.

By contrast, employees in senior positions, retirees and those with good job security often report being happy. One explanation: They have greater control over their daily lives.

“There’s a profound link between insecurities of all kinds and human well-being,” Prof. Oswald notes. ‘supervisors are happier than those who are supervised. Job loss is an enormous negative and job security is an enormous plus to mental health.”

4 We enjoy making progress.

Studies suggest we prefer leisure to work. But that doesn’t mean work is always a source of unhappiness. We like the feeling of performing a job competently and being in the flow of work.

“There are definitely better and worse jobs,” says David Schkade, a management professor at the University of California at San Diego. “If you’re in the flow more often, that’s going to be a better job.”

But Prof. Schkade says work’s real pleasure may come from the sense of accomplishment we feel afterward. “We know progress makes people feel good,” he says. “You should design a life where you have that feeling of progress.”

Work also has the benefit of making leisure seem sweeter, Prof. Schkade adds. This may be the reason seniors who set out solely to relax and have fun are often disappointed by their retirement.

5 We adapt to improvements.

In pursuit of progress, we strive for faster cars, fatter paychecks and winning lottery tickets.

Yet, when we get what we hanker after, we quickly become dissatisfied and soon we’re lusting after something else. Academics refer to this as the “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation.”

We may, however, be able to slow the process of adaptation. If we go out and celebrate our recent promotion, we will hang onto the good feelings for a little longer. If we bought a house last year, we may recover some of the initial thrill by pausing to admire our new home.

We should also think about how we spend our money. It seems we get more lasting happiness from experiences than goods.

If we buy a new car, it will eventually go from being our pride and joy to being a scruffy set of wheels with an irritating rattle. But if we spend our money on meals with friends or vacations with family, we will be left with fond memories that may grow even fonder with time.

6 We also adapt to setbacks.

While adaptation can work against us when good things happen, it saves us from misery when bad times strike. If a close friend dies, we imagine we will never laugh again. But adaptation rides to the rescue.

Oddly enough, it seems we adjust more quickly if a setback is large or irreversible. If we become disabled, we will likely adapt with surprising speed. If our spouse is a slob, we may never get used to it.

One reason: We figure there’s still a chance our spouse will change his or her slovenly ways.

7 We enjoy behaving virtuously.

If we volunteer, give to charity or behave politely, we usually feel pretty good.

Pure altruism? It may, instead, be our ancient instincts kicking in. Good behavior paid big dividends in ancient societies, notes Boston money manager Terry Burnham, co-author of “Mean Genes.”

“Virtue is built into us because virtue was rewarded,” he argues. “In small-scale societies, where you are well known, there are rewards for being a good citizen and severe punishments for being a rule breaker.”

Still, whatever our true motivation, behaving virtuously is almost always a good thing — and it will likely make us happier.

Jonathan Clements also writes the “Getting Going” column that appears Wednesdays in The Wall Street Journal. Write to him at: jonathan.clements@wsj.com.