What Is Happiness?

This post is about happiness.  And it is probably going to be one of my most reflective posts in a while.  From an academic perspective, happiness has been confusing to me for several years now.  So, over the past few months I have made an effort to start familiarizing myself with the “happiness literature” to see if scientific research has made any progress in understanding human happiness.  What I discovered was that researchers over the past few decades have been equally puzzled by human happiness.

Trying to be happy is something of importance to all humans.  Why is it so hard to figure out what maximizes happiness?  As it turns out, many of the things that we are socialized to believe make us happy, tend to not correlate with actual happiness when measured by social scientists.  For example, psychologist Dan Gilbert conducted an experiment to find out the difference in happiness between two groups of people that most people would expect to be very happy or very unhappy.  The two groups he surveyed were lottery winners and paraplegics.  What he discovered was that both groups were equally happy a year after either winning the lottery, or losing a limb.  These results are bizarre to me.  Gilbert believes his data show us that we are socialized to believe that material wealth will make us quantitatively happier people, but that in reality, it has little to no effect on actual long-term happiness.  Gilbert has found that happiness has some form of correlation with variables we would expect (i.e., career success, relationship stability, comfortable home, expensive cars, etc.), but that overall they cannot truly determine happiness.

Two Types of Happiness?

But what type of happiness was Gilbert measuring?  Is there only one type of happiness?  Or are there several types of happiness?  Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman believes that researchers studying happiness have been approaching it the wrong way.  Kahneman has found that there is a significant difference between being happy in your life, and being happy with your life.  These are two different concepts that relate to the experiencing self and the remembering self.  So how do these selves differ?  The remembering self is the narrator of your life, and the experiencing self is the version of you living in the “psychological present”.  As Kahneman explained in a recent TED talk, when you’re in a doctor’s office, the remembering self is answering the question “how have you been feeling?” and the experiencing self is answering the question “how do you feel right now?”  Since watching this video, I have realized that what makes these two aspects of myself happy are quite different.

Research by Gallup has shown that to the remembering self, culturally constructed notions of happiness are extremely important.  In a recent survey, over 600,000 Americans were asked to evaluate how they feel about their life as a whole (i.e., their remembering self).  It was found that people’s happiness about their life was directly correlated with how much money (or material wealth) they had.  So, at least in the western developed world, how much money you possess, seems to have a strong effect on how happy your remembering self is with your life as a whole.  But the experiencing self is different.  To the experiencing self, the relationship between material wealth and happiness is more complex.  In the same survey, it was found that money can only effect the experiencing self’s happiness up to a point.  For Americans making between $0-60,000 dollars, the experiencing self’s happiness is perfectly correlated with material wealth.  However, for people making $60,000 or more, the experiencing self’s happiness flat lined.  The lession?  Money can be you happiness, but only to a point.

It was surprising to see these results, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense in the context of my own happiness.  My experiential happiness is very rarely related to anything material.  However, my remembering self’s happiness is constantly concerned with culturally constructed notions of success!  Should I care about what makes my remembering self happy?  Or should I live in the moment?  Can I find a balance between the two?

Track Your Happiness

According to psychologist Matt Killingsworth, the key to happiness would be to forget about the remembering self and live moment-to-moment.  In an ambitious project called “Track Your Happiness”, Killingsworth collected 650,000 happiness data reports, from 15,000 people, from 86 different occupations, in 80 different countries.  Killingsworth hopes this will help us understand what makes humans intrinsically happy in the moment.  What he found was that moment-to-moment happiness was largely dependent on the degree an individual engaged in ‘mind-wandering’.  He found that when focused on the present, people reported being “66% happy” overall.  When people were focused on something other than the present (i.e., past, future), they were only “57% happy”.  Interestingly, even people who tended to think about positive things while mind-wandering, were still more unhappy overall than people who were unhappy, but still focused on the present.  This was still the case when he tried to control for activity.  Regardless of the activity people engaged in, they were still happier when focused on the present, as opposed to mind-wandering.  What is even more interesting, is that people mind-wander all-the-time, despite the fact that it tends to make us less happy.  Killingsworth gave the analogy of a person that kept playing a slot machine where the only three potential outcomes were losing $50, $20, or $1!

So in order to find out how this related to my life, I decided to participate in the study on trackyourhappiness.org.  What did my personal data reveal?

With a few exceptions, I did seem to experience greater happiness when focused on the present.

The study also revealed other interesting data for me to chew on over the next few months.  For example, I am happier when I’m being productive (as opposed to relaxing), I’m happier when I’m with people (as opposed to alone), and I’m happier when outside (as opposed to being at home).  All in all, it was an interesting experience participating in the survey, and I definitely suggest taking it if your interested in the variables that make you happy.  However, I am still unsure about whether I am any closer to understanding happiness.  I still think that there may be a conflict between my experiencing self and my remembering self.  I’m not sure which side of myself has a bigger appetite.  I suppose trying to find a balance between the two selves, is something we all strive for.  For now, I’m going to keep engaging in activities that bring me the most happiness (e.g., reading books, running, spending time with family and friends, writing blog posts in The Ratchet).  And I hope that in the long run I don’t have to sacrifice them for the happiness of my remembering self.


About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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