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A Blueprint for Happiness, Really!

January 20th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Henry David Abraham MD

And now for a really old question, Mom and Dad: Can money buy happiness? Before I give you the answer, let me say that exponents of positive psychology like Martin Seligman have actually figured out a blueprint of happiness. Seligman and other exponents of positive psychology say that happiness is made up of pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Colleague Daniel Kahneman, who is also a Nobelist in economics, splits it up pleasure into two parts:  how you feel right now (“experienced wellbeing”), and the overall report card you give for your life (“life satisfaction”). Both psychologists believe they can measure this stuff.

Thinking about happiness in two parts is useful. You can feel quite accomplished if you earn a gazillion dollars a year, but you can still have a bad day at the office. Both types of happiness can be measured, though what you are experiencing in the here and now is more valid.  As in the board game, Life, higher education can lead to a higher evaluation of your life, but not necessarily greater experienced well-being. Studies show that more educated Americans report higher stress.

Psychologists even have an index for feeling bummed out, weighted for how much time you’re in that state. For example, in a study of 1,000 American women, 19% spent of their time in unpleasant states, compared to 16% of French women and 14% of Danish women. Researchers have measured which activities bum out American women the most. For 29% it’s the morning commute, for 27% it’s work, and surprisingly, for 24% it’s child care. Living with kids results in more reports of stress and anger. But on a cheery note it has less adverse effects on the global feel of one’s life. Religion has opposite effects that kids have on our lives. It has greater favorable impact on emotions and stress reduction in the present, but less of an effect on the big picture. The bummer index is higher on weekdays and lower on the weekends. Does this begin to sound familiar, parental units?

What you’re doing at the time obviously affects your happiness at the moment. But different cultures derive different degrees of pleasure from the same activities. The French, for example, spend the same amount of time eating as Americans, but report twice the pleasure. This may have something to do with the fact that Americans often eat while doing something else, lose track of the food, and so diminish its pleasure.  This brings me back to the question: can money buy happiness?

The quick answer is yes, but only up to an annual income of $75,000, at least in a Gallup survey of 1,000 people. Beyond that income level the data show that “experienced wellbeing” fails to increase an iota. In the jargon of researchers, a “satiation level” is reached. That is, you can buy many more things after you bring in the first 75 thou, but you don’t buy more day to day happiness! Why? One idea is that the highest income actually reduces your ability to enjoy the smaller pleasures of life. An experiment makes the point nicely. A group of students were given chocolate bars, and asked to rate the pleasure in eating them. At another time they were first primed with ideas of wealth, and then given the same chocolate bars. And lo and behold! They reported less pleasure. Ah, yes, Mr. Smarty Pants, you might be thinking. Can I send my kid to Harvard on $75,000 a year? Not without help. But the family who can write the big checks for private colleges reaps a benefit in life satisfaction, not day to day happiness.

Clearly we all could use a bit more of both. But there is a danger in letting economic decisions rule the roost. Long hours at work mean short hours with your kids. A good goal for parents is to reduce stress in themselves and their kids. One way is to get off the gerbil wheel. More than one mom I’ve worked with over the years lived as a chauffeur, shuttling kids each week between soccer, ballet, gymnastics, skating, t-ball, and the math tutor (there’s always room in that college essay that your little darling solved Fermat’s Last Theorem, right?). And then CCD, Hebrew School, SAT-prep, and the parent’s reluctant role of designated driver from teenage parties. The gerbil wheel starts spinning long before the teenage years. One family with kids in an elite college said “college begins at two.” Any family who believes that is consigning themselves to 16 years of anxiety and depression. Don’t like doing that for one kid? Try three. Something has to give.

OK, doc, so what’s the prescription? The easiest path to happiness is to control your use of time. Less driving could help, and shared driving. Think carpools. Switching from passive to active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise, has also been shown to help. When the Gallup World Poll was taken in 150 countries, a common cause of feeling miserable during the day was a headache. But the second best predictor of how you’d feel that day was whether you spent time with a friend or relative.

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