Can happiness be achieved, or is it an attribute assigned at birth?
By Mariam Tareen
Often when we need to point to an ancient, universal truth, we quote Aristotle. “Happiness,” he said, “is the meaning and purpose of life.”
For centuries, philosophers have invested time and intellectual brainpower in thinking about the meaning of life. Socrates and Plato, Buddha and Confucius, even pseudo philosophers like me, have all wondered: given our very brief time here, what is a life well lived?
Whereas at first, finding and nitpicking the fundamentals of happiness was a dedicated pursuit of philosophers, the debate has fallen into the hands of scientists. Happiness has been put to the empirical test. Recent decades have seen the field of psychology shift towards, or expand into, investigating how mental health and wellbeing can be optimised, instead of restricting it to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This branch of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman, explores how we can live at our best.
Some might wonder why there is a need to be happier. Optimists are often thought of as ignorant airheads, in contrast with the realistic level-headedness of pessimists. But happiness has more of a function than simply feeling good.
Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson is most well known for her “broaden and build theory”, which claims that positive emotions have an evolutionary function. Negative emotions — like fear, anger, and sadness — are beneficial in that they work as defence mechanisms against hostile environments, alerting us to possible dangers and threats. In a similar way, positive emotions — joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love — broaden our enduring intellectual, physical and social resources.
As Seligman explains: “When we are in a positive mood, people like us better, and friendship, love and coalitions are more likely to cement… our mental set is expansive, tolerant and creative. We are open to new ideas and new experience.” This intellectual boost was discovered in a series of experiments, in which groups that were given candy as an incentive, or told to recall a positive experience, were better able to solve a task than the control group without positive reinforcements.
As it turns out, there is a happy gene. More specifically, there is a genetic personality trait that psychologists call ‘positive affectivity’, which leads to good cheer and optimism. Even more interesting is that this gene is highly heritable, and that its effect stays quite constant over time. Whether you win the lottery or lose the use of your legs, after the initial shock, you will adjust to your new circumstances and retain your standard personality trait of either cheerfulness or grumpiness, regardless of circumstances.
Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to this as winning the “cortical lottery.”He suggests that “in the long run, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness set point – your brain’s default level of happiness – which was determined largely by your genes.”
But the picture appears to be more complicated. As Seligman says, “optimism is only one of two dozen strengths that bring about greater well-being.” In the ’90s, studies conducted on twins suggested that genes were more strongly related to happiness than environmental factors. But despite their power, genes themselves are “sensitive to environmental conditions.”
Seligman and his team of researchers divided these external factors into two categories: “the conditions of your life and the voluntary activities that you undertake.” They came up with a happiness formula: H=S+C+V – “The level of happiness that you experience is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities you undertake (V).” Thus, they operationalised an obvious and not particularly groundbreaking idea. The contribution of positive psychology is essentially about applying scientific methods to identifythe specific conditions and voluntary activities that lead to the highest level of happiness.
Among the top conditions that make us happy, the most important is love. Having strong, close relationships is the condition that has the greatest impact on happiness. Naturally, interpersonal conflict will make you less happy, so improving the conditions of your life also has to do with minimising stressors that are proven to diminish happiness, factors such as noise (that comes with living on a busy street or near the highway, for example), long commutes and lack of control over your life and daily surroundings.
Another important condition to focus on is having and pursuing the right goals. Chasing material things such as wealth, beauty, fame or even prestige will make you considerably less happy (even less healthy) than those who pursue strong relationships and generativity (or leaving a legacy). The Harvard Grant Study, one of the longest running longitudinal studies on well-being, confirms this. The one caveat is that at the lowest end of the income scale (in any country), money increases overall satisfaction, but only as far as meeting basic needs are concerned. Once you are free from worrying about paying for food and shelter for yourself and your family, money does not matter as much.
Accumulating money will not in itself make you happier, what matters is what you spend it on. Economist Robert Frank proposed that spending on experiences (such as concerts, holidays and good food) are more likely to make you lastingly happier than the conspicuous consumption such as an expensive watch or purse bought more as markers of success than for intrinsic value and are subject to the adaptation principle.
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, the secret to happiness is finding flow. In thousands of interviews of people who enjoy their work – “From Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shephards” – he found that they all described in the same way this “automatic, spontaneous process” he calls flow.
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
This applies to poets, painters and pianists as much as it does to CEOs and athletes: the point is engaging your strengths in tasks that challenge you and build your skills.
Building on this theory, Seligman suggests that we focus less on pleasures (which we should learn to savour and vary but recognise as momentary and without lasting benefits) and more on gratifications. The difference between a ‘pleasure’ and a ‘gratification’ is that the latter comes from using your strengths and rising to a challenge. Pleasure is temporary, gratifications last. Work that engages your strengths and is gratifying can feel effortless, and lead to flow. Seligman came up with a catalogue of strengths that include items such as curiosity, love of learning, kindness, persistence, self-control, leadership and spirituality. What we need to do is to know our strengths, and then cultivate them; identify our moments of flow and work them into our lives.
As Haidt sums up, “Love and work are crucial for human happiness because, when done well, they draw us outside of ourselves and into connections with people and projects beyond ourselves. Happiness comes from getting these connections right.”
The proliferation of the research on happiness has spawned apps that promise to make you happier. Happify is one of them. Based on the premise that happiness is about developing good mental habits, the app serves to train your happiness muscles, so to speak. Specifically, it works to enhance five key skills that positive psychologists have identified as increasing happiness: to savour, thank, aspire, give and empathise. “Increase happiness with fun activities and games” and “build your happiness skills anytime, anywhere” are some of the taglines on the app.
But isn’t happiness greater than the sum of its parts? The key might lie in the concept of coherence. Psychologists Ken Sheldon and Tim Kasser have shown how ‘vertical coherence’ across a variety of goals is one of the marks of a happy person, so your short-term goals work to advance your long-term goals.
Coherence extends to personality. Psychologist Dan McAdams has urged us to move beyond the traditional basic personality traits model to a more expansive and integrated idea of personality. He identifies three levels of personality: first, your basic traits; second, your characteristic adaptations (personal goals, values, beliefs); and finally, the life story each person constructs for himself to form identity. Happiness lies in aligning basic personality traits, goals and values and a life narrative that fits these with a broader view of yourself and your place in the world.
Based on the research we can conclude that happy people are those who have found a way for every day of their lives to further the pursuit of long term goals in line with their basic traits, who have close, supportive relationships and love in their life.
In his book The Triumphs of Experience, based on findings from the Harvard Grant Study, George E. Vaillant concludes that at the end of the day, nurture trumps nature. What matters most is what you do with the conditions of your life. This allows more agency to live the life we choose, rather than be victimised by unhappy childhoods or bad genes.
But there is the need for broadening our scope. The nature of happiness is such that it cannot simply be attained using a how-to guide. The real question we should be asking is how to live a happy, meaningful life, because happiness is the result of the decisions we make every day. It is a question of how we live our lives. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, “In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.” Happiness, therefore, is a choice – one we must consciously make every day. In the pursuit of happiness, there are no shortcuts.
Mariam Tareen is Junior Articles Editor at The Missing Slate.
Barbera Fredrickson, “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology”, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/
Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Finding Flow, TED talk Feb 2004: http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow/transcript#t-286000