“What was a Buddhist saint doing at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos?” asks William Davies in his book The Happiness Industry, published in 2015. The monk, the author argues, like “happiness officers” in business corporations, reflects a trend that has developed over the past decade: various entities are increasingly interested in measuring how people feel, solely to exploit this data for their own political or commercial needs. Brain scientists working for the consumer industry hope to finally discover the “buy button” in our brain, and advertisers for pharmaceutical firms seek research to substantiate the claims of their costly products.
The flood of literature and research on happiness in recent years leaves no room for doubt: while half of the population strives to be happy, the other half is busy examining whether the former succeeded in finding happiness. Sophisticated scanners that search for happiness centers in our brain are suddenly replacing our simple subjective feeling: “Yes, I’m happy at the moment.”
When the UK’s Office for National Statistics published its first report on happiness in 2012, it was also able to cite regions and jobs in which British citizens were happiest. It appears that the color green has a beneficial effect on our happiness—and we’re not talking about greenbacks here. Rather, green regions in Scotland with breath-taking scenery were home to the happiest people and forest rangers led the list of contented workers.
Intuitively, we all understand what the studies show: above a certain level, wealth does not bring happiness, though it can buy a lot of comforts. We also know from experience that many of the moments that give us great pleasure require only modest means or no monetary expense at all. Strangely, even though we all feel that wealth does not guarantee happiness, we all must absolutely, test this premise ourselves.
You can perhaps save yourself the frustrating mission of accumulating and maintaining wealth if you are willing to truthfully answer the following simple question: you have the choice of living in one of two worlds. In one, you earn $5,000 a month, while most people earn only $2,500. In the second world, you earn $10,000 a month, while most others are pocketing $20,000 monthly. Assuming that the purchasing power of the money is identical in both worlds, which would you choose? Tens of thousands of respondents in various studies immediately opted for the world in which they earn more relative to others, declining the option of earning more money in absolute terms. This cruel compulsion to compare ourselves to others has plagued human society ever since Homo sapiens took their first steps.
Then and now, we don’t compare ourselves to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett of the world, only to about 150 people: acquaintances, family members, schoolmates from elementary school or college, colleagues at work, partners in athletic activity and so on. Why 150? This is “Dunbar’s number,” named for British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who asserts that 150 is the maximum number of social relationships we can maintain, due to our cognitive and emotional limitations. His complicated calculations are based on the correlation between the brain size of non-human primates and the average size of the group with which they roamed the African savannahs 150,000 years ago.
Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s in-house sociologist, provides fresh confirmation of this theory in an interview with The Economist. According to Marlow, the average Facebook member has 120 “friends.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell showed a keen understanding of human nature when he stated: “Beggars don’t envy millionaires, they envy other beggars who have more.” And as the acerbic writer Gore Vidal admitted: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
The second reason why economic assets have a limited effect on our happiness is their temporary nature. This phenomenon coined the “hedonic adaptation” or “hedonic treadmill,” reflects our rapid adjustment to changes in general, including the acquisition of new material assets. The latest salary increase quickly becomes the basis for the next increase, and the scent of leather upholstery in the luxury car we bought dissipates a month later. This evolution-based phenomenon tempers the extreme highs and lows we experience in emotional events, bringing us back to our present personal level of happiness. The mechanism of hedonic adaptation is similar to that of a thermostat, warming or cooling a room at a set temperature in changing conditions of heat and cold.
According to this view, each of us has a personal “happiness thermostat” that defines the level of happiness we enjoy throughout most of our lives. Winning the lottery will improve our feelings for a while, but within a year, more or less, we’ll return to the basic level of happiness to which we’ve been calibrated. We’ll also return to this level after a similar period following a traumatic injury in a traffic accident. (Only the loss of a job or the death of a spouse requires a longer adjustment period.) It is not surprising, therefore, that this phenomenon is described in many cases as a treadmill on which we need to run in order to maintain a set level of happiness.
More than anything, heredity determines the settings on our personal happiness thermostat. It is customary to attribute 50% of a person’s happiness level to genetic factors, and another 10% of our happiness capacity to a combination of circumstantial factors (such as age, family situation, socio-demographic profile, occupation, intelligence, external appearance, and faith). So, we have gathered here today to discuss the remaining 40%: the factors we control that affect our happiness.
In the summer of 2004, the highly regarded analyst James Montier surprised his employers at the DKW investment bank in his second-quarter report: instead of providing economic insights as expected, he offered the bank’s clients some tips on how to boost their happiness. Montier also was not reticent about stating in his subversive document that the capital gains they might derive from his economic advice would not necessarily make them happier. You won’t be surprised to learn that this colorful analyst no longer works at the bank, but some of his advice is still worth applying today.
Indeed, not only is it true that wealth doesn’t buy happiness; the belief that material success leads to happiness actually breeds unhappiness. In part, this is due to the destructive mechanism of comparison inherent in us—that is, we’ll always find someone who is richer than us. This is also attributable to hedonic adaptation, which modulates any emotional high stemming from economic success.
The American psychologist Tim Kasser is the most prominent proponent of the notion that materialism undermines happiness. In one of his studies on the price of materialism, he examined the correlation between the happiness of business majors and their materialism. He found that those who tend to measure their self-worth in material terms of money and publicity report lower levels of self-fulfillment, even when they meet the goals they set for themselves. On the other hand, when students who prefer intrinsic values such as self-development and community involvement succeed in meeting their goals, they report a higher level of self-fulfillment.
In addition, it turns out that materialism and social isolation are mutually reinforcing: lonely people compulsively pursue material assets, and materialistic people are more exposed to the dangers of loneliness. It seems that materialistic people are also more likely to develop personality disorders such as paranoia, narcissism, anxiety and attention problems. You can learn a lot from the illustrated video clip produced by Knox College, where Kasser teaches psychology. Kasser practices what he preaches—he lives modestly with his wife, his two children, and several pets in a rural region of Illinois. In an interview with the American Psychological Association (APA) in December 2014, Kasser noted an additional social price that materialistic people pay: they are perceived as more competitive, manipulative, selfish and lacking in empathy. He asserts that people become materialistic because of the messages they receive from parents, friends or the media, but also due to a lack of confidence, rejection, and economic anxieties.
A comprehensive analysis that Kasser conducted with colleagues from Sussex University in England, comparing research spanning a relatively long period of time (up to 12 years), helped to further erase any lingering doubt that materialism indeed detracts from happiness, and makes depression and physical pain more acute. Those defined as “materialistic” also reported that they have fewer pleasant experiences and are less satisfied with their lives.
When it comes to happiness, experiences have clear advantages over assets. First of all, they are less affected by hedonic adaptation. Therefore, go see a show instead of buying a new shirt; take a trip abroad instead of purchasing jewelry or a fashionable watch. Experiences offer another important advantage: we can embellish them in our minds when recalling them afterward. And most important—our identity is composed of the experiences we accumulate (and what we remember from them), and not from a list of our assets. Contrary to what many advertisers would have us believe, we are not what we buy.
And if you’ve already decided to purchase assets, then make them small purchases that correspond to positive events in your life routine, rather than one large expenditure that offers only fleeting pleasure under the heartless millstone of hedonic adaptation. When will we finally understand that we cannot buy enough (of what we don’t need to begin with) to be happy?
There are few things on which researchers agree more. Modest physical exertion for 20 minutes is enough to release endorphins into the bloodstream; endorphins are chemicals produced by our brains that help to relieve pain and stress and overcome minor depression. As their name suggests, these substances are similar in structure to morphine, but their source is natural—the body itself. Regular physical activity has a number of positive health benefits, which in turn affect our happiness. The recommended dosage is 150 minutes a week of such activity, preferably outdoors. Recent studies show that contrary to popular belief, there are some marginal health benefits in exceeding this basic dosage, peaking at eight hours of exercise per week.
In the introduction to his inspiring book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell presents the mystery of Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania, founded by immigrants from a picturesque Italian village of the same name. The first small group of immigrants arrived in 1882 and gravitated to this part of Pennsylvania to work in slate quarrying—the traditional source of livelihood of Rosetans for centuries.
Before long, a large number of immigrants from the Italian village, hearing of the unlimited possibilities in the New World, joined the pioneering group in Pennsylvania. By the end of the century, there were already several thousand immigrants in the American town of Roseto, who continued to carry out the customs of their native land, exuberantly conversing in the dialect of the Foggia region of Italy. A spirit of social and economic momentum swept the isolated town when a dynamic young priest arrived in 1896. Under his leadership, spiritual societies were founded and festivals were organized. The visionary priest encouraged the townspeople to plant gardens and orchards in their backyards, and distributed seeds and bulbs. Other community institutions were soon to follow and schools, a convent, and parks created new social infrastructure.
In the late 1950s, Stewart Wolf, head of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Oklahoma, came to a farm near Roseto for his summer vacation. In a casual conversation with a local physician, he heard that heart disease was very rare among Rosetans under the age of 65. (This was in the 1950s when heart attacks had reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and before the advent of cholesterol-lowering drugs and the use of aspirin as a blood thinner.) Wolf had a hunch that there was a scientific sensation here and quickly organized a research team to investigate the mystery. He initially believed that this apparent immunity to heart disease could be attributed to the Rosetans’ lifestyle and eating habits, but soon discovered that 41% of their caloric intake was fact-based and that they preferred wine to any other beverage, including milk. Many of the residents were heavy smokers and overweight. The answer, Wolf realized, was not to be found in the residents’ lifestyle.
Next, Wolf ruled out the possibility that the good health of Roseto residents was genetic: he traced immigrants from the same Italian village who settled in other locations in North America and found that their mortality rate was similar to the national average. An attempt to find the answer in the geographic region was also to no avail. The medical records of the residents of two neighboring towns presented a dismal picture: mortality rates from heart disease were three times higher than in Roseto. Another statistical wonder was that widowers outnumbered widows in the town, contrary to the situation elsewhere. It goes without saying, of course, that the crime rate was zero.
Wolf realized that the answer was in the town itself. Indeed, as he walked around town he noticed the residents chatting in the street, occasionally inviting each other for an impromptu meal at their home, where three generations usually lived under a single roof. Housewives were highly respected, and the elderly were integrated into the community.
Wolf decided that the low rate of heart disease in Roseto was attributable to a stress-free lifestyle. “The community was very cohesive. There was no keeping up with the Joneses. Houses were near one another, and everybody lived pretty much indistinguishable,” he later wrote. The residents who did well were not comfortable flaunting their success, and those who failed could easily hide their situation in a society whose social compass was an egalitarian community. Simply put, those who lived in Roseto during the first half of the 20th century could not feel lonely (or envious).
This phenomenon, coined the Roseto Effect, triggered intensive research and follow-up when first discovered. One study, which continued for no less than 50 years, found that as the Rosetans strayed from their Italian social heritage and adopted the characteristics of American society, their rates of mortality climbed. In 1971, the town recorded its first case of a heart attack suffered by a person under the age of 45.
The story of Roseto represents for me the biggest innovation of happiness research in recent years: community, someone to share life with in good times and bad, and the development of close relationships contribute to personal well-being more than most of the factors you’ll find in this list. Friends, and in a certain sense a spouse, are not exposed to hedonic adaptation. We get used to things that money can buy more quickly than things that money can’t buy.
Is it best to give up hours of sleep in order to advance a professional career and the economic rewards it brings? If you ask the advice of Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize recipient in Economics and a major influence in behavioral research on happiness, he would decisively reply that if the criterion for choosing between the two is your happiness, then sleeping is more important than a salary increase. The correlation between satisfaction in life and sleep quality is higher than the correlation between satisfaction in life and income (and many other factors), Kahneman asserted in an article published in 2006. Happy people are very active, but make sure to give their bodies proper rest. A lack of sleep leads to fatigue, loss of concentration and a gloomy mood. There is a positive connection between proper sleep and improvement in memory and creativity, less dependence on stimulants like caffeine, and even easier weight loss.
In 2004, James Smith and Beren Aldridge started a farm in the Lake District in England for alternative treatment of patients suffering from various mental disorders. The doctors or welfare officers of these patients had decided they could not be treated with medication for one reason or another. It seemed like a simple idea: the encounter with nature, milking cows and growing vegetables to sell in the local market should have a positive effect on those who were unnerved by noisy urban life. The program was very successful and the condition of the farm “volunteers” (as they were called) significantly improved.
And the reason? The proximity to Mother Nature? Physical activity in the open air? Tree hugging? Not according to Aldridge. The key factor, in his opinion, was the freedom given to the “volunteers” to plan their daily schedules and lives in a cooperative-like organizational structure. The gardening, pasturing and harvesting had a limited therapeutic effect without the central component in life at the farm: the members’ participation in decisions that determined their daily routine and their appropriate place in the farm’s developing hierarchy.
We all tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day, but underestimate what we can achieve during the course of a year. Happy people are aware of this and set achievable goals, at the daily level too. They feel happy when they control their fate and meet the daily goals they set for themselves.
With all due respect to endorphins, I know deep inside that when I go out for a run on a very cold day, I derive profound satisfaction from the fact that I’m maintaining some control over my life, even when the weather conditions tempt me to perhaps give up.
"Flow" is an idea introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi, who would have long ago received a Nobel Prize if the members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences could only pronounce his last name, defines “flow” as a state in which we are completely immersed in our current activity, but are not drowning in it. When we’re in the “zone” of flow, all of our emotions are mobilized for performing the task at hand and we’re not focused on anything else. Those in a state of flow (which brings to mind similar states described in Eastern philosophies) report a feeling of spontaneous joy and excitement. Flow is conditional upon maintaining a delicate balance between the challenge posed by a particular task and our skill in performing it: a skill that is greater than the challenge leads to boredom, while a challenge that is greater than the level of skill leads to frustration.
Flow is not achieved when you’re cruising on a private yacht in the Caribbean, agonizing over the question of whether it’s too early in the day for a cocktail or wondering whether your bathing suit meets the latest fashion craze. Flow is easier achieved when knitting or arranging your bookcases during the weekend. And those who write books are familiar with the surprised look at the clock when discovering that it’s already two in the morning.
And this is going to hurt. More and more studies have shown the negative connection between watching television and happiness. Watching television is not consistent with almost any of the rules we’ve already listed. In the test of comparison, we’re doomed to watch people on TV who are more attractive than us, smarter than us and more skilled than us in operating various types of exotic weapons. And if you claim that participants on reality programs are just people like you and me, then you’ll have to admit that sometimes you can’t help thinking that perhaps they’re a bit more courageous.
If you’ve already come to terms with the fact that materialism harms you, Tim Kasser offers another insight. His research also shows that the more people watch TV, the more materialistic they become. Television networks are driven by commercial motives, and those can be met almost only through advertisements. The last thing that advertisers think about when formulating their messages is our happiness. On the contrary, they’ll succeed in selling us their products only if they make us feel miserable and convince us that the only way to cure our misery is to buy the product they’re promoting.
This is also the logic that suggests limiting the use of social networks. Any bit of joy that wasn’t already destroyed by comparing our lives to our friends’ happy experiences, as posted on social media, is immediately eroded by advertisements that are tailored to our needs with a precise and ghastly statistical scalpel. An eye-opening study Kasser conducted with Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found that the materialism of adolescents increased in direct correlation to the growth of advertising spending in the U.S. economy.
We’re likely to spend more of our lives opposite the television screen than in the office; we won’t be using this time for physical activity or for developing social relationships. Indeed, obesity and social isolation are directly correlated with watching more than two hours of television a day and eating in front of the TV. An exceptionally comprehensive study, published in 2008 and based on a sample of 30,000 people, reveals that people who are not happy in their lives spend 30% more time in front of the TV screen than people who are happy.
In Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think, published in 2014, Paul Dolan argues that the delicate balance between pleasure and meaning is the key to happiness. According to Dolan, an economics professor who advises the British government on “personal well-being,” watching television is an excellent example of pleasurable yet meaningless activity. Raising children, for example, is the opposite: not always pleasurable, but meaningful.
In addition, in many cases, we watch television by ourselves, and we’ve already learned that those who distance themselves from friends and family also distance themselves from happiness. T. S. Eliot defined this well: “Another medium of entertainment is television which permits hundred of millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.”
Happy people tend to share their good fortune with others—the “feel good, do good” phenomenon. However, it turns out that this works both ways: when you give to others, you boost your own sense of happiness. Abraham Lincoln recognized this 150 years ago (“When I do something good, I feel good”), and today behavioral scientists are confirming that people who volunteer, help others or express altruism in other ways feel better and often experience the type of “high” that many feel after physical activity. Is this merely the release of hormones that improve our blood flow or is the mechanism of social comparison again rearing its head? Hormones are important, but let’s also recognize: when we help another person, we also feel—at least in comparison—that our situation is not so bad.
If you also choose to participate in a project aimed at reducing social inequality, you may be a double winner. Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener, highly esteemed researchers of happiness at the national level, found in a study involving 150,000 American respondents that the happiness of U.S. citizens during the years 1972–2008 was inversely related to the level of economic inequality. The more inequality, the less happiness. And vice versa—the more equality, the more happiness.
You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to feel gratitude for your blessings: family, friends, education, health or freedom, to mention a few. Proponents of positive psychology, a relatively new branch in behavioral science, claim that if you remember to be grateful every evening about three good things that happened to you that day, you’ll notice a positive change in your mood within three weeks. If you think a moment about the damage caused by the worm of social comparison, which hungrily gnaws away at us, you’ll understand why thankfulness about our blessings, without any comparison to others, is a sure prescription for improving our sense of personal well-being.
Don’t chase happiness as such, because even though we usually know when we’re happy, sometimes, as John Barrymore noted, “Bliss regularly sneaks in through an entryway you didn't have any acquaintance with you left open.” Furthermore, in different cases, we realize that we've gotten an imperial visit simply after bliss, a bashful fellow who prefers to evade our glance, has gone out of our room. Since most of us don’t know what exactly makes us happy, the focused pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail. Happiness has been compared to a butterfly—the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. However, if you focus on other things, it might just come and sit on your shoulder. And it’s important to remember: if success is to achieve what we want, happiness is to want what we’ve achieved.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.