MARCH 25, 2013
WHEN MY CHILDREN WERE YOUNG, my wife and I focused our child-rearing efforts on nurturing intellectual enthusiasm, self-discipline, kindness, empathy, honesty, and ambition. I don’t think we spent 10 minutes worrying about whether our kids were going to be happy. Of course they were. How could they not? They had loving and attentive parents who got along well with each other and grandparents who doted on them, they went to good schools, and they lived in a warm and supportive community.
As my kids got older, approaching the age of the students I taught, a light bulb suddenly went on in my blinkered brain. Most of the kids I taught were just like my kids. They had parents who loved them, came from good communities and schools, had been nurtured and protected throughout their childhoods. Yet plenty of these kids didn’t seem to be happy. They were anxious, they were depressed, they were unenthusiastic about their work, and they were uncertain about their futures. I suddenly realized that happiness is not something to be taken for granted (I can hear you saying “duh!”). When I came to this blinding insight, my parenting aims turned on a dime. I also discovered that my wife had appreciated this all along, and that equipping our kids to be happy had always been part of her parenting agenda.
People who are fortunate enough to live in affluent, democratic societies — societies enshrined with guarantees of individual autonomy and freedom of choice — ought to be happy. And on average, they (we) are. But they aren’t happy enough; they aren’t as happy as they should be, given their life circumstances and opportunities. The three books under review are aimed at this fact. Each of them diagnoses some of the reasons for this happiness shortfall, and offers practical advice to help us make it up. The authors of the books are distinguished academics, and the arguments in the books are based on sound empirical research, much of it done by them. So as happiness guides go, these books are pretty much as good as it gets. If you read these books and take their lessons to heart, I have no doubt that you will be a happier person for it. And yet, at the same time that the books both educate and advise, they raise subtle but nagging questions. They raise the possibility that while happiness researchers are answering some important questions, they are overlooking another that may be more fundamental.
Social scientists have been studying happiness, or “well-being,” as it is sometimes called (we’ll see that they aren’t exactly the same thing), for decades. Most of the research involves giving people surveys designed to measure happiness and then correlating the results of those surveys with various features of people’s lives. There is research that compares people living in different societies, and that compares people of different socio-economic classes in the same society at a given moment in time, and there is research that assesses changes in happiness in a given society over extended periods of time. The aims of this research are both to describe patterns of happiness and to identify the determinants of happiness. There is good reason to care about this kind of research. Societies commit massive resources to improving the living conditions of their citizens, and research on happiness can help us decide whether those resources are being directed at the right things. Societies aim to increase collective welfare, but just what does welfare consist in? For the most part, under the sway of economic thinking, the aim of public policy has been to make a society more prosperous — to increase per capita GDP. The appeal of this goal is two-fold. First, it assumes that if people are richer, they will be freer as individuals to choose the objects and activities that serve their welfare. The state and its technocrats don’t have to choose for them. So wealth serves as a proxy for everything else. And second, GDP can be measured. But it doesn’t help much to pursue what you can measure if what you’re measuring is the wrong thing. It doesn’t help to get better at achieving goals if you’re achieving the wrong goals. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said as much in a speech at a conference of economic researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 6. He said:
The ultimate purpose of economics, of course, is to understand and promote the enhancement of well-being. Economic measurement accordingly must encompass measures of well-being and its determinants.
The multinational Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has been measuring quality of life for several years now. And the French government, under former president Nicholas Sarkozy, issued a 300-page report a few years ago on the limits of GDP as a measure of social welfare along with suggestions for how welfare measures can be improved. So, we should care about what makes people happy, and some societies do care.
We now know a fair amount about the determinants of happiness. We know that richer is happier, but not nearly as much as people think. Money has big effects at or below subsistence, but the effects diminish fairly rapidly as wealth increases. We know that social connections enhance happiness; that meaningful, engaging work enhances happiness; that good health, freedom, political democracy and economic security enhance happiness. We know that it’s better to be married than divorced or widowed, and that it’s better to have kids than not. We also know a fair amount about the effects of happiness. Happy people are healthier, live longer (it may be better for life expectancy to be a happy, pack-a-day smoker than an unhappy nonsmoker), have more satisfying relations with others, and do better work than unhappy ones. There are controversies about the reliability and significance of some of these findings. And there are puzzles that remain to be solved. One big puzzle is the difference between happiness as overall satisfaction with ones life and happiness as the answer to questions like, “How good a day did you have yesterday?” Rich people have more life satisfaction than working class people, but no more day-to-day satisfaction. The same is true of single (never married) as opposed to married people. Finally, we know that most people, throughout the world, are happy. This is good news.
But not good enough. Given the circumstances of our lives, we should be happier, and each of these three books tells us why. In The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky identifies several important mistakes that we make in pursuing happiness. Lyubomirsky is a leading contributor to what might be called the science of happiness, and her previous best-selling book, The How of Happiness, is a compendium of advice about how to make good lives better. Lyubomirsky has argued that roughly half the variation between people in happiness is genetic and essentially unmodifiable. But that still leaves plenty of room for us to improve our lives. We can improve our lives by changing our life circumstances (e.g., finding a loving mate or a rewarding job). But we can do even more by changing the way we think about or construe our life circumstances as they are. In the new book, here is some of what we learn:
People think they’ll be happy if only they find the right romantic partner. They don’t realize that they may already have done so, but that, as relationships mature, some of the steam goes out of them — an inevitable result of what is called “hedonic adaptation.” If people are aware that this adaptation is coming, they may be grateful for what is good in their relationships instead of casting about restlessly to replace what seems to have been lost.
Just as we adapt to our life partners, we adapt to our work. And here, too, the trick is in knowing to expect adaptation rather than feverishly looking to change jobs in search of that lost excitement.
Variety can reduce or forestall adaptation, so that introducing variety into the day-to-dayness of your relationship can boost your satisfaction with it.
Positive emotions are the best antidote to the vicious cycle of negative emotions. Indeed, positivity can create a virtuous circle in which the more positive you are, the better your relationships will be and the better your work will be (much of the research behind this claim was done by Barbara Fredrickson, author of one of the books under review).
Parenting may bring many hours and days of misery. It certainly eats into opportunities to do other things that make you happy. And when children leave the nest, marital satisfaction soars. But having kids seems to be worth it. Almost no parent regrets having had kids. Having and raising children seems to add meaning to a life.
But, the daily hassles matter. Little annoyances that you think ought to be too trivial to care about add up, so it is important to pay attention to the small stuff.
And the same goes for small pleasures. Regular, small pleasures can add up to a lot more than a few big ones. You adapt to that fancy car long before you’ve paid it off. A day at the beach, coffee with a friend, a trip to the spa, a delicious croissant — these small pleasures we don’t adapt to because they are many and varied.
People tend to think that material things will make them happy. In fact, experiences do a lot more for our happiness than possessions (a point discussed in much detail by Dunn and Norton).
People focus on where they stand in relation to others as a sign of their success. This kind of social comparison undermines happiness.
People emphasize the “pursuit of happiness” and undervalue the “happiness of pursuit.” In other words, people focus too much on the goal — the destination — and not enough on the journey.
The book offers many other insights like the ones I just listed. Some of them tell us that we are pursuing the wrong things. Some tell us that we are pursuing the right things, but using the wrong standards of evaluation. And some tell us that we are pursuing the right things but can benefit greatly from thinking about them and pursuing them slightly differently. The insights are all well supported by empirical research. They are all sensible. Almost all of them are unsurprising. They are the kinds of insights that provoke a reader to smack himself or herself on the head and say, “What was I thinking?” The writing is accessible, and the book contains plenty of very practical suggestions about how to act on these insights to bring more satisfaction to one’s life without changing it a whole lot. I have no doubt that people who read this book and take its suggestions to heart will get more satisfaction from their work, and more joy from their relations with others. This book can move us up a few notches on the happiness ladder.
Happy Money, by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, offers advice that is less intuitive. This small, snappily written book is focused on five points, all directed at enabling people to get more bang for their bucks. Thus, the title of the book aptly describes its contents. Like Lyubomirsky’s book, this book relies on a wealth of empirical research, much of it of very recent vintage. Here’s what they have to teach us:
Buy experiences, not things. We get more, and longer lasting satisfaction from doing than from having. The reasons for this are several: we adapt less to experiences than to things; experiences tend to be shared with others more than things are and so they bring the benefits of social connection and interaction. And they lead to much better life stories. So, forget the big house and the BMW, and instead go on trips, have dinners with friends, take hikes, and so on.
Make what you buy a treat. The best way to avoid adaptation is to keep good experiences rare, even if you can afford to make them routine. There isn’t much point to drinking $50 wine if it starts tasting like $10 wine, so keep that good wine for special occasions, no matter how rich you are. The fact that adaptation plays such a big role in this book, as it does in Lyubomirsky’s, should tell us something about happiness, at least in affluent societies. Adaptation to good things may be the biggest challenge we face when it comes to getting satisfaction out of our lives.
Remember that time is the ultimate scarce resource and that time is not money, no matter what the economists say. We’re all pressed for time, and our pursuit of stuff just increases that pressure, since it takes time to find just the right cell phone, car, or house. Moreover, when people do start equating time with money, it takes some of the joy out of what they “spend” their time on (it’s much less satisfying to watch your seven-year-old play soccer if your consultant’s meter is running, telling you that you could be earning $500 while you watch).
Pay now, consume later. When we separate the moment of purchase from the moment of consumption, we gain in two ways: we separate the costs from the benefits in time. And we get to savor the thing or experience we’ve purchased in the time period between the moment of purchase and its consummation. In other words, when you buy that Thanksgiving trip to Hawaii for yourself and your partner in September, you get to “consume” the trip in your imaginations for months before you actually go.
Spend money on others, rather than yourself. This last is the big one. Dunn and Norton, with Lara Aknin, have done several studies showing that people get more satisfaction from giving than from getting. This seems to be true across cultures and has even been shown in toddlers. This may not seem like such an earthshaking insight. Dunn and Norton themselves ask, “don’t we already know this?” Well, I guess at some level we do, but we certainly don’t act as though we do. When we hear that “it is better to give than to receive,” we tend to interpret “better” to mean morally better. Dunn and Norton’s point is that it is also hedonically better. I think few people really believe this.
In addition to these five major pieces of advice to individuals about how to spend their money, Dunn and Norton offer some systemic advice about the use of material resources that is worthy of our attention, especially in the United States of the 21st century. Societies with a good deal of income inequality are less happy than societies in which income inequality is modest. The lesson is that if we did something to fix the grotesque maldistribution of income in the modern United States, everyone would benefit. The same is true of education. The better educated the citizens of a society are, the happier the society is. Consistent with the evidence that giving is better than receiving, what these two facts imply is the following: redistributing income from rich to poor would make both rich and poor better off. Current political battles in the United States, however, make it pretty clear to me that this is not an obvious point. If it were, we’d stop the obstructionism.
Dunn and Norton make one final point of great subtlety and perplexity. They suggest, as Aristotle argued, that happiness is best achieved indirectly, as a byproduct of other objectives. So, if you follow their advice with the aim of being happier, it may not work. This same perplexity appears in connection with Lyubomirsky’s suggestions. Trying to be happy may be self-defeating. Living your life in a certain way, because, say, you think that’s the right thing to do, may yield as a bonus that you are happy. We know, for example, that religious people are happier than nonreligious people. But becoming religious in order to be happy is probably a fool’s errand. I don’t know how true it actually is in general that happiness only comes as a byproduct of pursuing other things, but to the extent that it is true, books like these may be paradoxically self-defeating.
If Lyubomirsky and Dunn and Norton offer up sound, empirically based advice for ideas that are not in themselves earthshaking, Barbara Fredrickson offers up nothing short of a revolution. Her aim, in Love 2.0, is to get us to transform almost completely what we think love is. Love, Fredrickson wants us to believe, is a brief and transitory state. “Love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force. […] [I]t feels extraordinarily good […] Yet, far beyond feeling good, a micro-moment of love […] literally changes your mind.” You may say things like, “I love my spouse,” or “I love my kids beyond all measure.” But if you do say these things, you’re wrong. It would be more accurate to say, “I have many moments of love with my spouse … and with my kids … and, for that matter, my oldest friend, my co-worker in the office next door, the person who does my hair, and my internist.” Love 2.0, Fredrickson wants to convince us, is made up of moments of deep connection between people. Such moments create what she calls “positivity resonance,” which in turn creates a positive feedback loop that enables us to experience more positive emotion, to have more energy, to do better work, to be healthier, and to live longer. Further, she argues, love, properly understood, requires physical — though not necessarily sexual — intimacy (take that, Facebook!). It requires eye contact, touch, and laughter. Otherwise, it’s just parallel play.
We can see positivity resonance in a synchrony in people’s brain activity, as measured by fMRI. We can see it in a rise in levels of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone. Brain synchrony may enable us to experience empathy, and oxytocin is known to enhance cooperation and trust. Thus, moments of love can begin a neurochemical cascade that both strengthens intimacy and improves mood. And beyond mood, such cascades improve what physiologists call “vagal tone,” an important indicator of the efficiency of our cardiovascular system and thus an important determinant of our physical health and longevity.
Fredrickson has made several very important contributions to our understanding of happiness and of emotions more generally. Her earliest work, done in collaboration with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, showed the importance of individual moments in extended hedonic experiences. A painful experience may last minutes, but we capture and remember that experience based on what it was like at its peak (one moment) and what it was like at its end (a second moment). She went on to study “positivity” (she has a book by that name), and showed that positive emotions open people up to thinking more expansively and more imaginatively. Her more recent work, summarized in the current book, has taken the magic of moments and of positivity to a new level. Yes, we have more moments of “love 2.0” with people we say we are “in love” with, but the moments themselves are the sorts of things we can also have with people who are almost complete strangers. And unless we have these moments with our intimates, we may still love (1.0?) them, but the positivity resonance that she trumpets will be absent, as will the benefits to mood, brain, and cardiac function.
There are steps we can take to increase our “moments of love,” but this takes some discipline and practice. The habits we have formed in relating to our intimates are not so easy to break. In the second half of Love 2.0, Fredrickson offers advice, and the advice, surprisingly, is to turn not to science, but to Buddhism, and in particular to the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness meditation (LKM). Fredrickson is a practitioner of LKM herself, and offers a testimonial to how life changing just a few hours a week can be. But beyond her testimonial, she describes empirical research on the psychological and physiological benefits of LKM. Small wonder that she has twice had audiences to present her research to the Dalai Lama.
I said that Fredrickson’s book is potentially revolutionary because it aims to have us focus on moments. Positivity resonance is the source of benefits from love, and positivity resonance lies in moments. “Do you love your spouse?” becomes the wrong question; “Are you loving your spouse?” is the right one. A critic might quarrel with Fredrickson for calling these moments of resonance “love” rather than something else. Why not keep “love” as we have always used it and coin a new term for the moments of positivity that Fredrickson is talking about? I don’t think this is a big deal, but, aside from helping to sell books, the virtue of redefining love in this way is that it encourages people to think hard about whether what they’ve been doing in the service of love is actually meeting its objective. And I can’t overemphasize how striking the evidence is that Fredrickson marshals in support of her position. Not just psychological evidence, which would be important enough. But also neural evidence, neurochemical evidence, cardiovascular evidence, and even evidence of effects on gene expression. This line of work may end up changing both what we mean by love and what we take as evidence for love and its effects.
These are three impressive books. Each makes claims about happiness that are at least somewhat counterintuitive. Each supports those claims with cutting edge empirical research. And each offers lots of practical advice. The books are not works of literature, but they are clear and easy to read. Buy these books, read them, take the advice they offer to heart, and you’ll be a happier person.
And yet, I have two caveats — two nagging concerns. The first concern is that maybe the research is too cutting edge. What, you may ask, can that mean? What it can mean is this: the history of research in psychology (and other social sciences) it littered with examples of striking findings that are rushed straight from journals to newspapers but that don’t stand up to further empirical scrutiny. Maybe psychological scientists should take a breath before putting their findings (with lots of accompanying advice) before the lay public. All three of these books are compendia of the latest thing. Much of the work the authors discuss is their own, and each of them has an impressive track record of producing findings that have in fact stood up. But there is a part of me that would like to see a little more caution and humility than one finds in these books. In the past, there wasn’t much of a market for books written for the public by serious scientists. But our collective appetite for these sorts of books now seems ravenous. This might be due to the “Gladwellization” of social science. Malcolm Gladwell has written several huge best sellers that bring social science to bear on topics of general interest. Gladwell writes much better than the scientists, though he sometimes gets the science just a little bit wrong. But the market he has created seems inexhaustible. I can’t keep up with all the books being written by colleagues that are in the Gladwell mode. I worry that it’s way too much, way too soon. And I say this having done it myself, several years ago.
My second concern is much more substantive. Dunn and Norton write that “we often get asked why people can’t just figure out, through trial and error, which purchases make them happy, and which don’t. One important reason, we believe, is that people just don’t have the data they need. They don’t fill out a happiness scale every day, and then look back at the results and see what made them happy and unhappy that day. We get some feedback […] but the immediate feedback may not provide us with the right kind of data to maximize our happiness.”
Someone might ask the same questions of many of Lyubomirsky’s ideas and Fredrickson’s. Why the hell don’t we already know all this stuff and act on it? And I find Dunn and Norton’s answer wholly unpersuasive. They are writing about getting and spending money, about love and intimacy, and about work. Between them, these three domains of activity occupy almost all our waking hours. We think about them incessantly, trying to make sense of our successes and failures. We notice them in others, trying to make sense of their successes and failures. We worry about them when it comes to raising our kids. Even with feedback that is imperfect, it’s incomprehensible to me that we so reliably miss the point. Little kids, despite highly imperfect feedback and error correction, learn their native languages, basic concepts of space, time, and number, and insight into the minds of others. Kids develop subtle moral views as well. If three and four year olds are doing all this — by accident — why are adults unable to do it on purpose?
I have a suspicion about the answer to this question, and my suspicion points to what is lacking in all these books. The difference between little kids and adults is not that kids get better data, or that the problems they are trying to solve are easier. Instead, I think it’s that kids are basically empiricists. Their naïve tools for gathering and processing empirical information allows regularities in the world to emerge in their understanding of it. Adults, in contrast, are theorists. They process data through an ideology that makes truths about happiness of the sort described in these books almost invisible and, at the same time, reinforces falsehoods. It is an ideology of individualism, materialism, competition, and “freedom of choice.” As long as we see the data through these ideological filters, we will fail to learn from experience. Worse yet, if everyone sees the world through these filters, then doing the sorts of things the authors of these books recommend will be very high risk. Openness, intimacy, and trust may be essential to the kinds of positivity resonances Fredrickson writes about. But in a world of competitive individualists, they leave us vulnerable to exploitation. And so we shut out the sorts of experiences Fredrickson urges on us. Giving may be better than receiving, and activities may be better than things, but if we are largely on our own when it comes to providing for our children’s education and our own retirement and health care, then Dunn and Norton have a very hard sell. The problem with books like these three is that they focus almost entirely on what we can do as individuals to get more satisfaction out of our lives. The social and economic structures within which we operate are just taken as given. Organizing the advice being offered in this way may make it easier for us to settle for social and economic structures that are in fact destructive — even intolerable. The dilemma here is palpable: take my advice and you can meliorate inhumane and inhuman living conditions. But the result is that you learn to tolerate what should not be tolerated.
And so, from my point of view, the reason people need to be told explicitly about the ideas in these books is that they have embraced an ideology that contradicts almost all of them. This ideology is a false god, but it doesn’t matter that it’s false, because if people believe it, they live their lives and shape their social institutions in a way that is consistent with it. Correcting ideology is a tall order — one that these books don’t really take on. Perhaps the insights offered in these books will spur others to challenge the ideology of our times. Or perhaps they will enable people to make the best of a situation that does little to help them follow the books’ advice.