[Overseas view]Live happy. It pays.Am I happy? Does the car I bought last year make me so? What about my relationships, or the lunch I had today? My job, my life?
Chances are you have asked yourself questions like these recently. Consumer economies, with their emphasis on delivering satisfaction and good feeling, encourage such thoughts. And if you live in the developed world ― whether in South Korea or the West ― chances are also good that you are relatively content. According to the American psychologist Ed Diener, most people are happy most of the time. In the United States, 80 percent of men and women describe themselves as “very happy” or “pretty happy,” and a study of nationally representative surveys in some 43 countries finds that 84 percent of respondents rate themselves above neutral on a general happiness scale.
Of course, there are differences between the countries. But what about between individuals? Why do some people experience more happiness than others, and can we do anything to boost our own?
The movement known as “positive psychology” has devoted a good deal of energy in recent years to precisely these questions. As its founder and leading spokesman, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, likes to point out, traditional psychology was established on the pathological model of medicine, which aimed to diagnose illness and cure afflictions, treating sickness and relieving pain. Positive psychology, by contrast, focuses on the sources of positive emotion ― happiness and joy. Studying the traits and attributes of happy people is one of positive psychology’s principal endeavors, and already several connections seem clear.
In the first place, happy people are social people. They tend to be outgoing and extroverted, and have large circles of family and friends. They also tend to be in stable relationships: Marriage, it seems, is good for happiness, just as your mother always told you. Religious sentiment, too, correlates strongly with increased levels of well-being. Perhaps that is because religious worship is generally a social affair. Or perhaps it has more to do with cultivating hope about the future and gratitude toward the past. Happy people, research shows, tend to be optimistic about new experiences and thankful for those they have had. And they maintain that perspective late into life. Though some may find it surprising, we actually grow slightly happier as we age. As far as happiness is concerned, you shouldn’t regret your youth.
So does this mean that if you make lots of friends, get married, find faith, cultivate optimism and gratitude, and age with grace, you will be happy? Unfortunately, it is a little more complicated than that. While all of these characteristics correlate well with happiness, it is not entirely clear that they produce it.
In other words, although happy people tend, for example, to be optimistic, it may just be that optimism is the result of a happy disposition, not its ultimate cause. Does happiness produce optimism, or does optimism produce happiness?
Posing such questions is a little bit like wondering what came first, the chicken or the egg. But though researchers (and philosophers) delight in pondering such dilemmas, the rest of us can probably safely assume that the happiness correlations work both ways. Chickens come from eggs, yes, but eggs come from chickens too. Similarly, a happy disposition probably leads to optimism, just as optimism probably goes some way toward cultivating happiness.
There are, however, limits to what one can do. Indeed, another of the major findings of the new happiness research is that mood has a strongly genetic component. Long ago, Charles Darwin observed in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872) that “some dogs and horses are ill-tempered, and easily turn sulky; others are good-tempered,” and that “these qualities are certainly inherited.”
In effect, happiness researchers have extended that insight to human beings. They speak, on the analogy of the thermostat, of the “set-point” of mood. Each of us, the theory holds, has our own internal setting, or general level of happiness, around which our day-to-day moods fluctuate. From time to time our “temperature” may rise or fall: We feel less happy or sad, depending on circumstances. But the set-point regulates these fluctuations, returning us to our baseline mood, which differs from person to person based on genetic disposition.
Much experimental data supports the set-point theory. Studies of lottery winners, for example, or those who have suffered car or motorcycle accidents, confirm that despite the short-term blessings or blows of fortune people return relatively quickly ― usually within several months ― to their baseline mood. In another famous experiment, the behavioral geneticist David Lykken studied identical twins separated at birth and found that despite vastly different life experiences, they tested almost identically on a scale of mood, owing largely, it appears, to the influence of their genes. As Lykken concluded at the time, “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.”
Few researchers would state the case that starkly today (including Lykken himself, who has since qualified his original statement). But even enthusiastic positive psychologists like Seligman concede that the best we can do is to try to live at the top of our set range. “I think you’ve got about 10 to 15 percent leverage,” Seligman observes, “but you can’t take a grouch and make him giggle all the time.”
Fifteen percent is not a lot of room for improvement. But there is some. And the reasons for trying to use that leverage to your advantage would seem compelling. Happy people, the research shows, are healthier, live longer, make more money, and are more successful in their careers. Happiness, we might say, pays.
Modern economies surely understand that connection. But as consumers it is important to understand not just the benefits of happiness, but the potential costs as well.
In my next column, I will take a look at why societies that urge their citizens to constantly ask how happy they are may actually be leading them astray.
*The writer is the Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University, and the author of “Happiness: A History,” forthcoming in Korean translation by Sallim.
by Darrin M. McMahon