“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)
One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.
Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)
The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the world “People definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide: “Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?
The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”
Happy Mattieu Ricard
Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…
Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simple “comparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates). As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.
Less is more
On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (“The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.” I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?
Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.
What makes you happy?