Happiness is unrelated to them

Published 5:51 am Monday, May 10, 2010

Are you happier today than you were a year ago? Are you happier in the Obama administration than you were under Bush’s? Are you happier with your job, house, car, spouse? Several recent studies suggest you are probably not any happier with any of these, because happiness is unrelated to them. Happiness does not come from the external stuff from which most people expect happiness but, rather, from the attitudes and resources within a person.

Most people would presume winning a jackpot would immediately bring maximum happiness. However, after studying hundreds of winners, Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert conclude: “People routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

Many wisely dismiss any hopes of winning a jackpot, but they still strive frantically for higher incomes, confident this will bring happiness.

If this were true, American people would be the happiest in world history. But studies show the “subjective well-being” of Americans has remained flat since the 1950s. Yet, during this time, the real per-capita income of Americans has more than doubled.

An academic discipline now called “happiness studies” is being pursued by psychologists, sociologists, and economists working together to chart happiness and recommend public policy to improve it. Many other studies are published, e.g., ”The Politics of Happiness” by former Harvard president Derek Bok, “Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires” by University of Maryland public policy professor Carol Graham, and “Stumbling on Happiness” by Harvard psychology professor Gilbert.

One factor the studies identify is the “hedonic treadmill,” i.e., people rapidly adjust to new fortune and immediately ramp up their expectations. Another is that people are relativists, craving not necessarily more stuff but more stuff than their neighbors.

Gilbert concludes that people are very poor judges of what will bring them satisfaction. “They anticipate being overjoyed by events that, when they actually occur, leave them unmoved.” After the Bush-Gore campaign of 2000, for instance, the Bush supporters were only a third as happy as they thought they would be, and the Gore supporters were only a fourth as disappointed as they expected.

Two years ago Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, commissioned a blue ribbon economic study of what would make the French happy. The final report calls for people to re-evaluate “hedonic experiences and priorities.”

I put it this way: People are happy when they do the best they can with what they have until better things become possible.

Everyone has need of adequate food and clothing, good health, and safe and sanitary shelter. It is right for them to work for these things, and it is right for us to provide them when individuals are unable. But they must not think they will find happiness in these things, and we must not think we make them happy by welfare. These studies have documented that acquisition of even these necessities does not assure happiness.

Happiness starts wherever and however people are. If they are happy there, they will carry happiness with them to the next level.

If they never reach the next level, happiness remains with them. Happiness is within them, an internal quality.

If they do not choose to be happy on the lower level, they will not find it anywhere on the higher. They will not be happy with meat and potatoes but demand cake. Warm and comfortable clothing won’t bring happiness, and they will expect Gucci.

They won’t be happy with excellent heath but demand never to become sick. They won’t find happiness in a cottage because they presume it must be in a mansion.

I have been in hovels overflowing with happiness, and in mansions with not a hint.

I don’t preach at people just to be content with what little they might have but to ensure there is content to their character.

It is all right to have many wants, but we must know the difference between wants and needs. It’s all right to have big dreams, but we must recognize what is reasonable. Happy is he who knows the meaning of “adequate” and “enough.”

Happiness comes from within the soul; the stuff of happiness is internal.