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The Happiness Hypothesis 22 July 2008

Posted by Todd in Buddhism, Microsociology/Social Psychology.
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As I’ve mentioned several times recently, I’m slowly working my way through Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding MOdern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt is a “positive psychologist”, a new subfield of psychology that arose in the late 1990s following a couple decades of sort of groundbreaking research in psychology. The subtitle is a little misleading, however. What he’s actually doing in the book is evaluating human ideas about happiness based on the last 30 years of research; the book is a description of what we know right now about baseline happiness, written for a lay audience. This is my pleasure reading, so it’s going slow; but it’s really worth it.

To understand the book, you have to know that psychologists differentiate between baseline happiness (life satisfaction) and moments or events of extreme emotional pleasure. So happiness is a state of being distinguishible from moments of excitement or joy or pleasure that are fleeting. (The way they started measuring this is fascinating and I’m really glad I wasn’t in the experiment because I would have found it intolerably irritating.)


In Ch. 5, “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Haidt talks about Buddhist ideas of non-attachment. I won’t rehearse the whole thing here, but here’s the formula that positive psych has put on baseline happiness:


Happiness is an interaction between genetic Set point, life Conditions, and Voluntary activities. S=Briefly, about 20 years ago, the research started showing a strong genetic component to baseline happiness, which has since been refined; that is, happiness turns out to be extremely heritable. Recent research has shown that this is a range for each individual, rather than a set level of satisfaction. Where you are in that range is highly influenced by other factors.

C=Life conditions are mostly things you can’t change (sex, age, race, etc.) and some things that change very slowly under normal circumstances (wealth, occupation, education, residence, marital status). It turns out that people in general adapt to their conditions and return to a baseline happiness rather quickly (surveys of quadripelegics and lottery winners show both returning to their pre-accident, pre-windfall levels within a year). There are, however, six life conditions that people seem not to adapt to: noisy environments, commuting, lack of control, shame, conflict in relationships.

V=There are then things that we do that change our affect with more or less permanence. Haidt divides these into two categories: pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are usually physical, namely sex and food; they give real emotional impact, but they can be overdone and become banal. They are real forms of happiness in human life but cannot be depended on for lasting change in our baseline happiness.

Gratifications are activities that we engage in that last for hours or days or weeks afterwards. They come from engaging in activities where we feel confident in our abilities but where we are slightly challenged, so we are fully engaged in what we are doing. Researchers call the affective state “flow” and people remember the state long after and get real emotional pleasure long after the activity is completed. 

The chapter contains lots of different examples and research about what kinds of voluntary activities fit the bill, but there is one thing that stands out for everyone regardless of their strengths: pursuing objects that enhance your status, while humanly normal, do not bring happiness because socially, status is a zero sum game. Pursuing activities that you find personally, emotionally satisfying, especially when you share it with other people, bring the longest, most enduring affective response. In short, psychologically speaking, it is better to spend 100 dollars on a really good dinner with a loved one than to spend it on a luxury item or an object. Doing seems to always be better than an object.

Haidt suggests trying to incorporate at least one activity per day that is in your strengths, where you can experience “flow” to gradually (it takes time) increase your baseline happiness. The psychologist who coined the phrase “positive psychology” at Penn has a web site with a (rather long) test to determine your current strengths (these change over time as your life and you grow and evolve). [url]http://www.authentichappiness.org/[/url]