Happiness Is

Author: Andrew Santella

More than a century ago, an Irish economist named Francis Edgeworth imagined a futuristic device that he called a hedonimeter. It would be, Edgeworth speculated, “an ideally perfect instrument, a psychophysical machine.” His hedonimeter would measure happiness by “continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual.”

This may sound more like something out of science fiction — or maybe Woody Allen’s Sleeper — than an idea from the annals of economic history. But Edgeworth’s fantasy grew out of his utilitarian approach to economics, with its assumption that the best way to make choices and allocate resources was to aim to maximize happiness in society. Today, the idea that happiness can indeed be measured and quantified remains at the heart of a new science of happiness.

Over the last few decades, psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, behavioral economists and other social scientists have been busy using cold, hard data to try to fill in some of the blank spaces on the map of human happiness. It turns out that no hedonimeter is necessary. Much of the latest data on happiness is generated simply by asking people how they feel.

This by-the-numbers approach to happiness is just part of a general surge of interest in the topic. You can see signs of it not just in the self-help section of your local Barnes & Noble but in scholarly publications like the Journal of Happiness Studies. It’s not just relentlessly optimistic life coaches talking about happiness now — it’s also sober economists and white-paper-producing policy wonks.

Happiness how-to

You can now choose from dozens of books that offer a happiness how-to, including one by the Dalai Lama ( The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living ) and one by Billy Graham ( The Secret of Happiness ). Or you may wish to take a more academic approach: Harvard offers a course on happiness that attracts hundreds of students each term. And, perhaps most influentially of all, the booming “positive psychology” movement, which emphasizes the strengths, virtues and positive emotions that help people thrive, has reclaimed happiness as an object worthy of serious study.

As historian of happiness Darrin McMahon said in a paper he presented at a 2006 Notre Dame conference on the subject, people “have never been as preoccupied, never been as obsessed, I would argue, with happiness as they are right now.”

It’s true that, as one who has chosen to make a living as a freelance journalist, I may have had less experience with happiness than other, normal people. But trying to understand happiness has always seemed to me like just the sort of activity that would interfere with the actual enjoyment of happiness. And in fact, one of the things we’ve learned from happiness research is that many of us have a lousy understanding of just what will make us happy.

Take the research on happiness and parenting. You might think that raising children would rank right up there among the most rewarding and life-enriching experiences. Yet when a team headed by the Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman a few years back asked women to keep detailed daily records of their activities and rate how happy each made them, caring for kids turned out to rate as a largely negative experience. The women said taking care of their kids left them less satisfied than cooking and just slightly happier than doing the dishes. That’s right: Even housework sounded better to them than watching the kids.

Lottery winners

Likewise, the data on money and happiness. In a now-legendary 1978 study, researchers showed that 22 lottery winners ended up no happier than those who hadn’t won. Philip Brickman, one of the authors of the lottery paper, referred to a “hedonic treadmill” that keeps us dissatisfied and seeking the next triumph. In numerous studies, researchers have found that beyond a certain income level, more money will not buy more happiness.

On the other hand, people have a surprising capacity to bounce back from trauma. Research has shown that even people who have lost a limb or their sight may rebound to near their former levels of happiness. In short, we don’t get the payoff we expect from some supposedly happy events, but we’re better able to cope than we know with some of the catastrophes we dread most.

But simply asking people if they are happy is hardly a foolproof metric. Even if most social scientists are confident about the data produced by such research, there remains some skepticism about people’s ability to report their own emotions, says Benjamin Radcliff, professor of political science at Notre Dame. With Amitava Krishna Dutt, an ND professor of economics and policy, he organized the 2006 New Directions in the Study of Happiness Conference at Notre Dame, bringing some of the leading scholars in happiness studies to campus. A book based on the conference, Happiness, Economics and Politics: Towards a Multi-disciplinary Approach, was published in 2009 by Edward Elgar.

Part of the problem may be that for all the data generated on the subject, happiness remains an elusive concept. Does it mean simply feeling good at a given moment? Or is it about broader satisfaction with life?

The distinction may help explain some of the trouble we have predicting what will make us happy. We can feel generally satisfied with parenthood even if at any given moment taking care of children makes us want to scream. So is it, “I love being a mom”? Or, “These kids have been driving me crazy all morning”? Our self-reported happiness may be wildly variable depending on which definition we apply, or even when we’re asked about it. As Dutt says, “Finding out what makes us happy is a difficult thing.”

It’s almost enough to make a happiness scientist wish he had a hedonimeter.

The virtue of happiness

I was a latecomer to the pursuit of happiness. Well into adulthood I clung to a sophomore’s pose of pseudointellectual melancholy. I thought happiness was for shallow people.

It was only later — was it marriage? fatherhood? late-onset emotional maturity? — that happiness started to look to me like a desirable thing. My timing couldn’t have been better. Answers to ancient questions about happiness are now everywhere to be found, often in paperback. And the notion that happiness is somehow inauthentic is just the sort of thing the positive psychology crowd aims to wipe out. Happiness, they like to say, is a strength; there’s nothing inauthentic or shallow about it.

“Our message,” wrote one of the movement’s founders, Martin Seligman, in the journal American Psychologist in 2000, “is to remind our field that psychology is not just the study of pathology, weakness and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken; it is nurturing what is best.”

For Seligman, the focus on mental illness meant that psychologists spent all their time bringing patients “from a negative, dysfunctional state to a neutral norm” or “from a minus five to a zero.” Positive psychologists ask, “How do we get from zero to plus five?”

It’s this zero-to-five business — the practice of attaching a number to our feelings — that still gives me trouble. I’ve taken some of the better-known happiness inventories and questionnaires, and what I’ve learned more than anything else is that some of the questions they ask tend to leave me stumped. The Fordyce Emotions Questionnaire, for example, which I found at Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website, asked me, “What percentage of the time do you feel happy?”

I spent about 30 minutes considering that question. After all, how do I attach a number to a concept as transient and indefinable as happiness? Mulling the question over left me feeling, yes, much less happy than when I had begun. I ended up giving an answer of 25 percent, which seemed like a pretty healthy happiness quotient to me, one that reflected my sense that — while I maintain some perspective about all this — things are generally okay with me.

Well, it turns out that compared to other test-takers, I’m a real mess. My happiness level registered a 5 out of 10 according to that questionnaire, which placed me in the lowest third of my age group, education level and zip code for happiness. My results on the Authentic Happiness Inventory were similarly weltschmerz-y: A 2.58 out of 5, placing me, again, in the lower third of most segments of test-takers for happiness. Who knew that so many people were so much happier than me?

Clearly, my standards for my personal happiness are too high. Maybe from now on, as long as there is no wild animal gnawing at my leg, I should try to consider myself content. But is it really possible for us to be so objective about our own emotions? Or do many of the people surveyed about their happiness feel as unprepared to quantify it as I do, and instead end up pretty much picking a number out of the air, or telling the questioner what they think he wants to hear?

Research boon

Whatever my reservations about measuring happiness by asking about it, the positive psychology approach has proven massively attractive to funders and, not surprisingly, to researchers. The Templeton Foundation has offered millions of dollars worth of annual awards for research in positive psychology, and the National Institute of Mental Health has made more than $200 million in grants to projects in the field over the last decade. The resulting boom in research has helped quantify, measure and create a vocabulary of happiness.

Researchers have also looked for new ways, improving on Edgeworth and his hedonimeter, to measure happiness. They rely on an array of surveys, journals and questionnaires to gauge what they call subjective well-being. Some, like psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have used beepers and hand-held electronic devices to survey subjects at random intervals about their activities and feelings. Still others, dissatisfied with having to rely on asking their subjects how they are feeling, take a kind of remote reading of the national mood. A team at the University of Vermont recently analyzed blogs and Twitter posts for real-time emotional declarations and declared that November 4, 2008 — election day — was the happiest day in years.

Studies like these tend to get heavy play in a media marketplace hungry for content related to personal health. Boiled down to a headline, some of the findings surprise us, some seem achingly obvious. Older people seem to be more satisfied with their lives than the young. Married people are generally happier than singles. A correlation seems to exist between religious faith and happiness. And the link between having friends and happiness is particularly strong.

For all the practical information now available on what makes us happy, however, it’s useful to remember that only relatively recently has happiness begun to seem like something most people could aspire to — at least in this world.


McMahon, in his Happiness: A History, points out that for the ancient Greeks, happiness was available only to a virtuous few godlike individuals. He writes that the etymological link between luck and happiness in several languages — the Old Norse and Old English hap, the Old French heur and the Middle High German gluck all mean something like “luck” or “fortune” — suggest that happiness was long considered more a matter of chance than of human agency. That’s a long way from the current ethos of self-help, with its emphasis on maximizing individual potential and taking responsibility for our own happiness.

Not until the 18th century was it possible to talk of “every man’s right to happiness,” an Enlightenment notion that found its way into the Declaration of Independence. It’s an idea that makes possible, among other great innovations, the self-help industry. For from the assumption that happiness is our natural end and objective, it is a short leap to the suspicion that there might be something wrong with us if we fail to achieve it. Our nation’s founding document, Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said, only guarantees the right to pursue happiness. Catching it, according to Franklin, was up to us.

That aphorism is probably apocryphal, but it gets at some of the American obsession with happiness. And one of America’s innovations has been to link the pursuit of happiness to the practice of religion. The Enlightenment belief in happiness was supposed to have largely replaced the belief in salvation by God, but the two have often been hard to separate in the United States. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that American preachers were always promising that religion would help them gain “prosperity" in this world. Get religion, the pitch went, and you’ll get happiness in the bargain. More recently, and along the same lines, the Pew Research Center noted that evangelical Protestants were much more likely than other Americans to describe themselves as “very happy.”

That kind of finding might dismay those who associate Christianity with a message of suffering and an obsession with the next world. But churchgoers still get the occasional reminder about gratitude and forgiveness and other practices that would seem to encourage good feelings. And even if it might not get much play on Sunday mornings, Christians do operate out of a tradition that includes, say, Aquinas, who built his own specifically Christian philosophy of happiness.
Yet doesn’t it seem that for more and more of us — especially in the crunchy and progressive precincts — the road to happiness leads not west but squarely east?

Just this morning, when I opened my laptop to work on this piece, my home page alerted me to a five-step online how-to guide to happiness. It emphasized mindfulness and optimism and, of course, deep breathing — all right out of the positive psychology playbook by way of the neighborhood yoga studio. All those namaste bumper stickers you see on all those Volvos on the way to Trader Joe’s might tell us something about where people are looking for happiness these days.

A happy kingdom

What if we wanted to apply happiness studies to a broader field than our own personal self-improvement campaigns? What if we wanted to use the new calculus of personal satisfaction to change the way nations govern themselves? The United States may have enshrined the pursuit of happiness as a universal right, but it is in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan that happiness has become part of the policy-making equation. The Bhutanese have concluded that if economic growth in itself does not necessarily lead to happiness, then traditional measures of well-being — like gross domestic product — should be replaced with a new metric: Gross National Happiness.

Under Bhutan’s constitution, government policies must be judged not in terms of economic benefits but by the level of happiness they produce. The Bhutanese economic model rests on “four pillars of happiness” — self-reliance, environmentalism, culture and democracy — and is further broken down into 72 indicators of well-being.

It’s not only in tiny Buddhist kingdoms that the idea of making happiness a policy objective is gaining some traction, but also in Western think tanks and government agencies, as well. In the United States, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index aims to “provide the official measure for health and well-being.” At the same time, some scholars are arguing that the body of new data on happiness should make us think in new ways about law, public policy, health care and the role of government in people’s lives.

Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, for example, has argued that our inability to predict how well people will adapt to trauma has skewed the way we think about personal injury lawsuits. He suggests that our unwillingness to believe that a disabled life can be a happy one leads to excessively large awards in such cases. Other scholars have argued that greater attention to happiness data should produce changes in our national health care priorities, which they say now lean too heavily toward curing physical ailments while neglecting mental health.

Notre Dame’s Radcliff has applied survey data to investigate how governing political philosophies affect happiness. He concludes that “people who live in countries with an expansive welfare state, or a history of rule by social democratic parties are more satisfied with their lives.” Likewise, he finds, “the same pattern applies when looking across the American states: those who live in states with higher welfare spending, more organized labor, more liberal state governments, more regulation of business and a greater recent history of control by the Democratic Party, are more satisfied with their lives.”

Happiness, it seems, is a warm liberal.

Timeless problem

Making choices by asking what will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is hardly a novel idea. It is at the heart of the kind of utilitarian approach that got Francis Edgeworth thinking about his hedonimeter. Still, terms like Gross National Happiness — with its yoking of the ephemeral and the statistical — don’t entirely skirt the timeless problem of how to define happiness and who gets to define it. Can we depend on people to make rational choices in the pursuit of happiness? What if my idea of happiness involves long days on the couch watching Cops? Or if I say that all I need to be happy is my heroin? Should I be left alone to pursue my bliss? And just how paternalistic should governments be in guiding their people to the good life?

At the Notre Dame conference on happiness, economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer argued that while “it is tempting to apply happiness research in a technocratic way,” it would be a mistake to make happiness the object of public policy — in part because measures of happiness would be subject to manipulation and distortion.

Happiness should be one of the measures we look at, but that doesn’t mean it should replace other measures,” says Dutt. “It can be dangerous to simply do whatever makes people happy.”

For that matter, even pursuing happiness on a personal level can be problematic. Positive psychology, with its insistence that we can take action to change how we feel, does us a service by empowering us and offering us an alternative to despair. But it may also feed the soul-crushing suspicion that our unhappiness is our own fault. When we fail to meet our own emotional expectations, we end up being unhappy about our own unhappiness.

Which is why, even though I’m not as hostile to happiness as I once was, I remain wary of people telling me to get with the happiness program. (Is there a more depressing phrase in the English language than, “Don’t worry, be happy”?) You don’t have to be a miserable pessimist to rebel at the idea that happiness is something to be worked at, like a weight-room regimen. Besides, I’m reluctant to completely give up my melancholy. Openness to the full menu of emotions is part of being fully human and fully alive. Our misery and our complaints are part of what distinguishes us as individuals. They help make us interesting. Our dissatisfaction implies discernment.

That’s not to romanticize depression or despair. I’ve known both and, on the whole, I’d rather be happy. But the trouble with happiness is that its pursuit can be so frustrating and dispiriting. Happiness is a moving target. Just when I think I’ve hit on the right blend of routines and pleasures and meaningful pursuits to make me happy, something changes. My strategies for happiness wear out. They stop working. Anyway, I don’t want my happiness reduced to a set of behaviors to be checked off in a happiness workbook: A Marx Brothers movie to cheer me up, some volunteer tutoring to provide moral purpose.

It’s not that happiness is an impossibility. It’s that I don’t think I’ll ever find it by trying to chase it down — or by filling out a workbook. A more indirect approach might be called for. After all, as much as we talk about the pursuit of happiness, doesn’t happiness usually catch us while we’re busy pursuing something else?

“Ask yourself whether you are happy,” wrote the 19th century philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, “and you cease to be so.”

Andrew Santella ( andrewsantella.com ) has written for The New York Times Book Review, Slate, GQ and other publications.