If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Scientific research about happiness provides a wealth of information, and facilitates substantially to live a happy life. It makes accessible to all the aggregated experiences of many other human beings, who are daily living their lives in the best way they can. It also provides several valuable inputs to policy makers, not just individuals.
Some important points to consider, in order to make the best out of the positive effects that scientific research has on living joyfully:
– self-fulfilling prophecies: with “exact” sciences like physics, describing a phenomenon doesn’t change it, even if of course it influences the way we look at it. Regardless of what we measure as the value of the gravity law, the speed at which stones fall is not affected. Research about happiness, and what makes people happy, is bounded to influence happiness-reinforcing actions.
– diminishing returns and intentions: what facilitate our happiness today may have lower positive impact in the future, because we get used it; this is especially true with pleasant activities; lasting happiness is about our outlook about the present, not only about what we do. Also, intentions count a lot: sharing time and resources with other people makes us more happy than buying something for ourselves; this is what both our experience and scientific research tells us. Still, just based on this, we would give everything away an expect to become happy for ever, we would be in for disappointment. Sharing facilitates happiness when we feel the importance of sharing, and not when we pursue sharing like a task to egoistically enhance our well-being.
8.1 Defining happiness and subjective well-being
Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word, commonly translated as happiness. Consisting of the word “eu” (“good” or “well being”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”, used by extension one’s fortune), it often refers to human flourishing. It was a central concept in ancient Greek ethics, along with the term “arete” (“virtue”) and phronesis (practical or moral wisdom). Webster dictionary defines happiness as “A) state of well-being and contentment, joy. B) a pleasurable or satisfying experience”.
These definitions show that the different aspects of happiness are given different importance by different people; the meaning of happiness in the ears of the listener. For some, it is an inflated term plastered on self-help books; for others, a way of living achieved by living in harmony with ourselves, events, conditions, people and environment around us.
Subjective well-being is not the same as happiness, even if such terms are often used as synonymous. Subjective well-being, as defined by Ed Diener, covers “a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgements of life satisfaction. Subjective well-being consists of two distinctive components: an affective part (evaluation guided by emotions and feeling), which refers to both the presence of positive affect (PA) and the absence of negative affect (NA), and a cognitive part (information-based appraisal of one’s life, evaluated using expectations and “ideal life” as benchmark). It is commonly abbreviated as SWB.
The usage of the term “subjective well-being”, or even the term “joy”, is much less widespread then the one “happiness”. For this reason, while we use happiness in the title of this eBook because that is what people search for online and it is widely mentioned in the field of positive psychology, a suitable way to rephrase it is, in our opinion, is “living joyfully” (when referred to the ordinary meaning of the word), and to use the already mentioned “subjective well-being” which is the accepted standard when it comes to scientific research.
8.2 Measuring subjective well-being
We have already covered some approaches to measure SWB in the previous seven chapters. There are several ways SWB has been measured, both on a collective and individual basis. Often, countries are ranked by their happiness, and cities by how liveable they are.
This ranks how well nations combine level and differences in happiness, for the period 2000-2009, as reported by Veenhoven, R., World Database of Happiness, Erasmus University Rotterdam (available at: http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl accessed on July 7th, 2010):
The Economist Intelligent Survey ranks the most liveable cities in the World, the list is available on http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2009/06/liveable_vancouver
8.3 Maximizing subjective well-being
Since social-sciences This is a selection of scientific findings about SWB; as every selection, more could have been add, and we can discover more about it by reading in full the books of the authors mentioned here, and their colleagues.
Mindfulness: as reported by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, study participants who appreciate positive moments of their day, “showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression”.
Money aren’t everthing: researchers Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan found that “The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there. The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.”. Money-seekers also score lower on tests of vitality and self-actualization. These findings are consistent across nations and cultures.
Have Meaningful Goals: this has been a recurrent them along the eBook. “People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. As humans, we actually require a sense of meaning to thrive.” say Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable” according to Tal Ben-Shahar.
Exercising matters: exercising delivers a sense of accomplishment, plus opportunity for interaction with people and environment, releasing endorphins and boosting self-esteem. And, under the supervision of a doctor, it may be very effective in healing depression.
Positive outlook: “Happy people…see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say Diener and Biswas-Diener.
8.4 Sustaining subjective well-being
If we pursue a meaningful life, or flow, happiness tend to be sustainable, and even self-reinforcing. But if we are on the hedonic treadmill, running here and there but in reality always being at point zero in terms of living joyfully, then in reality we are just aiming at pleasure (with its hedonic adaptation which results in declining value in how we perceive the same activities other time). And, in this case, variety doesn’t really help us; as Daniel Gilbert (Harvard Professor of Psychology and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”) says: “Research shows that people do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different doughnut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favourite on every visit – provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time”. As Daniel Gilbert (Harvard Professor of Psychology and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”) says: “The main error, of course, is that we vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate. This “impact bias” has proved quite robust in both field and laboratory settings”. He also adds: “We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future for two reasons. First, we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things for them so that they can survive. Because we are interested in our own happiness and not theirs, both entities fool us into believing that’s what is good for them is also good for us”. Does this mean we should relay only on scientists to know more about our happiness? Surely not, but we also to be aware of the effects gene and meme have on our assumptions about happiness; assumptions and beliefs are formulated when we do not know, let’s live joyfully so we can then evaluate by ourselves what are appropriate ways to act in each situation.
8.5 Subjective well-being and generosity
Elizabeth W. Dunn is assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and is well-known for her research in the field of happiness, self knowledge, affective forecasting, implicit social cognition. In the conclusions of her paper titled “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness”, she wrote “While much research has examined the effect of income on happiness, we suggest that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.
8.5 Subjective well-being and social networks
Human relationships are consistently found to be the most important correlation with human happiness. Happier people tend to have good relations with family and friends, as said by Diener and Biswas-Diener, who also add that “We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones” that involve understanding and caring. Studies, including the one published on the British Medical Journal, reported that happiness in social networks may spread from person to person. Quoting its conclusions: “While there are many determinants of happiness, whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people. The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network. Happiness, in other words, is not merely a function of individual experience or individual choice but is also a property of groups of people. Indeed, changes in individual happiness can ripple through social networks and generate large scale structure in the network, giving rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. These results are even more remarkable considering that happiness requires close physical proximity to spread and that the effect decays over time.
Our results are consistent with previous work on the evolutionary basis of human emotions and with work focusing on the fleeting direct spread of emotions. In addition to their internal and psychological relevance, emotions have a specifically social role: when humans experience emotions, they tend to show them. Like laughter and smiling, the emotion of happiness might serve the evolutionarily adaptive purpose of enhancing social bonds. Human laughter, for example, is believed to have evolved from the“play face” expression seen in other primates in relaxed social situations. Such facial expressions and positive emotions enhance social relations by producing analogous pleasurable feelings in others, by rewarding the efforts of others, and by encouraging ongoing social contact. Given the organization of people (and early hominids) into social groups larger than pairs, such spread in emotions probably served evolutionarily adaptive purposes. There are thus good biological, psychological, and social reasons to suppose that social networks (both in terms of their large scale structure and in terms of the interpersonal ties of which they are composed) would be relevant to human happiness.
Our data do not allow us to identify the actual causal mechanisms of the spread of happiness, but various mechanisms are possible. Happy people might share their good fortune (for example, by being pragmatically helpful or financially generous to others), or change their behaviour towards others (for example, by being nicer or less hostile), or merely exude an emotion that is genuinely contagious (albeit over a longer time frame than previous psychological work has indicated). Psychoneuroimmunological mechanisms are also conceivable, whereby being surrounded by happy individuals has beneficial biological effects.
The spread of happiness seems to reach up to three degrees of separation, just like the spread of obesity and smoking behaviour. Hence, although the person to person effects of these outcomes tend to be quite strong, they decay well before reaching the whole network. In other words, the reach of a particular behaviour or mood cascade is not limitless. We conjecture that this phenomenon is generic. We might yet find that a “three degrees of influence rule” applies to depression, anxiety, loneliness, drinking, eating, exercise, and many other health related activities and emotional states, and that this rule restricts the effective spread of health phenomena to three degrees of separation away from the ego.
Our findings have relevance for public health. To the extent that clinical or policy manoeuvres increase the happiness of one person, they might have cascade effects on others, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost effectiveness of the intervention. For example, illness is a potential source of unhappiness for patients and also for those individuals surrounding the patient. Providing better care for those who are sick might not only improve their happiness but also the happiness of numerous others, thereby further vindicating the benefits of medical care or health promotion. There is of course a tradition of community approaches to mental health, but this longstanding concern is now being coupled with a burgeoning interest in health and social networks. More generally, conceptions of health and concerns for the well-being of both individuals and populations are increasingly broadening to include diverse “quality of life” attributes, including happiness. Most important from our perspective is the recognition that people are embedded in social networks and that the health and well- being of one person affects the health and well-being of others. This fundamental fact of existence provides a conceptual justification for the speciality of public health. Human happiness is not merely the province of isolated individuals”.
This is chapter Eight of “Happiness Formulas. How to assess our subjective well-being? How to live joyfully in the 21st century?”. This free eBook can be downloaded from
http://www.iswb.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/happiness-e-book.pdf or from the home-page of the Institute of subjective well-being: science of happiness .