What makes humans happy?

Last week I gave a talk about happiness research. Here are some notes for posterity. I haven’t deliberately sought out happiness research, but bias research (my area of interest) overlaps with it a great deal.

First, a disclaimer. When we talk about one group being happier than another, we’re talking about the average of a large number of subjects. All the different life stories that arise from, say, having children, are boiled down to a single figure. I would prefer to see longitudinal studies of happiness displayed as a “heat map” rather than a line on a graph.

Second, a correction. Last week I hadn’t read Bella DePaulo’s Singled Out, which takes a close look at research on the effects of marriage. So when I said that marriage makes people happier by a wide margin, I was unaware of how much this apaprently “common-sense” finding was based on bad research which has been influenced by the “family values” lobby. Some of DePaulo’s findings:

  1. The difference is tiny: on a ten-point scale, people expect that marriage will make a difference of four or five points, whereas the real difference between married subjects and subjects who never married is about 0.1.
  2. The happiness effect of marriage seems to be temporary: about five years into the marriage, happiness returns to its pre-marriage level.
  3. Longitudinal studies suggest that the causality may well be the other way. People who are happy in their marriage seem to be happier before marriage.
  4. Note that the standard comparison is between married people and people who have never married. What about people who have divorced? They are less happy than both groups, even years after their divorce.  This crucial bit of data undermines the idea that getting married will make you happy.

So now, as promised, notes from the talk. The main sources were Daniel Gilbert’s excellent book Stumbling on Happiness and various papers and tidbits, for which PsyBlog : Psychology of Happiness is a handy starting point.

1. Human beings are really bad at predicting what will make them happy or sad. We imagine that severe disability would make us very unhappy, and winning the lottery would make us happy, but we ignore how we would adjust to those situations. The DePaulo experiment about perceptions and reality of marriage is an example.

2. The folk misconception about happiness is that it is determined to a large degree by life’s big decisions: where to live, what job to take, whether and whom to marry (see above) and so on. Which option we choose doesn’t matter much for happiness in the long run, but the decisions themselves lower our happiness. There is anxiety as we try to “keep our options open” as long as possible (Ariely writes about this in Predictably Irrational). Once we choose one option and it doesn’t go as well as we hoped, we can torture ourselves with regret that the other option would have been better (even if there’s no reason to think it would have been). Happiness seems to be more about day-to-day experiences than big decisions.

3. One reason we’re so bad at predicting our future mood is focalism. We visualise one change without visualising the whole context, and so we overestimate the effect on our lives of making a change or acquiring something new. Imagine if you had a yacht. Do you think that would that make you happy? When I imagine the yacht, I imagine sitting on the deck, sipping chilled wine while floating in the baking sun of a beautiful Mediterranean island. I don’t imagine cleaning, insuring, refuelling, docking or the other hassles which would affect my happiness if I really did own a yacht.

No doubt there are people who are made happier by owning a yacht, but this example illustrates how we can end up chasing a mirage of happiness because we don’t see the big picture. I suspect that we each have our own mental “yachts”: things, events, places or people that we pursue in the belief that they will “finally” make us happy.

4. Happiness seems to be based very much on comparison rather than objective welfare. It depends on counterfactuals; those stories we tell ourselves about what might have been. It’s vulnerable to framing effects, i.e. we respond differently to a possibility whether it’s described as a gain or as a loss, even if there’s no real difference. Imagine if you went on a TV game show and won £50,000: you’d probably be ecstatic. Now imagine you go on Deal Or No Deal and stay all the way down to two boxes. You choose one and open it: your winnings are £50,000. Then you find the other box – that you rejected – had £250,000. I expect people in this situation feel absolutely gutted, because for them it’s so easy to imagine the counterfactual where they get the bigger prize, so they experience a £200,000 loss rather than a gain.

This suggests that we can raise our happiness by altering our habits of mind. When you think about your job now, do you compare it to your first job, which really sucked, or your ideal job as a helicopter-flying vigilante porn-star? Do you look at someone unfortunate and feel grateful you’re not in the same situation, or do you compare your status to someone you know who’s very successful, nagging yourself that you, rather than they, should be in the porn helicopter?

5. Taleb’s loss-aversion argument from Fooled by Randomness: since we’re more affected by loss than by gain (Tversky and Kahneman’s famous 2.5:1 ratio), and since any complex situation will have ups and downs, it’s not wise to frequently monitor a situation you have no control over (e.g. regularly checking share values will make you more unhappy, even if the shares are generally increasing in value).

6. Talking about an emotion decreases the impact of that emotion. You can use this asymmetrically: when having a good time, don’t analyse why but when you have unpleasant feelings, put them into words. Do this by taking to a close friend or even just writing a diary.

7. Ruminating on an emotion doesn’t decrease its impact: going over an unpleasant event in your mind just means more unpleasantness.

8. The paradoxical role of variety: breaking up a life’s routine seems to make people happier, but Gilbert reports that people sometimes pursue variety for its own sake, rather than just choosing what they like best. In his experiment with meal choices, people with a “free choice” of meal on successive weeks were less happy with their meals that subjects who were restricted to eating their favourite meal.

9. The importance of control, even of minor things:

“[P]eople find it gratifying to exercise control – not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen -is one of the fundamental needs with which our brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression for this penchant for control.”  (Gilbert (2006), page 20)

10. The non-linear relationship between money and happiness: it sucks to lack money, but once you have “enough”, more money doesn’t seem to make people happier. While material wealth has increased hugely in the developed world over the last half century, happiness has stayed pretty constant. The two biggest determinants of happiness, according to DePaulo, are health and financial security. Note that it’s financial security, not wealth.

11. In case it’s not clear by now, happiness is incredibly hard to investigate scientifically. Our predictions of future happiness are incredibly unreliable. Our memories of how happy we were are distorted by all sorts of biases. All we can go on are present time self-ratings; answers to, “How happy are you now, on a scale from 1 to 10?” But even these answers are sensitive to whatever the person happened to be thinking about at the time. If you ask someone how many dates they have been on in the last six months, it affects the answers they subsequently give to the happiness question.

12. Beware the introspection illusion: you might feel you have a special insight into what makes you happy, because you know your own mind. Remember that although you’re an individual, you’re also a member of a species. It seems paradoxical, but you can learn more about what makes you happy by (non-credulously) observing what makes other people happy. This doesn’t mean I advocate copying other people’s lives.

13. Gilbert reports that over the course of an adult life, happiness takes a U-shaped course. This seems to be a journey from being young and carefree to being loaded with responsibilities (adolescent children especially), with happiness shooting up again as children grow up and leave home, and retirement comes along. Early retirement seems to be the happiest time of some people’s lives.

14. An interesting informal exploration of happiness: a science blog run by the New York Times asked people for ten most expensive purchases, and the ten purchases which had made them most happy.

  • Some things that appear on both lists: houses, university education, travel, home entertainment systems
  • Happy but not expensive: dinner parties or meals out, books, music, hobbies, pets, alcohol
  • Expensive but not happy: marriage ceremonies (sorry!), children (sorry!), boats (including yachts, I presume!)

Update: Vox has some nice graphs of how happiness responds to major life events like marriage, divorce and being laid off.

Finally,  a note on the format of the session. I enjoy giving talks, but I enjoy the questions afterward even more. Having a discussion format like this was a way to get straight to the good bit, so thanks to everyone who turned up. Not much makes me happier than being in a group of people making each other laugh and making each other think!

  1. #1 by danbri on July 14, 2009 - 6:07 pm

    Interesting contrast here –

    “6. Talking about an emotion decreases the impact of that emotion. You can use this asymmetrically: when having a good time, don’t analyse why but when you have unpleasant feelings, put them into words. Do this by taking to a close friend or even just writing a diary.

    7. Ruminating on an emotion doesn’t decrease its impact: going over an unpleasant event in your mind just means more unpleasantness.”

    Wondering what the experimentolgists have to say on the dividing line here.

    More than once, I’ve had a crappy day, been quite upset for apparently no reason. Then I made a list in my head of 10-20 “little” things which all added up to be – taken together – rather overwhelming. You might file this under “ruminating” but it’s basically the same process as writing things down. But with less evidence left lying around 🙂

  2. #2 by Martin Poulter on July 14, 2009 - 7:24 pm

    Hi Dan,
    I think the difference was between re-experiencing the emotion and processing it. Recalling and introspecting a bad memory just made people feel worse, but turning it into words decreased its effect. What you describe counts as processing. The decrease probably happens because of the self-serving biases that kick in and make the bad thing seem not the subject’s fault: how we turn the narrative into one in which we take the heroic role. I’ll find the specific quotes from the Wilson and Gilbert books if you nudge me to.

  3. #3 by Martin Poulter on August 12, 2009 - 4:55 pm

    Just wanted to archive here a very nice comment received by email from my colleague Anne-Marie:

    “What a wonderful piece of work. This is very interesting. It debunks a lot of pre-conceived ideas and, because all our lives have really quite a lot in common, it shows a remarkable lot of issues that have shaped my life and provided similar conclusions to me through experience rather than an academic approach. Fascinating to see so much human experience expressed in a well thought-out and executed piece of research! Thank you for sharing this with us.”

  1. The friendship paradox « Bias and Belief

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