This post has been inspired by yet another fantastic professor that everyone with an internet connection can (and should), listen to. His name is Paul Bloom and his course in introductory psychology can be found at Yale's open courses site. In the last lecture of this series Bloom discusses "The Good life: Happiness". The first 15min or so is about therapy and whether it really works, an interesting topic on its own, however, it is with happiness that I will be concerned here.
A few years ago (summer 2004) I went to summer school in Cambridge UK. I attended a wealth of different lectures on everything from astronomy and climate change to genetics and ladybird sexuality. One of the most memorable lectures was one held by Nick Baylis which was on the just born branch of psychology called "positive psychology". The general outline of the lecture was something like the following. Since psychology was born in the 19th century it has merely been focused on the sick and abnormal. How do we deal with crazy and depressed individuals? Now does that seem a bit skewed to you? Should we also not study happy people and see how they differ. What makes them happy? Or is happiness simply not being abnormal or insane (not to far from the truth perhaps…)? What Nick said was basically that we should investigate happy people to see if there are any lessons to be drawn from them, and that I think seems to make an awful lot of sense.
Since this lecture which positive psychology has become a very hyped subject and vast sums of money are being pumped into this field of research with highly variable gains. Some experiments which I will share here are however, highly interesting and also hilarious. In what is perhaps my favorite experiment, random people at work were asked to go to the photocopier and make some copies of whatever. For half of the participants a dime had been planted on the photocopier, as if someone had forgotten it. Now we all know what a great feeling it is to find money on the street but I think that what happens next will surprise you. After having done the photocopies the participants were approached and asked something like the following: "how happy would you say you are with your whole life". What happens? The group that found the dime on the photocopier reported significantly better life satisfaction!!! Conclusion: when we estimate how happy we are we are extremely susceptible to factors in out immediate environment. In a similar experiment participants were asked when the weather was sunny or rainy, and like in the previous experiment, bad weather caused people to say that they were just not particularly happy with their entire life!!!
In fact, the picture that has emerged from research in positive psychology is that our life satisfaction goes up and down. We have some sort of average happiness which we basically stick to, whatever happens, throughout or lives. The nice thing about this is that whatever happens in your life you are not likely to become less satisfied with your life. Even people who have been paralyzed neck down tend to recover, after about a year, in terms of overall life satisfaction.
The more depressing conclusion from this research is that there is nothing you can do to increase your overall life satisfaction. This is where the term "hedonic treadmill" comes from. You can fulfill all your dreams and fantasies, jump from an airplane, win the nobel prize, become a karate champion, become a Mormon and have sex with ten partners simultaneously, buy your dream house, visit exotic places, etc, etc. Whatever you do, your life satisfaction will stay the same. Of course all of the above may give you temporary happiness and some people suggest that this is how to proceed in life, always do new things that make you happy and don't stick to one because the happiness will disappear. The fact of the matter is that we are able to adapt to even the most luxurious lifestyle.
So is there really nothing that will make you happier? There is actually one interesting exception that I want to end with. Individuals who have undergone plastic surgery report that they have greater life satisfaction after the surgery, and amazingly the gain remains. In other words plastic surgeons have done what no-one else in history have ever managed to do, make people happier (I don't know if this statistical conclusion is true for the woman in the picture who want's to become a cat)…