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Are You Happy?

Chances are if someone were to ask you, right now, if you were happy, you’d say you were.1 Claiming that you’re happy—that is, to an interviewer who is asking you to rate your “life satisfaction” on a scale from zero to ten—appears to be nearly universal, as long as you’re not living in a war zone, on the street, or in extreme emotional or physical pain. The Maasai of Kenya, soccer moms of Scarsdale, the Amish, the Inughuit of Greenland, European businessmen—all report that they are happy. When happiness researcher Ed Diener, the past president of the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, synthesized 916 surveys of over a million people in forty-five countries, he found that, on average, people placed themselves at seven on the zero-to-ten scale.2

No doubt the conditions in which these 916 surveys were taken, and their methodologies and measures, were inconsistent. In some cases, respondents were approached face-to-face, at home. In others, they were interviewed by phone. Some conversations were mediated by translators, others by village elders. In some surveys, people were asked, “Generally speaking would you say you are very happy, fairly happy, not too happy?” In others they were asked how they’d rank, on a one-to-seven scale, the conditions of their life. In yet another they were asked to locate themselves on a ladder of self-satisfaction, where the bottom rung, zero, was “the worst possible life” and the top rung, ten, was “the best possible life.”

This ladder was constructed by demographers at the Gallup organization as part of its World Poll, begun in 2005, in which a representative sampling of adults in 132 countries were asked the same set of questions in an effort to serve up consistent cross-cultural data. Whether that kind of consistency is possible is questionable—but so is pinning down happiness and its various proxies like life satisfaction and well-being. As Steve Crabtree, one of the researchers involved in the development of the World Poll, wrote recently in the Gallup Management Journal, “If ever there was a concept that sounds ‘fuzzy,’ well-being is it.”3
(In the same survey, respondents were also asked if they smiled a lot the previous day and if they had been treated with respect that day.)

Nonetheless, Crabtree was confident that his colleagues had “cracked the code,” and developed ways to get valid measures of happiness, both individually and nationally, and across income groups and genders and age cohorts. Diener is too. In an essay called “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction,” he observes that self-reports of happiness mirror “expert” analyses, which he considers to be a good indication of their reliability. He also notes that people like being asked how they are feeling because calling on them to rate themselves is “democratic” and “grants respect.”4 Of course, this may lead some to wonder if there isn’t a kind of Heisenberg effect in play here: if being asked how one feels enhances one’s sense of well-being, one might be inclined just then to feel pretty good. I say this only partially in jest since, as Diener notes in the same essay, “estimates of happiness and reports of affect over time are likely to be influenced by a person’s current mood.”5

Still, since nearly all of us say we’re happy (especially if we live in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, and Switzerland, which are among the happiest of happy places), it is somewhat disconcerting to observe the burgeoning library of “get happy” books. Individually and together, they suggest, first, that we may not be as happy as we say we are, and second, that if we’re not, it may be our own fault. These books, many of which have similar, bright yellow aspects to their covers—yellow being the sign of warmth, enthusiasm, and, yes, happiness, according to color researchers—are, to a large extent, the popular expression of a decade-old subdiscipline of academic and clinical psychology that seeks practical wisdom through the study of healthy, rather than pathological, behaviors and adaptations. Called positive psychology, it was conceived of by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who wedded the postwar humanist approaches of Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow to the seemingly more rigorous—which is to say ostensibly measurable—methodologies now allowed by high-speed computers and brain scanners.

More than anything, positive psychologists are keen to be seen as scientists, part of a broader movement in social science that, as Christopher Peterson explained in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science a few years ago, “assumes that human goodness and excellence are as authentic as disease, disorder, and distress…[and] relies on empirical research to understand people and their lives.”6 Working alongside Seligman, Peterson and a handful of other members of what they called the Positive Psychology Steering Committee created what he describes as an “aspirational classification” of human goodness called Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. At nearly eight hundred pages long, the CSV is a kind of good cop to the bad cop of the traditional Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is primarily a taxonomy of disease and despair.

Rather than a catalog of all that can go wrong in a life—alcoholism, anorexia, schizophrenia, kleptomania, to name a few—the CSV offers an inventory of traits, behaviors, and conditions that lead not only to mental health but also, according to its authors, to “the good life.” These include such core characteristics as wisdom, courage, justice, transcendence, and temperance, and the numerous routes—what the authors call character strengths—that lead to these virtues: creativity, love of learning, and curiosity among them. The authors, who make no attempt to disguise their normative intentions, say they looked to the writings of historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, and contemporary figures such as Sir John Templeton (the mutual fund tycoon who bankrolled a good chunk of the endeavor), as well as the insights found in Hallmark cards, bumper stickers, and Harry Potter, to come up with their lists of virtues and strengths.

Positive psychology, which is founded on the belief that “good character can be cultivated,”7 has, not surprisingly, spawned numerous, less hefty volumes than the CSV, each aimed at leading readers to the good life. This is not the good life of easy money and fast women (and men) but, rather, a life of self-reported contentment and fulfillment. In this it is not only reminiscent of the concerns of moral philosophy but heir, too, to the kind of popular evangelical individualism promoted by Norman Vincent Peale (author of The Power of Positive Thinking) in the last century and Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) in this one.

Though Seligman and his peers are quick to point out that they are not championing a secular or any other kind of religion, and reiterate their allegiance to science to back up their claims,8 and while their intercessions invoke no deity, their work is cut from the same uniquely American cloth of entitled self-actualization—the idea that you can be whoever you want to be, that the gold ring of happiness is yours for the taking. Consider Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside, for example. An acolyte of Seligman’s who contributed to the formulation of the CSV, and the author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she contends that “a full 40 percent of the capacity for happiness is within your power to change.”

To arrive at this precise formulation Lyubomirsky conceives of a pie chart divided into three parts. Half of the pie is taken up by genetics, a sliver by circumstance, and the rest by you and your willpower. By genetics, Lyubomirsky means a shared, familial temperament rather than a known set of genes. Like Martin Seligman before her (in Authentic Happiness, his popular exegesis of positive psychology), Lyubomirsky’s understanding of what she calls the “set point” for happiness—the inherent “baseline or potential for happiness to which we are bound to return, even after major setbacks or triumphs”—draws on a host of studies of identical and fraternal twins by the late David Lykken (who coined the set-point metaphor) and his colleagues at the Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Studies.

Lykken had been surprised to learn from the work of Ed Diener and others9 that the answer to the questions “Are those people who go to work in suits happier and more fulfilled than those who go to work in overalls? Do people higher on the socioeconomic ladder enjoy life more than those lower down? Can money buy happiness? Are black Americans less contented on average than white Americans? Are men happier than women?” was a resounding no. If socioeconomic status wasn’t driving one’s sense of happiness, what was? Beginning in the 1980s, Lykken and his colleagues surveyed 2,310 pairs of identical and fraternal twins, some reared together, others brought up apart, looking to see how closely mood, affect, temperament, and other traits tracked with shared genes and/or a shared environment.

What they found (from a smaller subset of the original group) was that the “reported well-being of one’s identical twin, either now or 10 years earlier, is a far better predictor of one’s self-rated happiness than one’s own educational achievement, income, or status.” This held not only for identical twins raised together but for those brought up apart, while for fraternal twins raised in the same household, the likelihood that one’s sense of well-being matched one’s twin’s was, statistically speaking, not much greater than chance.

The second piece of Lybuomirsky’s pie, the shard of circumstance, is the fallout from the questions about working in overalls or suits, about money buying happiness, about class and gender. As Diener’s work, as well as Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman’s pioneering research into what is now sometimes called hedonic psychology, showed, for most people one’s circumstances in life are not the main determinants of one’s sense of happiness. Bad turns of events, such as accidents, job loss, and divorce, cause unhappiness, just as good turns, like getting a promotion, winning the lottery, or moving into a new house, can cause joy. In both cases, however, once the initial emotional response fades—if it does—one’s sense of well-being returns to where it had been before. More is only more for a while, then becomes the status quo. It is the same with loss. (Which is why, for instance, a year or so after an accident, people with paralyzing spinal cord injuries tend to be, on average, no more or less happy than anyone else.)

Putting aside the trickiness of making a single pie chart out of a mélange of studies, Lyubomirsky’s central point is clear: a significant portion of what is called happiness—the 40 percent of what’s left after birth and circumstance have had their say—is up for grabs. Taking some pages out of the positive psychology playbook, she coaches readers on how to snag it: find meaningful work, count your blessings, smile, do good. Curiously, this was not the conclusion reached by David Lykken and his collaborator Auke Tellegen, who found that over time the nonnegotiable biological aspects of temperament increased to the point where “it may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller and therefore is counterproductive.” If that were true, the how of happiness would be a fait accompli, determined at birth. One could be led to drink from the cup half full by books like Lyubomirsky’s and it wouldn’t matter in the long run.

  1. 1

    Are We Happy Yet?,” a report by the Pew Research Center, February 13, 2006; cited in Eric G. Wilson, Against Happiness, p. 5.

  2. 2

    Robert Biswas-Diener, Joar Vittersø, and Ed Diener, “Most People are Pretty Happy, But There Is Cultural Variation: The Inughuit, the Amish, and the Maasai,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (September 2005).

  3. 3

    The Well-Being Revolution,” Gallup Management Journal (gmj.gallup.com), December 13, 2007.

  4. 4

    Ed Diener, Richard E. Lucas, and Shigehiro Oishi, “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, edited by C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 64–65.

  5. 5

    Diener et al., “Subjective Well-Being,” p. 65.

  6. 6

    Christopher Peterson, “Positive Social Science,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 591, No. 1 (January 2004), pp. 187–188.

  7. 7

    CSV, p. 3.

  8. 8

    Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002), p. 288, note 96.

  9. 9

    David G. Myers and Ed Diener, “Who Is Happy?” Psychological Science, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1995).

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