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What is Happiness?

January 2011

From the time we were first able to understand the word, we have all been in pursuit of as much happiness as we can find.  Happiness is an elusive study target.  It’s been hard to define, and even harder to measure.  But in recent years, social scientists have produced some compelling findings.

Carnegie Mellon psychologist, Sheldon Cohen, recently published a study demonstrating that happiness is actually good for our health.  In his study, he found that individuals who reported a personal style and typical mood that exhibited more happiness traits had greater resistance to colds and flu than those who reported negative emotional styles (tense, anxious, depressed, sad).  However, even though we can demonstrate that happiness and good health are correlated, we don’t really have a cause and effect direction (i.e. we have a chicken-and-egg problem). 

So, how do we get more “happiness?”  Sometimes happy feelings seem as elusive as a shadow; some days we simply wake up happy.  Some people seem to be happier than others just by their very nature.  But no one is happy ALL the time.  Life has its ups and downs, and try as we might to thrust and parry with those unexpected downturns, we are all going to spend some time being unhappy. 

Here is what social scientists believe they DO know about happiness:

The Personality Factor. People who do not excessively worry and who are sociable and conscientious tend to be happier overall.  Some of this is genetic.  About 50% of the differences in happiness levels among people are external and situation-based, and 50% is inherited personality traits.  This was demonstrated very visibly in a study by UK and Australian psychologists.

It Ain’t Money!  Money doesn’t make people happy. People in rich nations rank no higher on the happiness scale than those of poor nations.  Researchers in the UK found that high pay only increases happiness if it exceeds what friends and colleagues make in similar positions.  Money may also create a fleeting feeling of happiness if it raises ones stature in the community.  Other studies have found that giving money away (no matter the amount) often creates feelings of happiness in the giver.  Winning the lottery definitely does not make people happier.  In fact, it may be just the opposite!

Relationships Rock.  Strong, long-term relationships are perhaps the most reliable indicator of happiness for the most people.  Marriage is the number one long-term relationship that has been studied, but it is by no means the only one.  As marriage becomes less of a necessity in modern life, especially for women, long-term relationships are being forged in all combinations of ages and genders.  These relationships become particularly critical as people age

Go for the Gusto. People who seek out experience, rather than “things” report greater, longer-lasting feelings of happiness.  Bigger homes and more expensive cars produce only fleeting moments of happiness for the buyers, whereas those who seek out novel and interesting life experiences report that these purchases often provided them with many happy hours, discussions, and memories.