Loading icon

Good Day, Sunshine

Opinion | April 19, 2010

Happiness. It is a highly coveted emotion, the motive of countless actions, ideologies, goals, and, ironically, worries, something Americans are supposed to be constantly pursuing. There is endless chatter about “the pursuit of happiness” in the US, shouted through commercial jingles, sung in popular songs, and taught in civics classes. With all of the emphasis placed on finding happiness, one would suppose we would at least know what we are looking for. But apparently not. According to a New Yorker book review entitled “Everybody Have Fun,” happiness has been a hot topic of psychological inquiry lately, and the evidence seems to suggest that people don’t actually know what makes them happy.

Let’s take a brief test. According to the studies, who is happier in day-to-day life in the years following a life-altering event?

a) A lottery winner

b) An accident victim
If you thought the answer was “a,” think again. According to research done in 1978, victims of devastating accidents that left them paralyzed reported “getting more pleasure from their daily lives” than lottery winners who had come upon 50 thousand to a million dollars.
Here’s another question: which country’s inhabitants would you guess are happier?

a) Panama
b) Argentina

Despite the fact that Argentines have double the average income, the answer is the Panamanians, according to research done by Professor Carol Graham of the University of Maryland. Graham also reported that Afghanis, who have endured decades of poverty, violence, and warfare, are a fairly happy nation on the whole.

So perhaps money is not the key to happiness. But what of other things like getting married and having children, or winning an election? Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard professor who recently wrote a book called Stumbling on Happiness, said in an interview with Smithsonian.com that generally, people’s emotions remain stable over time and that however a person is feeling at a particular moment is a good predictor of how he or she will feel in the future, even after an incredibly joyful or upsetting event.
“Most events have a small impact that doesn’t last very long.” Gilbert said in the interview. “More than one person who’s gotten married or moved to California to change their happiness has found that it stays about where it is.”

Gilbert’s book discusses this phenomenon, called “affective forecasting,” in which people routinely misjudge their satisfaction. For instance, contrary to popular opinion, large events that we think will make us happy do not always do so as much as we expect. A study conducted during the 2000 elections asked voters to predict how happy they would be if their candidate won. After Bush won, researchers asked Bush voters to rate their happiness, and it turned out that they were only about a third as happy as they had predicted they’d be. Several months later, however, the subjects mistakenly recalled being as happy as they’d initially predicted they would be.  Because people expect to be exceedingly happy during certain occasions, they remember being exceedingly happy later one, even if they were not actually that happy at the time.

The New Yorker article also said of Gilbert’s research that, “[People] tend to think they’ll be happier with more variety, when, in fact, they get more pleasure from being offered the same thing over and over again. They are willing to pay a premium to preserve their options, but they’re more contented when they commit themselves to a particular choice.”

When I first read this research I felt somewhat confused, even depressed. Was I really ignorant of what made me happy? How could I live like that, blundering around thinking one thing would make me happy when in fact it was another? I decided to make a conscious effort to notice what actually made me feel happy and what did not, in order to enhance my happiness.

What I came up with was not altogether unexpected; I felt happy being outdoors with my shoes off on a beautiful day. I felt happy talking to good friends, or listening to a favorite song, or eating and evaluating tasty food (in Dewick, no less!). As Gilbert predicted, having many choices of food, or music, or people to hang out with was not what mattered, but rather what mattered was that I enjoyed what I ate, or listened to, or did.

What did surprise me was the contrast between these small events and those I would have predicted would make me very happy; for instance, the happiness of being barefoot was greater and longer lasting than the happiness of receiving an A on a sociology paper or being cast in a one-act play I had auditioned for. The feeling of turning in an assignment was as good as getting another one back with an A on it. The most important thing I noticed was that by actively taking note of my good mood, I elevated it further. My satisfaction lasted longest when I consciously enjoyed my enjoyment, taking stock of all the things that made me smile—hearing a guitar playing, seeing an article published, feeling rested after a good night’s sleep.

I have since found that there is research to back this up. A study on the website of the American Psychological Association reports that “happiness comes in everyday simple rewards.” Alice Isen, a professor of psychology at Cornell, found that, “people experience a thrill when they get a free sample, find a quarter on the street, or receive an unexpected gift—and this emotion makes them feel more generous, friendlier, and healthier. They became more flexible, creative, and better at solving problems.”

Having learned this secret of happiness, that it truly is the little things that matter most, I attempted to enlighten others. While sitting outside on one of the first sunny days of spring, I called a friend who I knew had been feeling very stressed under the weight of several midterms that week and told him to come study outside for a bit. He refused on the basis that he could not concentrate enough outside. When I protested that enjoying the beautiful day would make him happier, especially since the oral exam he was studying for only accounted for a small percentage of his grade, he continued to refuse because, he said, “I’ll feel better if I’m more prepared.” Later that evening, however, he remained stressed out and needed to find ways to unwind. The episode made me wonder: does our inability to predict what makes us happy impact our priorities for the worse?

Working hard towards a goal certainly does make one feel happy. The elation felt after turning in a paper, or receiving a good grade, is only afforded to those who put in the work to get there. By contrast, I know many students who have encountered unhappiness during summer weeks spent without goals or feeling of purpose. However, my recent self-examination revealed that in the search for happiness, it is also of capital importance to take a moment to stop and smell the roses, or the coffee, or the burgers and grilled cheese wafting from Dewick, as the case may be. I realized that the best way to achieve happiness is to simply notice when you are already happy and appreciate it.

So how might you answer this question; which of these would you anticipate making you happiest?
a) A cap and gown, a cheering audience, a band playing the annual theme, a smiling gowned teacher handing you a weighty document that feels light in your hand.
b) A green lawn, a warm summer breeze, a guitar playing, a smiling friend handing you a cold drink whose condensation drips onto the grass tickling your bare feet.

The answer? They both will. For a little while, at least. The important thing is just to realize you’re happy.