Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Happiness: in the Mind of the Beholder

The Positive Psychology movement, spearheaded by Martin Seligman, is attempting to figure out what makes people happy. We have idiosyncratic conceptions of what constitutes happiness. Indeed, happy has many synonyms: content, lucky, fortunate, delighted, glad... To be a happy human may entail many different states. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a starting point. It seems reasonable to suggest that people need to have food, water, shelter, and security before they can start to assess whether or not they are happy. But beyond this foundation, what really matters? Is it your outlook on life? Your income? Relationships with friends and family? Happiness is multi-faceted and is certainly a gradable emotion.

Firstly, what exactly separates joy-junkies from melancholy-mopers? An article by Lyubomirsky and Boehm (2009) gives some pointers: 

Happy people:
Unhappy people:
·       evaluate experiences positively both at the time and afterwards
·       savour life experiences and consider how much better off they are in the present

·       see events more negatively at the time and afterwards
·       ruminate on negative experiences and consider how much better off they were in the past
When they don’t get into the university they applied for:
Happy people:
Unhappy people:
·       changed their opinions by favouring the institutions that did accept them and disfavouring the ones that rejected them
·       did the opposite by retaining their preferences for the institutions that rejected them and disfavouring their accepted one
In an experiment, participants solved anagrams in the presence of a confederate who either performed more quickly or more slowly than them. When the confederate performed more quickly:
Happy people:
Unhappy people:
·       didn’t change their perceptions of their own skills and abilities
·       demoted their own skills and abilities

Both of these groups of people tend to have the same experiences, but the most significant difference between them is the way they perceive the world and the strategies they use for processing life events. 

In day-to-day life, most people have a baseline happiness level. Positive events provide a boost to happiness, and negative ones cause it to drop, but sooner or later it returns to its original level. This is known as Hedonic Treadmill Theory. In other words, people become adapted or habituated to their new circumstances, although negative circumstances pack more of a punch (known as a negativity bias). Studies comparing the happiness of lottery winners with merely hopeful gamblers found no significant differences, providing support for the short-lived effects of (positive) life events on happiness.

Unfortunately Hedonic Treadmill Theory is rather deterministic and therefore rather a hindrance when considering happiness interventions. What’s the point in trying to improve your happiness when it’ll only snap back into place like a laggy band?

Lyubomirsky and Boehm (2009) discuss a Sustainable Happiness Model to explain what affects how jubilant we are. According to the authors, happiness is dependent on three things:

  • (1) Your set point. Some people are ‘chronically happy’ (sounds more like an ailment) while others are pessimistic and dour on a daily basis. This set point, or baseline, is genetically determined. Twin studies have illustrated that happiness is heritable, since identical twins are much more likely than fraternal twins to have similar levels of happiness. Fifty percent of variance in level of happiness is down to our genes.
  • (2) Your life circumstances. Your income, education, gender, age, ethnicity, health, personal experiences, account for 10% of your happiness.
  • (3) Intentional Activity. The remaining 40%, therefore, constitutes what actions you decide to take in your daily existence. This includes acts of kindness towards others and expressing gratitude.
Newman and Larsen 2012 are critical of the idea that 40% of our happiness is within our hands (as am I). In relation to (1), they point out that heritability rates estimate the proportion of individual differences among a group of people that can be attributed to their genes. Accordingly, they cannot be applied to any one individual. Not everyone’s capacity to control their happiness is 50% determined by their genes.

Lyubomirsky and Boehm have been either sneaky or lazy by assuming that the leftover 40% must be entirely, uniquely volitional actions. So two fifths of your happiness is determined by intentional actions just... because... they need something to account for the leftover 40%? That doesn’t seem very scientific. As Newman and Larsen note, the list of states and events that fill this 40% is potentially limitless. And what of destructive and pervasive life events beyond our control such as unplanned pregnancies, evictions, bankruptcy... You can’t control whether or not these happen and how they will affect you.

We’ve learnt that negative affect has a more significant impact on happiness, so perhaps we should try to remove or prevent this, rather than bolstering positive affect. The problem here is that a lot of negative affect is caused by events that are out of our control, so there is little we can do about them. 

Lyubomirsky is well-known within the branch of positive psychology and has published books and articles based on the 50-10-40 proportion combination above. Her efforts are noble, but the results are misguided and overgeneralised. 

Psychology has demonstrated that people like to be happy and in control – the public is eager to latch on to any old book or article about how to improve (and by definition control) your happiness, made all the more appealing by the words ‘science’, ‘research’ and ‘proven’ which, this case, appear to be misnomers.

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