Monday, January 17, 2011


There's been lots of talk about happiness the past few years: the popular press frequently reports on happiness studies, and I find I'm often discussing the causes of happiness with friends. Here are a few thoughts:

First of all, some interesting results: The best way to spend your money is to buy events (going out to eat, concert, etc.) rather than items.  One of the most enjoyable types of activity is that which is both self-directed and challenging (thus working under close direction from a superior is not ideal, nor is repetitive tasks). There's evidence that sun-exposure, not just to your skin but to your retina, is important for happiness. Six months after winning the lottery, you're likely to have returned to your baseline happiness.  Six months after becoming paraplegic, you're likely to have returned to your baseline happiness.

I've been very focused over the past couple years in optimizing my happiness. And while this has been productive, I wonder if I'm too narrow in my focus. In his article in the NY Times in October (, philosopher David Sosa argues for the separation of the terms "pleasure" (the internal state of mind) and "happiness" (which is feelings of pleasure in response to something positive in the external world). For example, suppose there were a drug that provided unlimited highs without any negative internal side effects such as withdrawals or hangovers. The drug user would be said to be experiencing pleasure but not happiness. Happiness would be reserved for feelings of pleasure associated with our relationships with others or other events in the real world, such as laughing with friends or succeeding at a chosen goal.

My friend Bob told me about a study showing that the average parent acknowledged being less happy when they became parents, but then the vast majority of course said they did not regret having kids. So why have kids? I think this might help demonstrate the difference between "pleasure" and "happiness".  A successful parent, I imagine, feels a deep sense of happiness from time to time as their child matures, achieves certain things, returns their love. In this TED lecture (, the founders of a parenting blog describe the happiness curve after having a child as becoming intensely sinusoidal, with lots of highs and lows, as opposed to the relatively stable contentment they experienced during their DINK years (dual-income, no kids). This idea that it can be preferable to experience extremes of emotion rather than stable contentment reminds me of the Tennyson quote: "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."

In what way is money related to happiness? Here are some relevant facts:
Scientists who win a Nobel prize live longer than those who were candidates for winning but didn't. British bureaucrats live longer the higher they are in the bureaucratic hierarchy. In a study in rural China, one's income relative to fellow villagers was twice as important as absolute income in determining happiness. I recently heard a quote from a super wealthy financier who said that acquiring wealth became primarily about keeping score in the global financial game. These ideas highlight the importance of out-competing one's peers to happiness. Once a certain degree of basic needs are met, it seems that further increases in income affect happiness primarily through a sense of out-competing one's peers rather than purely enjoying the increased size of your house or quality of your car as things in themselves.

I think this is nicely illustrated by people living in NYC being accustomed to living in small spaces: the wealthier you are the larger, more convenient space you're able to afford in NYC. Yet even people making millions of dollars a year live happily in spaces with less square footage than a lower middle class person might have in a rural area. And yet the lower middle class person may find himself wishing he had a bigger space, not appreciating that his desire is really just relative; that one can be very happy living in a small space if you're able to avoid comparing yourself to your peers.

It seems that this competitive aspect of happiness could be overcome. If your happiness is negatively affected by your lack of wealth, it might help to re-orient your self-esteem so that it's measured by things more important than your relative wealth.  For many people, lack of wealth is a great source of unhappiness, and can lead to credit card debt, divorce, working too many hours per week, working in a job you dislike. Almost no income level is immune from this condition. Even people in the top 5% income bracket can experience stress regarding their finances, which is a shame. One of the most important things that wealth provides is a sense of security in not having to worry about money. But by spending too much on a home, a car, expensive hobbies, one can end up just as stressed about money as someone in a lower income bracket.

If you have lots of wealth, might it be considered unethical to flaunt it too greatly? By displaying your wealth you're not only pandering to your own competitive spirit, but also inspiring envy in your peers, and reducing their happiness? And wouldn't you consider the happiness gained by driving a Porsche every day more in the category of "pleasure" rather than "happiness"?

Addendum: After writing this article, I still felt I hadn't captured a nagging feeling: that focusing a life on pursuing happiness is a bit near-sighted, that at times happiness should have to be sacrificed for something greater. This article ( in the New York Review of Books answered that nagging feeling. I've addressed this in the post "Living Well." 

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