I recently talked about physical places where you can find happiness -- places like Fremont, California, the happiest city in the U.S., or Finland, the happiest country in the world.
But, of course, happiness isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind. You don’t find happiness. You experience happiness. And the nature of that experience is a tough thing to nail down.
That could be why the World Happiness Survey was called “complete crap” by opinion columnist Kyle Smith back in 2017: “These surveys depend on subjective self-reporting, not to mention eliding cultural differences. In Japan there is a cultural bias against boasting of one’s good fortune, and in East Asia the most common response, by far, is to report one’s happiness as average. In Scandinavia, meanwhile, there is immense societal pressure to tell everyone how happy you are, right up to the moment when you’re sticking your head in the oven.”
And that’s the problem with happiness. It’s kind of like quantum mechanics: The minute you try to measure it, it changes.
Do you ever remember your grandparents trying to measure their happiness? It wasn’t a thing they thought about. Sometimes they were happy, sometimes they weren’t. But they didn’t dwell on it. They had other, more pressing, matters to think about. And if you asked them to self-report their state of happiness, they’d look at you like you had just given birth to a three-horned Billy goat.
Maybe we think too much about happiness. A 2011 study (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson & Savino) found that the pursuit of happiness may lead to the opposite outcome: “People who highly value happiness set happiness standards that are difficult to obtain, leading them to feel disappointed about how they feel, paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it.”
This is a real problem, especially in today’s media environment.
If you look at how media portrays happiness, it’s a pretty self-centered concept. It’s all about what we have, how we’re feeling, what we’re doing. And all that is measured against what should make us happier.
That’s where the problem of measurement raises its prickly little head. In 1971, social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell came up with a metric called the “happiness set point.” The initial study and follow ups found that after initial shift in happiness after major events such as lottery wins, big promotions or life-altering accidents, people gradually returned to a happiness baseline.
But more recent academic work has found it’s not quite so simple. We all have different baselines of how happy we are. Also, some of us are more apt to respond, either positively or negatively, to major life events.
What can make a difference in happiness is what we spend time doing. And in this case, life events can set up the foundations of changes that can either lead to more happiness or less. Generally, anything that leads to more interaction with others generally makes us happier. Anything that leads to social withdrawal tends to make us less happy.
So maybe happiness isn’t so much about how we feel, but rather a product of what we do.
Digging into this theme, I found a couple of interesting data visualizations by statistician Nathan Yau. The most recent one examined the things that people did at work that made them happy.
If you’re in the legal profession, I have bad news. Legal work ranked highest for stress and low for happiness and meaningfulness. On the other end of the spectrum, hairdressers and manicurists scored high for happiness and low on stress. Construction jobs also seemed to tick the right boxes for happiness on the job.
For me, the more interesting analysis was one Yau did back in 2018. He looked at a dataset that came from asking 10,000 people what had made them happy in the past 24 hours. Then he parsed the language of those responses to look for the patterns that emerged. The two biggest categories that led to happiness were “achievement” and “affection.”
From these categories, we start to see some common underpinnings for happiness: doing things for others, achieving goals important to us, spending time with our favorite people.
So let’s get back to the “pursuit of happiness”-- something so important to Americans that they enshrined it in the Declaration of Independence. But, according to Stanford historian Caroline Winterer in her 2017 TED talk, that definition of happiness is significantly different from current definitions. In her words, in earlier days happiness meant "every citizen thinking of the larger good, thinking of society, and thinking about the structures of government that would create a society that was peaceful and would allow as many people as possible to flourish."
When I think of happiness, that makes more sense. It also matches the other research I shared here. We seem happiest when we’re not focused on ourselves but instead thinking about others. This is especially true when our happiness navel-gazing is measuring how we come up short on happiness when stacked against the unrealistic expectations set by social media.
Like too many things in our society, happiness has morphed from something good and noble into a selfish sense of entitlement.