Chapter 15: Happiness

“Money can’t buy you happiness. But it helps.”1

“I hope everybody could get rich and famous and will have everything they ever dreamed of, so they will know that it is not the answer.”2

Happiness is a very mysterious thing. Its elusiveness is matched only by our desire to find it. For thousands of years, we have been looking for it. Some seem to have found it through deep meditation. Others by stripping themselves of all material possessions. Others have tried the exact opposite, accumulating billions upon billions of dollars, only to find themselves most rewarded by helping someone else, setting up non-profit organisations and educational or philanthropic foundations. Some find joy in simple, everyday moments. According to some philosophers and psychologists, humans are incapable of long term happiness by definition. For years social scientists, anthropologists, and economists have tried to determine what makes people happy. Up until recently, we had a lot of poetry and art about the subject, but very little data. We relied on common sense, philosophical insights, personal experiences, epiphanies; but we had no way of knowing if those opinions reflected reality.

The subjects of happiness, life satisfaction, well-being, ‘the good life’, and what the Greeks referred to as eudaimonia (a life of virtue and purpose), are all connected to each other, yet they are very different from one another.

So what do we really know about happiness? We do not know much, but we do know a few scientific facts that are consistent across cultures and nations.

First, we know that we are not biologically designed to maximise our happiness. We evolved living in small groups, we made strong bonds with even smaller circles of friends, we tried to pass on our genes, avoiding predators and fearing what was unknown. We might have been selected for seeking pleasure and instant gratification, but happiness is much more complicated than that, and it does not really come into place, evolutionary speaking.

Second, we know that part of what determines our happiness is genetics. We do not know the exact degree that it plays, but we know that it is there. A recent study by De Neve, et al3 suggests that as much as one third of the variation of people’s happiness could be heritable.4 You might look at this finding and be disgusted at the thought of genetic determinism; or you might question its validity. Perhaps genetics does not account for one third of our happiness, but for much less, or much more. Frankly, I do not think it really matters (not at this point in time anyway, but maybe it will in 15 years.5) Look at it this way: the majority of your happiness is not genetically determined, that means there is a lot of room for improvement! Not to mention that genes are not the whole story. Their expression is what counts and some of them depend on epigenetic effects. Our biology might be responsible for a sort of “baseline happiness,” what social scientists refer to as “set points,”; but external factors, our actions, and our reactions clearly play a major role.

Being happy, feeling happy, having happy memories, happy experiences, these are all different states of mind, and they cannot be represented by a single number. Understanding this fact is key in approaching the issue of happiness. Sometimes economists refer to Quality of Life, a loose term which defines the general well-being of people in their lives. That is, how happy you are. But not quite. Quality of Life is an indicator, a number, which does not tell much about you. It is a statistic, and a person is not a statistic.

Happiness is also very subjective. What makes you happy might not work for me, and possibly would not even work for you in a few years time. We are evolving organisms, our minds are continuously receiving inputs from the external environment and changing.

Such an unpredictable, mutable and subjective concept – happiness is serious business.

1.1 Experience Simulations

Let us try a little experiment. Suppose I gave you two possible scenarios for your life. In the first you win the lottery, bringing home the whooping sum of $300 million. In the second scenario, you have a terrible accident and become paraplegic, paralysed from the neck down. The question is: which scenario do you think will make you happier, which will make you more miserable, compared to where you stand right now?

I am fairly confident that you would go for the lottery ticket. With that kind of money, you could start a new life, rejoice, and begin all sorts of wonderful adventures. Too bad that is not what happens. Chances are that after about one year, you will be as happy as you are today. No significant changes will be registered. In fact, most people who win the lottery actually become quite miserable, lose most of their friends, and see their family destroyed, along with their lives; whereas the paraplegic will come to accept his new condition, and learn to live with it. Adaptation. Even locked-in patients, who are completely paralysed, and can only move an eyelid at most (thus can still communicate), report levels of happiness about the same as everyone else. What is going on here? How is this possible?!

Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, explains this phenomenon and much more in his international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness (Knopf, 2006). Gilbert notes that we tend to greatly overestimate the effect of major events in estimating our long term happiness. From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, have far less impact, less intensity, and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness. That is because the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that simulates future events in our mind (among many other things), is a very bad experience simulator.

Psychologist Ed Diener found that the frequency of your positive experiences is a much better predictor of your happiness than is the intensity of your positive experiences6. Cultivating and experiencing many small happy moments is more effective and more rewarding than having a few sporadic big events.7

But how can it be that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than we expect? One reason is that we synthesise happiness. We think happiness is something to be found, but instead we create it.

This research is very well-known in psychology and it is called the ‘free choice paradigm’. It is very simple. You bring in a few objects, say some Monet prints, and you ask a subject to rank them from the most to the least liked. Everybody can rank these Monet prints from the one they like the most, to the one they like the least. Now you give the subject a choice: “We happen to have some extra prints in the closet. We’re going to give you one as your prize to take home. We happen to have number three and number four”. This is a bit of a difficult choice, because neither one is preferred strongly to the other, but naturally, people tend to pick number three because they liked it a little better than number four.

Sometime later – it could be 15 minutes; it could be 15 days – the same stimuli are put before the subject, and the subject is asked to re-rank the stimuli. “Tell us how much you like them now.” What happens? Note that this not in an isolated study, but the same result has been replicated over and over again, watch as happiness is synthesised. The subject consistently now ranks the print they chose higher than before, and the one they left out lower. Or, in plain English: “The one I got is really better than I thought! That other one I did not get sucks!”. That is the synthesis of happiness.

To prove that this is not delusional thinking, lying, or an error in the study, they replicated the same experiment with a group of patients who had anterograde amnesia. These are hospitalised patients who have Korsakoff’s syndrome, a polyneuritic psychosis that does not allow them to make new memories. They remember their childhood, but if you walk in and introduce yourself, and then leave the room, when you come back, they do not know who you are. They took the Monet prints to the hospital, and asked these patients to rank them from the one they liked the most to the one they liked the least, just like before. Then they gave them the choice between number three and number four. Like everybody else, they said, “Gee, thanks Doc! That’s great! I could use a new print. I?ll take number three”. The hospital staff member then explained that they would have number three mailed to them. They then gathered up the materials and went out of the room, waited half hour, and then went back into the room. “Hi, we’re back.” The patients say, “Ah, Doc, I’m sorry, I have got a memory problem; that?s why I am here! If I?ve met you before I don?t remember.” “Really, Jim, you don?t remember? I was just here with the Monet prints?” “Sorry, Doc, I don?t have a clue.” “No problem, Jim. All I want you to do is rank these for me from the one you liked the most to the one you liked the least.”

What do they do? Well, first the ?Doc? checked to make sure they were really amnesiac. To do so they asked the amnesiac patients to tell them which one they owned. And what they found was that amnesiac patients just guessed. These are normal controls, where if I did this with you, all of you would know which print you chose. But if I do this with amnesiac patients, they do not have a clue. They cannot pick their print out of a lineup.

Normal control subjects synthesise happiness. What do Amnesiacs do? Exactly the same thing. “The one I own is better than I thought. The one I did not own, the one I left behind, is not as good as I thought.” These people like better the one they own, but they do not even know that they own it. Think about this result. What these people did when they synthesised happiness is that they really, truly changed their affective, hedonic, aesthetic reactions to that poster. They are not just saying it because they own it, because they don?t know that they own it”.8

As Professor Gilbert observes:

“We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call natural happiness. […] Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we do not get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief? Well, it is very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?”9

Indeed. The marketing tools used by corporations in order to sell more products rely on our inability to adequately predict what makes us happy. And so we continue to fuel the machine of conspicuous consumption – deluding ourselves that this will alleviate our sense of unease, and that instant gratification can create real happiness. We know that it does not work, and even so we keep making the same mistakes, over and over.

But there is hope. Becoming aware truly of this scam can help us escape the trap, and shift the direction of our lives, towards a more positive, genuine, and real state of well being – one that is based on empathy, collaboration, the thrill of discovery, and the drive to do something meaningful.


1Adapted from Spike Milligan’s Money can’t buy you happiness but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery and many other variations.

2This quote is supposedly attributed to Jim Carrey, but I could only find one mildly reputable source. Regardless, I think it is a great quote.

3Genes, Economics, and Happiness, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, James H. Fowler, Bruno S. Frey, 2010. CESifo Working Paper Series 2946, CESifo Group Munich.

4“Studies comparing identical twins with non-identical twins have helped to establish the heritability of many aspects of behaviour. Recent work suggests that about one third of the variation in people’s happiness is heritable. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve has taken the study a step further, picking a popular suspect – the gene that encodes the serotonin-transporter protein, a molecule that shuffles a brain messenger called serotonin through cell membranes – and examined how variants of the 5-HTT gene affect levels of happiness. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants – long and short – and people have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. After examining genetic data from more than 2,500 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, De Neve found that people with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied with life and those with two long alleles were 17% more likely of describing themselves as very satisfied. Interestingly enough, there is a notable variation across races with Asian Americans in the sample having on average 0.69 long genes, white Americans with 1.12, and black Americans with 1.47. ’It has long been suspected that this gene plays a role in mental health but this is the first study to show that it is instrumental in shaping our individual happiness levels,’ writes De Neve. ’This finding helps to explain why we each have a unique baseline level of happiness and why some people tend to be naturally happier than others, and that is in no small part due to our individual genetic make-up.”’, 2011. Slashdot.

5Genetic engineering, personalised medicine, all fascinating fields to discuss, which will undoubtedly be at the centre of attention in a few years.

6Happiness is the Frequency, Not the Intensity, of Positive Versus Negative Affect, Ed Diener, Ed Sandvik and William Pavot, 2009. Social Indicators Research Series, 2009, Volume 39. pp. 213-231.

7Discoveries at the Diener’s Lab, Prof. Ed Diener, University of Illinois.

8The example was adapted from the talk Dan Gilbert asks: Why are we happy?, Dan Gilbert, 2004. TED Global.

9Dan Gilbert, Why are we happy?, Dan Gilbert, 2004. TED Global. Emphasis mine.

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