Vivek Haldar

The empirical science of happiness

“What makes one happy?” is one of the founding questions of philosophy. It is probably much older than philosophy, perhaps as old as human thought itself. But what the ancients probably did not suspect was that one day far in the future empirical research would answer the question with some degree of objectivity.

There is now a vast body of research that that documents broad behaviors that make us happy, as well as the cognitive biases that trick us into straying from that path. Yes, happiness, that fuzzy touchy-feely concept is rapidy becoming an empirical science. And that’s great!

I recently came across several papers that drove this point home for me. It is well known that money does indeed buy happiness, but only up to a point. But why does happiness plateau after a certain level of material fulfillment? How can you better use your money to increase your happiness?

Robert Frank, in “How Not to Buy Happiness”1 talks about how channeling money away from conspicuous consumption will make you happier. He constructs two imaginary universes, one in which everyone has huge houses, but no free time for exercise, very little time to spend with friends, and very little vacation, and another one where the houses are just a little smaller (3000 sq ft vs 4000 sq ft), but where people time for exercise and friends and vacations. Study after study has shown that we will be happier in the second universe. And yet, most developed nations are steadily moving towards the first. Frank posits that this is because everyone else is buying larger and larger houses, which makes the one with the small house feel inadequate. It’s an arms race.

In “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right”2, the authors start with the premise:

If money can buy happiness, then why doesn’t it? Because people don’t spend it right. Most people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don’t know how to use their money to acquire it. It is not surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about wine end up with cellars that aren’t that much better stocked than their neighbors’, and it should not be surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about happiness end up with lives that aren’t that much happier than anyone else’s. Money is an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don’t.

They go on to explain all the cognitive biases and adaptations that routinely push us towards the choices that will ultimately bring us unhappiness. For example, our capacity for rapid adaptation means that shizy gizmo’s glean wears off quickly, leaving us mystified why we don’t feel as good as we thought we would when we lusted after it. They prescribe eight concrete behaviors which research has shown will likely increase your happiness. Go read the paper – it is a quick, pleasant read, worth every minute. Among their recommendations: buy experiences rather than things, and buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.

But by far the most surprising study was one that finds the causal link between unhappiness and a wandering mind3. If you ask almost anyone, they will say that unhappiness causes the mind to wander. If life sucks, you look around for anything else other than your current situation. But the authors prove the opposite. Unhappiness is caused by a wandering mind. In other words, being focused will make you happier. Don’t try to be happy first so that you can then be focused. (They used a neat time-delay analysis to tease apart the causal link.)

Will we pay heed?

Update, June 26, 2012: I recently came across another interesting paper in this vein: If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy, Consider Time4. It talks about how we should spend our time to increase our happiness.