Columns, Opinions

Flynn ’20: The pursuit of happiness

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

“Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things achievable in action,” Aristotle said. Writing in the fourth century B.C.E., he believed that happiness was distinct among humans’ goals in that “we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else.” His understanding of happiness — here a translation of the Greek word eudaimonia, a state obtained in large part through virtuous action — may differ greatly from ours, but on a basic level Aristotle was right: All our other goals are subsidiary to the ultimate goal of well-being. Happiness traditionally has been confined to the domain of philosophy, but recently the science of positive psychology has brought a new rigor to addressing some of life’s bigger questions. Fully understanding the complexities of happiness is paramount for Brown students and college students in general as we begin for the first time to confront major life decisions, such as those pertaining to our careers.

Happiness is hard to define, but researchers often use it interchangeably with the term “subjective well-being,” a “broad concept that includes experiencing pleasant emotions, low levels of negative moods, and high life satisfaction,” according to “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction” by Ed Diener, Shigehiro Oishi and Richard Lucas. Many psychologists are skeptical that we can even affect our own happiness and they have good reasons for their pessimism. Happiness is a highly genetic trait. A large-scale study, for instance, of 837 nationally representative pairs of identical and fraternal twins recommended a model of five distinct genetic determinants of well-being. The depressing concept of hedonic adaptation, furthermore, dictates that we eventually adapt to all good and all bad events in life to return to a stable set point. In one oft-cited study, winners of the lottery, after a period of time, were no happier than the paralyzed victims of accidents (though it is important to note that this concept has recently been subjected to greater nuance). A related concept is affective forecasting: We are in general poor judges at predicting how happy good events will make us and how unhappy bad events will make us. Participating in a study on affective forecasting, 571 undergraduates — who either were in romantic relationships or had recently ended one — were asked to predict their future emotional states and were evaluated thereafter. Those who had broken up soon became, contrary to their predictions, just as happy as those who were still in relationships.

So far the picture I have painted is bleak: that happiness seems to be in large part genetic and therefore in large part immutable. But researchers recognize that at least some of its factors are in our control. Different models have proposed various determinants of happiness. One such model breaks down happiness with these (albeit somewhat arbitrary) approximations: 50 percent of one’s happiness is due to a genetically determined set point; 10 percent to life circumstances, such as socioeconomic status, health and physical attractiveness; and 40 percent to “intentional activity,” certain behaviors, practices and mental habits that are conducive to well-being.

Anecdotally, at least, Brown students, who generally aim to be high-achieving, can devote a disproportionate amount of time to academic and professional success as measured by status or by money. To some extent, we are not misguided in doing so. There are, according to a variety of studies, correlations between happiness and a sense of achievement, both academic and social. But also of importance is the substance of the goals that one sets for oneself. One study, for example, concludes that “non-zero sum goals, which include commitment to family, friends and social and political involvement, promote life satisfaction” whereas “zero sum goals, including commitment to career success and material gains, appear detrimental to life satisfaction.” Another study, which closely followed recent college graduates, found that, among these graduates, the pursuit of “intrinsic” goals such as deep and lasting relationships was much more associated with happiness than was the pursuit of “extrinsic goals” such as fame.

That money cannot buy happiness sounds like a platitude at which the pessimists among us are likely to scoff as mere wishful thinking, but there is some truth to it. There is, of course, a correlation between the wealth of a country and the reported life satisfaction of its citizens, but within the developed world, money matters generally less than we might suppose. An individual’s money correlates with emotional well-being, but, as one famous study has found, only up to a certain point — roughly an annual income of $75,000 — beyond which the line plateaus. Recent research has added nuance, highlighting the importance of the way in which people spend their money. For example, people who spend money on experiences rather than on material objects, or who donate it philanthropically, are more likely to be happy.

Some of the most effective ways of enhancing happiness are not difficult, though they do require intention and effort. One way is to prioritize sleep, which is associated with positive benefits to emotional as well as physical health. Another way is to exercise. Physical exercise is linked to many psychological benefits and provides exercisers with a feeling of satisfaction as they reach the athletic goals they set for themselves. Major contributors to happiness are the quality of connections with others, prosocial emotions such as compassion and kindness and practices such as reconciliation and cooperation. Personal practices include gratitude and self-compassion. Mindfulness-based stress reduction, a program of secular meditation with its roots in traditional Buddhist practices, has produced a tremendous body of literature on its efficacy in, for example, enhancing positive emotions, mitigating anxiety and improving cognitive function. This variety of meditation also has been shown to alter the structure and the function of various regions of the brain. All of these positive traits are not merely characteristics of one’s personality, but can actually be cultivated. In order to do so, try out the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley’s free online course, The Science of Happiness — which, in keeping with Aristotle’s view, could be just as important as any Brown course — or come to a meeting of the Brown Meditation Community, of which I am a part. Though everyone is different and enjoys different things, such steps are empirically more reliable ways of pursuing happiness than chasing elite jobs. Why stress yourself out so much over such relatively marginal sources of happiness when there are other, more actionable steps you can take?

James Flynn ’20 can be reached at james_flynn1@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.