Monday 10 June 2019

On the Influences Upon ‘Happiness’

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a person’s happiness level combines ‘genetic set-point’, ‘intentional activities’ (choice of daily activities), and life circumstances (The How of Happiness).

Posted by Keith Tidman

Is ‘Happiness’ in large measure subjective? Are people happy, or unhappy, just if they perceive themselves as such? Surely, there’s a transient nature to spiked happiness, either up or down. That is, no matter how events may make us feel at any moment in time — ecstatic (think higher-than-expected pay increase) or gloomy (think passed over for an anticipated major promotion) — eventually we return to our original level of happiness, or ‘baseline’. This implies that happiness does not change much, or long-lastingly, for an individual over a lifetime. There’s always the pulling back to our happiness predisposition or mean, a process that philosophers sometimes refer to as ‘hedonic adaptation’. So, what factors influence happiness?

The feeling of happiness may be boosted when we’re fully occupied by activities that we deem especially important to us: those pursuits that represent our most-cherished values, inspire us, require concerted deliberation, prompt creative self-expression, achieve our potential, confirm our competence, reflect purposes beyond ourselves, foster meaningful goals, and promote relatedness. Ties to family, friends, colleagues, and the larger community — socialisation and connectedness — enhance this feeling of wellbeing. We benefit from these pursuits in proportion to how clearly we envision them, how committed we are to attaining them, and the amount of effort we invest.

The role of money in the subjective perception of happiness extends only to its helping to meet such salient necessities as a place to live, sufficient nourishment, adequate clothing, sleep, and security. That is, the barest requirements, but which importantly help lessen one’s anxiety over physical sustenance. After meeting such basic living conditions, the ability of larger sums of money to influence happiness trails off. People eventually adapt to the perks that a surge in wealth initially brings. Happiness reverts to its original baseline. (Even lottery winners, temporarily ecstatic as they believe the windfall is the key to life-long happiness, typically return to their baseline level of happiness. Their happiness level may ultimately even fall below their baseline, as new wealth might bring unanticipated pressure and anxiety of its own, such as being badgered for handouts.) That’s the individual level. But there’s a similar tendency at the national scale, too: defined as the declining effects of growing wealth on the wellbeing of populations. 

For instance, middle-income and wealthier citizens may find themselves unendingly aspiring for more and fancier material possessions — each leading, eventually, to adaptation to new norms and perpetually rising expectations to fulfill desires. This dynamic has been referred to as the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Happiness appears illusory and transient; there’s instability. Adaptation leads to fewer emotional rewards, and along the way possibly squeezes out less-tangible goals that might bear more significantly on quality of life. A sense of entitlement settles in. Whole sets of new wants materialize. As the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill counseled, ‘I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them’.

A powerful influence on happiness, which underscores the nature of wellbeing, is what people fundamentally value — their ideal, conditioned by cultural factors. For example, in pursuing happiness, one nationality may predominantly prefer situations and experiences that thrill, exhilarate, and enervate, with satisfaction of the individual at the core. Another nationality may be more predisposed to situations and experiences that promote tranquility, comfort, and composure, with satisfaction of the group at the core. Both of these culturally based models, in their respective ways, allow for citizens to fulfill expectations regarding how to live out life. 

Meanwhile, evidence suggests yet another dimension to all this: people tend to recall their personal reactions, such as joy, to activities inaccurately. In reflecting back, there’s greater clarity of what happened toward the end of the activity and diminishing clarity of what happened at earlier stages. As American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman succinctly expressed it, ‘Remembered happiness is different from experienced happiness.’ Holes or poorly recalled stages of activities get filled in by the mind, based more on what people believe should have happened, reshaping memories and misrepresenting to a degree how they really felt in the moment. The remembered experience — ‘experienced happiness’ — may thus have an unreal quality to it.

Some people believe that free choice, rather than submission to the vagaries of chance, is essential to this experienced happiness. But reality is a mixed bag. Countries that are relatively wealthy and enjoy the social perks of liberal democratic governance tend to feel confident and unthreatened enough to grant their citizens true choice (as a social and political good), which gets manifested in generally higher levels of happiness. Depending on what conditions might prompt sharp increases or decreases in happiness, hedonic adaptation will prevail. The key to maintaining at least baseline happiness is to have jurisdiction over how our choices actually play out, not merely to be presented with more choices. 

In fact, an abundance of choices can confound and freeze up personal decision-making, as people hesitate to choose when overwhelmed by a multitude of nuanced possibilities. Anxiety over the prospect of less than the best outcomes and the unintended consequences of choice only makes matters worse. This reflects how people exhibit different approaches to evaluating happiness. Yet, paradoxically, citizens who have known no other social scheme may in fact prefer contending with fewer choices. Such is the case, for instance, with autocratic systems of governance, modeled on prescriptive social contracts, which take a characteristically more patriarchic-leaning approach to decisions. Citizens become acclimatized to those conditions, where their level of happiness may change little from the baseline.

Tracking the influences on happiness tells us something important about context and efficacy. That is, the challenge to happiness — and especially efforts to control how these influences bear on the amount of happiness people experience from moment to moment — seems tied to resigning to the formidable reversion back to one’s happiness baseline. Evidence is that hedonic adaptation’ is a commanding force. By extension, therefore, attempts to appreciably elevate an individual’s happiness quotient, lastingly not just transiently, by manipulating these influences might have modest effect. The situation of influences’ limited effects in heightening happiness both appreciably and long term  one’s actual experience of happiness  may particularly be the case in context of how Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, apportions the influences (‘determinants’) of happiness among the three sweeping categories shown in the graphic above. 


Louis P Solomon said...

Wonderful, clear discussion of Happiness. I find that the paper describes many of the thoughts I have had, and considered over the years.

docmartincohen said...

Thank you for that, Louis. Authors really appreciate readers' positive feedback - as well as reminders of their fallibility!

For me, though, a slightly neutral comment: I find the key for understanding happiness is not so much seeing it as 'subjective' - surely this is by definition? - but as relative. Thus, I can be very happy to sit at home with nothing to do one day... and very unhappy to do exactly the same another day... the only difference might be the weather, or having the car break down - meaning I know I can't go out. That's a bit like the old philosophical story of the freedom of the man in the locked room, maybe.

Keith said...

I agree, Martin, with your point about the ‘relative’ aspect of happiness, including your examples involving weather and a broken-down car. As you say, it is relative. But I also think that the subjective element of happiness equally plays into the sample scenes. So, sure, the rainy day or broken-down car, in keeping someone inside the house, might make that particular someone unhappy and sulk. But someone else, also kept inside the house by either of the same circumstances — a torrential downpour or the car undergoing maintenance — might be happy, the situation giving this person an excuse to, say, binge-watch the last season of Game of Thrones. Here, perhaps, despite their both being kept involuntarily (or at least reluctantly) inside their houses — your ‘man in the locked room’ philosophical reference? — these two people choose to react oppositely (subjectively) to identical circumstances: one unhappily, the other happily.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It calls to mind a poem we published by Jeremy Dyer:

On the other schizo hand
My childhood wasn't bad
Or so the therapist said
When he held my hand.

It would seem to me that we have not well established or well understood the true determinants of happiness. In my personal philosophical notebooks I find the entry: 'Happiness is born of a conception that things are as they ought to be.'

docmartincohen said...

'Happiness is born of a conception that things are as they ought to be.'

Sounds more like CONTENTMENT to me. Isn't happiness rooted in things being better than expected?

Keith said...

‘Happiness is born of a conception that things are as they ought to be’. I suggest that the word ‘conception’ here emphasizes the subjectivity of happiness. After all, one person’s conception that ‘things are as they ought to be’ might well be very different than someone else’s — and may be different, even, than everyone else’s. If, as a matter of opinion, a person perceives himself or herself happy — that ‘things are as they ought to be’, in the moment or in the long term — that is arguably sufficient to legitimize the individual’s (subjective) discernment of happiness

Keith said...

‘It would seem to me that we have not well established or well understood the true determinants of happiness’. I would agree, Thomas, that pinpointing the precise and complete set of determinants of happiness, and even more so their relative measure, from individual to individual remains a work in progress. More studies are needed, for instance, of identical and non-identical twins, raised either together or separately, to better understand the respective roles of nature and nurture. That said, what lies behind the three percentages shown in the pie chart at the start of the essay — especially the ‘genetic set point’ — needs to be discussed a bit. These are not meant as hard-and-fast numbers for every individual. Rather, the percentages refer to the amount of variance in happiness levels found between individuals. The percentages are not intended to reflect the amount of happiness that all members of the population at large derive from these factors (genes, intentional activities, life circumstances). So, for example, genes, which drive heritable personal characteristics, are said to explain approximately 50 percent of the difference (variance) in happiness.

Tessa den Uyl said...

When we talk about determinants I always get this feeling that cultural inheritance plays the largest role, but wondering what feels like happiness to me it is feeling the wind blown or the birds sing, actually things that are not socially bound. I am not ignoring that people or work may influence but that happiness is more of an inward state of being and actually disconnected from any social scheme. The word happiness is not attractive to me, I would prefer well being and wonder if the word happiness has become common because of the influence of the English/ American language worldwide?

Keith said...

‘The word happiness is not attractive to me; I would prefer wellbeing’. To your point, Tessa, I think that both the strength and weakness of the words ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ are their abstractive nature. That’s one reason I emphasized, in the essay, the subjectivity of happiness — something I’d say equally of wellbeing. Either way — ‘happiness’ or ‘wellbeing’ — both bring a certain amount of pressure on people, as both descriptors suggest that these implied states of mind are something we should strive for and attain, and that people aren’t always sure they’ve got enough of. That is, expectations are high and not always attainable. All that said, I suggest that investigating the what, how, when, and why of happiness (or wellbeing) remains all the more compelling.

Tessa den Uyl said...

You are right Keith, when one perceives these words, happiness, wellbeing, like the word tracing next weeks post, bound to social expectations, I just wondered what happens inside of us when we try to fill in these words without the expectations, rather as handing meaning to them as a state of being, not depending on outside social situations.

Unknown said...

No need to take the course on the Science of Happiness. You are clearly on target in this essay. A wonderful friend of mine pointed out something about happiness that may not have touched upon. She said that happiness is possible when our actions and choices are aligned with our deepest values. When we are able to be our authentic selves, happiness follows.

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