The Beginner’s Guide to Happiness

happinessIn the book Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh, a self-proclaimed happiness enthusiast, asks us to do a thought experiment. First ask yourself: “what is my goal in life?” Whatever the answer, ask yourself “why?” If your goal is to make a million dollars, again, ask yourself “why?” The answer to that question may be so that you can retire and live on the beach in Mexico or so that you can pursue your dream job. Hsieh, says that ultimately, if you keep asking why, you will end up with the same answer: because you think it will make you happier.

Despite the rapid growth in US Gross Domestic Product in the past few decades and great improvements in technology that is supposed to make our lives easier, people are less happy than they were in previous decades. Why?

While there are several possible explanations, one reason may be that people are chasing goals that don’t really make them happy. Fortunately, there has been a boom in the field of happiness research, also known as positive psychology, and there is a lot of data and research findings that suggest how we can improve our happiness.

Why You Should Care About Happiness
Why is happiness an important concept to understand and pursue? Many people believe that it is more important to achieve success even if it makes you unhappy. They reason that once they reach their goal they will be happy. These people are often very disappointed when they finally reach their goal after many years of sacrifice and find themselves thinking “is this all there is?” Not understanding what factors lead to lasting happiness can result in poor life decisions that can result in losing years of your life pursuing things that make you unhappy and unfulfilled.

Increased happiness can have a positive impact on your health. Studies have demonstrated that happiness is correlated with better health and longer life.

Increased happiness can make you more successful. A study of salespeople found that those who were more optimistic significantly outsold those who were more pessimistic. Additionally happy people tend to be well liked and are more likely to be promoted.

The Adaptation Principle
In the movie Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling’s character explains that he has bought many items from the home shopping network, but he is still “wildly unhappy.” You can have all the material items that money can buy and still be miserable. This contradicts the world view that many are taught growing up and classical economics. According to basic economic theory, when you attain more valuable goods your utility should increase. So the more valuable goods that you have should make you better off right? The problem is that our positive feelings that result from acquiring a shiny new gadget is very temporary. Humans have developed a tendency to adapt to their environment, which some think evolved as a survival mechanism. No matter how good, or bad our situation gets, we tend to revert back to a baseline level of life satisfaction. This “adaptation principle” was demonstrated in a study of lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims. Although the two groups of individuals experienced completely different and opposite outcomes, their level of happiness over a year, returned back to their original baseline.

The Income Plateau
According to surveys of the research on happiness, increasing income does have a strong correlation with increased happiness to a certain point. For individuals living in poverty, additional income can significantly boost the level of happiness experienced. This extra money can provide life necessities like a working car that can get you to work and can save you from getting evicted from your apartment which results in a much higher life satisfaction. However, once your basic needs are met and your income reaches the middle class range, increasing your income further will has a very low correlation with increased happiness. And according to Happiness Hypothesis part of that correlation is a result of reverse correlation, since happier people are more likely to get promoted. While we may quickly adapt to a higher standard of living and more luxury goods, but we may not adapt to increased pressure or stress of a higher position of responsibility that often comes with higher pay.

The Progress Principle
We receive positive feelings when we make progress towards our goal, and often overestimate how happy achieving a goal will make us. Tony Hseih, the CEO of Zappos, tells the story of when he learned that the deal closed to sell his company for $265 million. “The excitement of LinkExchange had disappeared long ago. Now we just had the drudgery of sticking around uninspired and unmotivated for another twelve months. ‘I guess we should probably walk back to the office then’ I said. ‘Okay’ and so we did in silence.” It is often the journey where much of the satisfaction of a pursuit is derived rather than from the destination. Choosing a goal, only because you think the destination will make you happy, is often a mistake.

Buying Experiences Versus Things
The saying money can’t buy happiness is partly true. Spending money on the right things can improve your happiness. According to research, people who purchased experiences like a vacation trip or a dinner with friends experienced greater and more prolonged satisfaction than people who purchased objects. One explanation is that experiences can bring you closer to other people, while material items like a luxury car often drive you away from other people.

The Trouble With Commuting
Research suggests that the least happiest part of our day is our commute and people with a longer commutes report lower subjective well being. Yet, in the past few decades many people have chosen to move to the suburbs to a bigger house in exchange for more time waiting in the car to get to work. This is often a bad trade in terms of happiness. We often adapt quickly to having an extra bedroom or two, but a commute is something that people adapt poorly to due to the highly unpredictable nature of traffic.

The Importance of Relationships
Happiness research has shown that the quality and quantity of relationships is one of the most influential factors in increasing happiness. The impact of relationships helps explain why church-goers are happier on average than non-church goers since they are often involved in the church community. Married people also tend to be happier than single people. Even people who are introverted, often get a boost in happiness when they are forced to be more socially active.

Poor Predictors of Happiness
One of the main ideas of Stumbling on Happiness is that people tend to be very poor predictors of what will make them happy. People often overestimate how much getting a promotion will improve their happiness or how a break up will decrease their happiness. Feelings of happiness or sadness often fade as we adapt to our new environment. We often make big life decisions, like which college major to study, based on our predictions of future happiness, which can be a big mistake.

Doing Work That You Love
In the book 48 Days to the Work You Love, Dan Miller writes “Ultimately, money is never enough compensation for investing our time and energy. We need a sense of meaning, purpose, and accomplishment”. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said “You’ve got to find what you love…Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, and don’t settle.” Many people spend a majority of their waking hours working. If you dislike what you do and are spending most of your time on unrewarding work, your overall happiness level will suffer greatly.

The field of positive psychology continues to grow and there are tons of articles and books that you can and should read if you want to improve your happiness. Keep in mind that researchers can come to conclusions that are wrong and your individual happiness factors may be very different from the crowds’.

Happiness Talks (videos)
Why Are We Happy Dan Gilbert
The Happy Secret to Better Work Shawn Achor
Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness Tal Ben-Shahar
How To Buy Happiness Michael Norton
Pursuing Happiness: What Works and Why Ken Sheldon
Flourishing – A New Understanding of Well-Being Martin Seligman
Flow, the secret to happiness Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Happiness Books
Here are some great books that I recommend to learn about happiness and doing work that you love:
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
48 Days to the Work You Love by Dan Miller
No More Mondays by Dan Miller
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

Photo credit: jaja_1985