The New Science of Happiness

What makes the human heart sing? Researchers are taking a close look. What they've found may surprise you

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Jonathan Saunders for TIME

University of Illinois professor Edward Diener has been sizing up life satisfaction for 25 years. His wife and a son, both psychologists, are occasional collaborators

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Asking people how happy they are, Kahneman contends, "is very much like asking them about the colonoscopy after it's over. There's a lot that escapes them." Kahneman therefore believes that social scientists studying happiness should pay careful attention to people's actual experiences rather than just survey their reflections. That, he feels, is especially relevant if research is to inform quality-of-life policies like how much money our society should devote to parks and recreation or how much should be invested in improving workers' commutes. "You cannot ignore how people spend their time," he says, "when thinking about well-being."

Seligman, in contrast, puts the emphasis on the remembering self. "I think we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences," he says. For him, studying moment-to-moment experiences puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. Happiness goes deeper than that, he argues in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness. As a result of his research, he finds three components of happiness: pleasure ("the smiley-face piece"), engagement (the depth of involvement with one's family, work, romance and hobbies) and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life, pleasure is the least consequential, he insists: "This is newsworthy because so many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure. It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important."

Can We Get Happier?
One of the biggest issues in happiness research is the question of how much our happiness is under our control. In 1996 University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken published a paper looking at the role of genes in determining one's sense of satisfaction in life. Lykken, now 76, gathered information on 4,000 sets of twins born in Minnesota from 1936 through 1955. After comparing happiness data on identical vs. fraternal twins, he came to the conclusion that about 50% of one's satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. (Genes influence such traits as having a sunny, easygoing personality; dealing well with stress; and feeling low levels of anxiety and depression.) Lykken found that circumstantial factors like income, marital status, religion and education contribute only about 8% to one's overall well-being. He attributes the remaining percentage to "life's slings and arrows."

Because of the large influence of our genes, Lykken proposed the idea that each of us has a happiness set point much like our set point for body weight. No matter what happens in our life — good, bad, spectacular, horrific — we tend to return in short order to our set range. Some post-tsunami images last week of smiling Asian children returning to school underscored this amazing capacity to right ourselves. And a substantial body of research documents our tendency to return to the norm. A study of lottery winners done in 1978 found, for instance, that they did not wind up significantly happier than a control group. Even people who lose the use of their limbs to a devastating accident tend to bounce back, though perhaps not all the way to their base line. One study found that a week after the accident, the injured were severely angry and anxious, but after eight weeks "happiness was their strongest emotion," says Diener. Psychologists call this adjustment to new circumstances adaptation. "Everyone is surprised by how happy paraplegics can be," says Kahneman. "The reason is that they are not paraplegic full time. They do other things. They enjoy their meals, their friends. They read the news. It has to do with the allocation of attention."

In his extensive work on adaptation, Edward Diener has found two life events that seem to knock people lastingly below their happiness set point: loss of a spouse and loss of a job. It takes five to eight years for a widow to regain her previous sense of well-being. Similarly, the effects of a job loss linger long after the individual has returned to the work force.

When he proposed his set-point theory eight years ago, Lykken came to a drastic conclusion. "It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller," he wrote. He has since come to regret that sentence. "I made a dumb statement in the original article," he tells TIME. "It's clear that we can change our happiness levels widely — up or down.''

Lykken's revisionist thinking coincides with the view of the positive-psychology movement, which has put a premium on research showing you can raise your level of happiness. For Seligman and like-minded researchers, that involves working on the three components of happiness — getting more pleasure out of life (which can be done by savoring sensory experiences, although, he warns, "you're never going to make a curmudgeon into a giggly person"), becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

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