Happiness, life satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning in life


Can science tell us anything about the meaning of life, or how to find happiness? There's been a surge of interest recently among some research psychologists in "positive psychology" - not just finding out what's wrong with people but what's right with them. They've been investigating questions like:

  • What are the characteristics of life satisfaction, and what leads to it?
  • Is happiness just a string of pleasurable events, or is there something deeper?
  • What kinds of happiness are there, and how do we get them?
  • Does tapping into personal strengths and virtues lead to greater engagement in one's activities?
  • How can we find more meaning in life, in the work we do, or in the things we do for enjoyment?
We'll also talk about relationships, community, attitudes and values, and a whole range of other things. Join the conversation and let us know what you think too.





Can money buy happiness?

by Dr. Steve Wright

Researchers find that it can – if you spend it on other people.

In the last few decades real incomes and real wealth have increased much more than people think, but people are no happier, according to research. Gregg Easterbrook wrote a book about this, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, which prompted Martin Seligman to invite him as a guest lecturer in an online course I was part of.

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, thought this might be because of the way people spend their money. “People often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness.” They do things like buying flat screen TVs. Research has found over and over that you get a little jolt of pleasure from this, but it goes away pretty quickly. It turns out giving has more benefits. Also, just thinking about having more money makes people less likely to use it in ways that would make them happy (Vohs et al, 2006). And when a group similar to those in the third study below were asked to select the conditions in that study that would make them happier, they got it exactly backwards.

We’re actually not very good in general at predicting what will make us happy. One Harvard psychologist has devoted a lot of his research career to this. His engaging and witty best-seller is called Stumbling on Happiness, which I’ll definitely be talking about in a future post.

giftGetting back to Dunn and colleagues, who published their findings in March this year in Science, their research looked at this question in different ways by doing three separate studies. They concluded that buying stuff for yourself doesn’t make you happier, but spending money on other people does.

They surveyed 632 Americans, gave them standardized, validated measures of general happiness, and asked questions about income, spending on (1) bills and expenses, (2) gifts for themselves, (3) gifts for others, and (4) donations to charity. Spending on the first two categories was not related to happiness; spending on the second two categories was.

Next they looked at people who received a windfall profit-sharing bonus (mostly in the $3000-$7000 range), and how they spent it. General happiness measures were taken a month before and 6-8 weeks after. They reported what percentage of their bonus they spent on 6 different categories including “buying something for someone else” and “donating to charity.” High or low income didn’t affect the happiness measure, and the amount of the bonus didn’t either. But spending in the two “pro-social” categories I just mentioned predicted higher levels of happiness. How much people got wasn’t related to their happiness two months later. Spending it on others was.

A third study was an experiment which could demonstrate causality. Participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend by 5:00 p.m. and were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group they spent the money on a bill, an expense, or a gift for themselves, and in the other group they spent the money on a gift for someone else or to make a charitable donation. Those in the latter (pro-social spending) group had increased general happiness scores.

The researchers go on to say that it might be better to focus on “intentional activities” (“practices in which people actively and effortfully choose to engage”) in finding ways to increase happiness, rather than looking at life circumstances like income, gender, and religious affiliation. They also point out that a small change in spending habits can have a significant effect. Remember that in the third study, only $5 made a difference.

5 dollar bill

References:

Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton (March 2008), “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” Science 21: Vol. 319. no. 5870, pp. 1687-1688. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952.

Kathleen D. Vohs, Nicole L. Mead, and Miranda R. Goode (November 2006), “The Psychological Consequences of Money,” Science 314: Vol. 314. no. 5802, pp. 1154-1156. DOI: 10.1126/science.1132491.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on December 23rd, 2008

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Will downloading make you smart and happy?

by Dr. Steve Wright

For some time now, people have been talking about – at some point in the future – downloading information directly to your brain. (Check out the interesting twists on this idea by scientist/inventor Ray Kurzweil and science fiction writer John C. Wright.) Apparently a crude form in the opposite direction is already possible: controlling a computer with your thoughts (See the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface). This means you could control devices that can be controlled by computers, including a computer somewhere on the internet (which means the device could be attached to your body, or halfway around the world).

Related: video of a monkey controlling a robotic arm.

Coming back to the first issue (downloading information), to my knowledge we have to be content for now to download the old-fashioned way. But if you think about it, this just keeps getting better, sometimes by leaps and bounds. Google’s better search algorithm was an obvious advance. Google made it even easier than previous search engines to find exactly what you want, even some very obscure bit of information. We have more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before in history. In that sense we’re smarter than we’ve ever been. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare this to intelligence, but you could say everyone who knows how to search on the Internet has a sort of genius-level knowledge base. I thought about calling this your “Google Quotient,” but I found out the phrase was already being used to mean something else. (I googled it!)

As more complete, better-quality, and more specialized information gets put on the Internet, that knowledge base available to you just keeps improving.

I sometimes read a blog written by Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert cartoon. He’s a smart guy, and often raises interesting issues. A few days ago he mentioned again that he’d been suffering from a mysterious voice problem that baffled his doctors.

I woke up one day thinking my voice problem might be related in some way to my hand problem – a writer’s cramp called focal dystonia. So I Googled “voice dystonia” and up popped a link to a video of a person speaking with exactly the same speech defect I had at the time, something called Spasmodic Dysphonia.

So he was able to use Google to self-diagnose a rare condition, that diagnosis later confirmed by doctors. He tried recommended treatments and therapies, with limited success. Then Google came to the rescue again:

About a year ago I started using Google Alerts to tell me whenever someone mentioned Dilbert, me, or anything about Spasmodic Dysphonia on the Internet. About six months ago I got an alert with a link to an obscure medical publication with a report about an even more obscure surgical procedure for fixing spasmodic dysphonia. I took that information to my doctor, who referred me to an expert at Stanford University, who referred me to an expert surgeon at UCLA. Long story short, the operation I read about wasn’t as promising as the article suggested, but the final surgeon in my travels had his own version of surgery that had a good track record. I tried it, and now my voice is normal. I never would have found that path without Google Alerts.

One way to look at the success of science is that it’s the story of more and more pieces of reliable information being built up so that when you need an answer to a particular problem, it exists. With the development of the Internet, that information is more accessible, which should help more and more problems be solved. Will this make you smarter and happier? Well, if being smart is at least partly the ability to solve problems, the answer is yes, it would help you be smarter. Whether this would make you happier is a little more complicated. Some changes in our lives can make us lastingly happier, but many changes in life situation – even big ones – are easy to get used to. We adapt. New situations that are good, or bad, become normal after awhile. Psychologists call this the “hedonic treadmill.” You’re happy with some new thing you got. But then you get used to it. It becomes the new normal situation for you. And your happiness returns to your normal level.

A method for countering this erosion of your happiness is to renew the positive benefit the good thing provides by actively appreciating it. This goes along with the theme of gratitude I started writing about around Thanksgiving. As you know if you read those articles (Gratitude Visit) (Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness), gratitude can be a powerful support for increased happiness that lasts.

So my thought for the day is that I’m grateful for the development of science and technology (and its public accessibility) that solves problems and creates new possibilities.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on December 10th, 2008

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Gratitude Visit

by Dr. Steve Wright

In 2004, Martin Seligman told a group of us on a conference call that a specific exercise in which a person expresses gratitude was the single most effective intervention in the budding field of positive psychology, according to the limited research available on these new techniques.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman teaches a course on positive psychology, and has his students plan and carry out a “Gratitude Visit” as an assignment. In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Seligman says that in his course evaluations he gets comments like “October 25th was one of the best days of my life.” He recommends all readers to do the exercise, and gives the following instructions:

Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. (Do not confound this selection with new-found romantic love, or with the possibility of a future gain.) Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we feel asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home. It is important you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice. Wine and cheese do not matter [he mentioned in the book that this was part of "Gratitude Night" where students brought guests to a joint event], but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression, and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you. (If you are so moved, please do send me a copy at Seligman@psych.upenn.edu)

There are a lot of ways in which giving works better than receiving for making you happier. The Gratitude Visit is a great way to enrich both giver and receiver. Try it! If you would like to send me a copy, I’d be happy to read it.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 72-75.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

 
Written by Dr. Steve Wright on November 30th, 2008

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