Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Studying on happiness

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert is a book that I have wanted to read since this summer. Alas, I have not yet. But the psychology of happiness, sometimes referred to as well-being, fascinates me. I took a graduate course on happiness in the psychology department two years ago, and the research we read (from economics, sociology, health, and psychology) was all very interesting. The most interesting things, of course, are the ones that you wouldn't expect. That you might not have guessed.

For example, that the amount of money that you make overall contributes little to happiness once you are above the poverty line.

Or specifically, that what affects your happiness is not having significant wealth or making a lot of money on an objective scale; rather, what contributes to your happiness is how much you make relative to those in your immediate surroundings (i.e., it's better to be the big fish in a small pond).

We are overwhelmed by the paradox of choice, evident when you walk into the supermarket and can choose from 20 different types of chocolate chip cookies, 50 types of cereal, or 30 different flavors of jam. Given so many options, it seems as though a buyer should naturally be able to find the choice of his or her liking. Yet an overabundance of choice can be demotivating, increasing the likelihood that the buyer to leave with none.

Forty to fifty percent of the variance in happiness (referred to by the researchers as life satisfaction) between individuals can be attributed to genetic factors. Marry a happy person if you want happy kids.

That we are poor at estimating the effect of life changes. We believe that paraplegics must be very unhappy. We believe that lottery winners must be overjoyed with their lives. In actuality, a year after the event, their happiness is the same.

Gilbert mentions the last example in his TED Talk I recently heard. He also talks about the fact that people tend to have biases against synthetic happiness (the kind our brain seems to make by itself) compared to natural happiness (that which appears to be caused by external factors), but that there isn't really a good reason to be.

I hope to blog about the rest in more detail soon.