November 14, 2005

Psych 101 Textbook Author Speaks on Happiness

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It’s been a year since you struck gold in the New York State Lottery.

Over the past twelve months, you’ve quit your plumbing job, booked a one-way plane ticket out of Ithaca and bought a mansion in the Hamptons, where you spend your days golfing, windsurfing and waxing your collection of Ferraris.

But are you any happier than you were in your days laying pipe?

If you’re like a majority of Illinois State Lottery winners in one study, chances are you’re not, said Prof. David Myers, Hope College, author of the textbook used in Psychology 101: Introduction to Psychology. Myers spoke on happiness Wednesday to the 700-plus students in the class, taught by Prof. James Maas, psychology. The findings he presented challenged conventional wisdom on the relationship between happiness and wealth, age, gender, ethnicity and marital status.

“If you think that if only you could become very rich, then you’d be happy, you’re probably living with an illusion,” Myers said.

Data from more than 7 million college freshmen since 1950, however, show that students are increasingly placing value on “becom[ing] very well off financially” at the expense of “develop[ing] a meaningful life philosophy.”

According to Myers, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.

“Initially, getting that bigger car or that more beautiful home or whatever will bring a short-term jolt of happiness,” he explained, “but it’s sort of like a heroin addict needing a bigger fix than that to rejuice the joy.”

This trend was observed in the lottery winners, who returned to their previous levels of contentment after a brief post-jackpot euphoria.

All research indicates that for people above the poverty line, the amount of one’s disposable income has negligible effects on life satisfaction. Although Americans’ disposable income has almost tripled over the past few decades, for example, their happiness has actually declined slightly. Similarly, the world’s wealthiest nations report levels of happiness no different from those of moderately wealthy countries.

The bottom line: Money can’t buy happiness.

Myers told The Sun that this conclusion bodes well for the burgeoning sustainability movement.

“This research that indicates that we adapt to new levels of consumption and are then no happier supports the contention of the sustainability movement that we can have good lives even if we have moderate consumption,” he said. “The earth has a limited carrying capacity, and we can’t continue consuming oil and putting out carbon dioxide and so forth at the rate we’re doing.

“In the future, there’s going to come a time when people are going to be ashamed if they drive Hummers.”

If SUVs and other material possessions are not reliable predictors of happiness, what factors are? Are certain demographic groups more satisfied with their lives than others?

Contrary to popular belief, Myers said, happiness levels remain remarkably constant across age, gender, and ethnicity.

Things that Myers said do contribute to happiness include a happy marriage, involvement in a religious community and a general focus beyond the self.

After the lecture, Myers attended a luncheon with Psych 101 teaching assistants and students, who gave him feedback on his widely used textbook, Psychology in Modules. The students said they especially liked the small “module” sized chapters as well as the cartoons, quotes and other marginalia that illustrate the concepts discussed.

Although photos and other images are chosen by assistants, Myers said he personally selects all of the quotations and cartoons personally. “Usually, if a cartoon makes it into the book,” he said, “it’s because I thought it was rollicking good fun.”

Myers got a laugh when he explained a fight he had with Far Side distributors when they refused his request to use more than the traditionally allotted three cartoons per book.

The eighth edition of Psychology in Modules is due out next spring.

“The textbook stands out as a superior educational guide because David Myers has a keen sense of the content and writing style that engages students,” stated Psych 101 head TA Janelle Weinstock ’06. “The textbook is unique not only because it not only reads like a bestseller but also presents the entire breadth of psychological concepts with clarity and memorable examples.”

In addition to his psychology textbooks, Myers has published five general interest books, including the recent What God has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage, coauthored with Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

“This is a book by two people of faith written for other people of faith,” Myers told The Sun.

“It tends to support what traditionalists think, which is that marriage is conducive to human flourishing, and that we therefore should support the institution of marriage – that’s what I believe – and it tends to support what progressives think, which is that sexual orientation is a natural disposition, not a moral choice, and that people, whatever their sexual orientation, flourish when their need to belong is satisfied, which is what marriage does.”

Myers believes that despite recent state bans, the long-term prospects for gay marriage look good in light of younger Americans’ more tolerant attitudes.

“As [older] folks leave the planet, if you will, and younger folks replace them, then unless something happens to change the opinion of the generation that follows you, I think we can see where this is headed. So, if you’re against gay marriage, you’re well-advised to get those state votes in quickly.”

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer

and David Wittenberg
Sun Staff Writer