It was one of those crap days. It might have been the gloomy Ithacan weather or Monday or maybe it was just me. Procrastination hit its terminal stage, and the Google Scholar search cursor was silently blinking at me with poorly concealed condemnation, as if anticipating when I finally collect myself and make a productive query. Instead, I typed in “happiness” to see what science has to say on the matter, and started climbing the shoulders of giants.
In contrast to many of my colleagues, I am not a big supporter of popularizing all science and I fail to see how knowing the inner workings of a black hole is useful for anything but better appreciation of some scenes in Interstellar. But if there’s any work that currently languishes in undeserved obscurity it’s the research on subjective well being, a branch of psychology and sociology that has existed for decades and produced a line of insightful and extremely counter-intuitive results which relate directly to our daily experiences and lives overall. The rosy self-help books that promise fulfillment and joy upon completion are fully detached from its findings, and for a good reason: these findings are a publisher’s nightmare.
Everything you think will make you happy, the science says — be that having a successful career, finding love, staying healthy, creating a family or becoming rich — all those blessings combined account for somewhere between 8 and 15 percent of people’s subjective well-being. The rest seems to be mostly determined by our genetic make-up (with estimates ranging from 50 to 80 percent). With the exception of clinical depression, how you feel is in the long run more or less constant (a so-called set point), and all one can do is temporarily depart from the set point and slide back into it a few days or months later. The never-ending race for a better condition is nothing but a fruitless effort, as every improvement you win with years of hard labor you will quickly adapt to, a phenomenon researches aptly dubbed “the hedonic treadmill”: you end up covering a lot of distance without getting anywhere. This seems to be especially true for wealth, as countless unlucky lottery ticket winners have testified.
The good news is, if you’re a happy person right now independent of how you do in life chances, you will likely continue to enjoy the ride years and decades later. If you’re not, well, brace yourself.
The patterns get even more disturbing when you look at the society at large instead of an individual. An improving economy, for example, has been shown to not affect national happiness (with the exception of countries suffering from extreme poverty), and sometimes even hurt it. Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world, but my considerably wealthier homeland, Russia, is one of the most miserable. War, at least under some circumstances, seems to make people happier, and so does religion. Famously, when London was being bombed during WWII the number of suicides decreased; people reported a stronger sense of unity and purpose and later would remember those times with nostalgia.
I always got mad at Grandpa whenever he would say life was better during Stalin’s rule (in Russia, this view is surprisingly common in his generation and beyond). But maybe all he meant to say is that life felt better, even though in pretty much every objective metric we use as proxy for happiness it wasn’t. Stripped of wealth and many freedoms, with goal of building communism slowly being replaced with what was essentially a religion around worshipping the nation’s leader, the Soviets at the time might have been psychologically healthier than the purposeless and disillusioned population of modern Russia. Alternatively, they may have been absolutely miserable and later just adjusted their recollections through some bizarre coping mechanism.
How is one to decide policy in the light of all these findings? If you think about it, the documents we hold sacred in the modern liberal society, like the constitution or U.N. conventions, are adopted with an implicit assumption that the rights they demand promote well-being. Sometimes that is undoubtedly the case, but other times it may not be.
If we set our goal to be happiness of the nation, then it would follow that it might be a good idea to stop worrying about the economy, proclaim a Buddhist theocracy and start a war on somebody (so, basically, appoint Myanmar as a role model), but all these suggestions sound like madness. On the other hand, declaring happiness meaningless and instead pursuing GDP growth and ultimate freedom for their own sakes seems equally insane.
I don’t have any answers to these societal dilemmas, but there seems to be some hope for us individuals. Supportive community, a romantic partner, fulfilling job and exercise are not as powerful as the tyranny of DNA but have robustly demonstrated to improve happiness somewhat. So did the mindset of gratitude and helping others. Finally, people have shown to grow happier as they age, so if none of the things above work for you, maybe just wait.
Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.