Is happiness our ultimate goal? Self-
help gurus, even the Dalai Lama believe so. A recent NYTimes article by Arthur C. Brooks, A Formula for Happiness, reviews some of the issues involved. He summarizes much of the work of the Positive Psychology movement championed by Seligman and others.
It seems quite clear my now that our baseline “happiness” has a powerful genetic component. This has been documented by twin studies (separated at birth to discount environmental factors). Genes might even contribute as much as 48% of our baseline sense of happiness.
What about life events, the next 40%? Intuitively that would seem to represent a huge component. This would include important one time events– getting a job we seek, acceptance into a particular school, meeting someone we desire, buying a house or car we have been seeking, winning the lottery. These achievements do bring temporary joy. But they do not last.
Seligman and his group write of the hedonic treadmill in which material rewards bring transitory endorphic stimulation followed by the need for more. We also quickly lose the “thrill” of something new, no matter how grand or dream-fulfilling. We literally get used to it, no matter what it is.
So what is left? The approximately 12% Brooks writes of are– family, faith, community and work. These are intuitively obvious. And they can be goals that we can do something about. When it comes to work Brooks notes that income is not the deciding factor. Poverty clearly sucks. It can make anyone unhappy. Financial security that raises someone into ‘middle class’ is important as a means of alleviating other worries. But beyond that, it doesn’t help to secure happiness.
What I would add to the discussion is an important piece that is missing– our attitude about what we do. I know bus drivers who ferry kids back and forth to school. They love what they do. They interact with the children, offer then advice, comfort when they seem to need it. They see themselves as mentoring, even parenting them and the feedback from the kids is phenomenal. I know salesmen who hate what they do and others who see their work as providing a necessary service to their clients. I know doctors who dwell in self-pity over the degrading of a once great profession with its outside interference and reduced payments. Others choose to put those feelings aside and recognize what is sacred in the profession. Who is happier?
Brooks points to studies that show that satisfaction with one’s work can produce happiness and that is measured not by income but by a sense of achievement, and of purpose. It might explain how the rich who inherit money and job position often do not do well in the long run.
It seems as if the process is as important as the result. There is something inherently human about striving first, achieving later. Brooks points to a dangerous trend in our economy–the increasing lack of job creation and economic advancement.
He offers an interesting political mix that might appeal to both Democrats and Republicans –of promoting assistance for the poor and downtrodden with a strong dose of capitalism and the promotion of free enterprise.
Help create new jobs. Give people the opportunity to find something that provides meaning in their lives. Be socially committed to free enterprise rather than handouts which suck the desire to work out of the individual. In other words it is the pursuit of happiness that brings happiness. Take away the desire to pursue and happiness cannot follow. Encourage the American dream, cultivate it.
Where the country is failing at the moment is this ambivalence towards capitalism. It is either demonized as the great Satan which rewards greedy hedge fund billionaires or lauded as a holy imperative from God. In truth it is neither, but what it does do is to recognize human nature. Encourage hard work, goal seeking. Watch out for unbridled greed and capitalism run wild. Somewhere in between there is meaning and happiness.
The good news is that we can choose what we do and how we think about it. Both will help us move towards our goal of happiness.