Happiness Is A Warm Gun

If you’re anything like me, happiness is not something you think about consciously. You take it for granted. I’ve always been of the opinion that happiness is a choice- a function of one’s own mental state, and virtually unrelated to our environment. With my new-found powers of rationality, I decided to test this hypothesis…

My theory was that happiness depends entirely on intrinsic factors, and that any variations due to external (environmental?) factors are short-lived enough to be ignored. Think of it as a sinusoidal wave where the dc offset is a function of our own personality and the ac amplitude is a function of our external environment. It’s a sinusoid because both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things tend to happen roughly periodically, over the long run at least, and in equal measure.

A diagram speaks a thousand equations.

A diagram speaks a thousand equations.

I never thought about what the external factors might be, but I’m sure I would have been completely off base.

So this somewhat limited worldview is supported by the concept of the ‘hedonic treadmill’. According to this theory, people remain at a relatively stable level of happiness irrespective of the events in their lives. The effects of major events such as, say, winning the lottery, fizzle out in time. This has a scary implication- we need more and more effort to remain happy. Once you have won the lottery, you need to do it regularly to maintain the same level of happiness, lest it subside back to baseline. Hence the imagery of a treadmill- we are like hamsters on a wheel. Also along these lines is the Easterlin paradox, that states rather confusingly that high incomes do correlate with happiness, but in the long run, higher incomes do not correlate with more happiness,

hamster wheel

When I read of this theory, I was pretty satisfied with how well it agreed with my own ideas. However, since an unfortunate infatuation with Freudian psychoanalysis a couple of years ago, I’m wary of accepting any theories without  substantial supporting data. So I went on a hunt for articles/books that explained this phenomenon in a more quantitative way. And I found some posts on the Freakonomics blog that raised questions about the validity of the hedonic treadmill theory. In case you’re not familiar with Freakonomics, it’s a book/podcast on popular economics. It is very interesting even for a layperson because they apply economic theory to everything, rather than the financial market approach that is usually followed. so here’s what I learnt:

  • Religion– Research on this topic yields a couple of points of interest: Firstly, less liberal sects of Christianity tend to have a relatively higher contribution to charity (in terms of percentage of income); and secondly, church participation tends to be more because of aggregation of people from the same home country rather than because of mere religious belief. This leads to the correlation-does-not-lead-to-causation dilemma, because one cannot say whether it is the charity that makes people happy, or whether happier people tend to be more generous (or simply more well off). While the exact ties are unclear, there is a link between active religion and higher happiness levels.
  • Money– No uncertainty here! Richer countries tend to be happier, on average, than poor countries. As the GDP of a country increases over time, the levels of happiness do as well. The weak link in this research seems to be in the way happiness is quantified. Sometimes a 4 point scale is used, sometimes a 10 point scale is used, and who really knows how respondents are interpreting the question? Despite normalization and careful phrasing of survey questions, one can never really be sure. Plus, people with higher incomes may be under more societal pressure to appear happy, making them answer more positively than they would like.
  • Kids– Senior citizens in the USA tend to have lower levels of happiness when cohabiting with kids. Which is more than a little surprising until the article reminds us that in the USA, living with grandkids usually happens only if made necessary by health or financial constraints. This effect is not observed in societies with larger families, where it is more common for the elderly to live with their children and grandchildren. Parents who live with their children have similar levels of happiness as other people their age in comparable circumstances without kids.
  • Weekends– Well, duh. People are happier on weekends, and this effect is only seen in full time wage earners. The difference in happiness levels is less when you work in an organization with flat hierarchy.
  • Beauty– Beautiful people are happier. But probably not for the obvious reasons. A significant amount of the difference can be attributed to the fact that they generally earn more, and marry partners who earn more. Because money buys happiness, remember? Similarly, there used to be a significant difference in happiness levels between blacks and whites in the US, but the margin is narrowing.

For the full articles, read the Freakonomics blog posts under the tag ‘happiness’.


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