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The Happiness Issue

May 7, 2008

by Tim


fulfilled_mother_with_daughters.jpgWhile reviewing thousands of psychology studies performed over the past six decades, Martin Seligman discovered a disturbing pattern: the overwhelming majority dealt with mental illness. Only a tiny portion addressed the issue of greatest concern to most people: How to be happy.

Dr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was thunderstruck by the implications of his discovery. During World War II, Seligman realized, psychologists had focused on helping traumatized soldiers regain their lives. In the process they became preoccupied with studying, classifying, and treating mental illnesses. Inquiries into happiness and well-being were crowded out of the research ring. For the past 60 years psychology had been devoted almost exclusively to rehabilitation, remaining largely unconcerned with understanding how people become happier and more satisfied.

Seligman has since spearheaded a “positive psychology” movement dedicated to scientifically defining, identifying, classifying, and engendering behavior causally linked to happiness and well-being.

In short, he and others have undertaken rigorous research into Soul Shelter territory: Fortune and fulfillment. What did they learn?

Most important, work satisfaction is crucial. Seligman discovered that people become happier when they can use their “signature strengths”—another word for skills or core competencies—in an enterprise linked to a greater good. That jibes with Marcus Buckingham’s work (and my personal theory that business ventures are scalable and successful to the extent that they address significant social problems).

A growing number of scholars agree. Psychologists and couples therapist Aline Zoldbrod says recent research demonstrates that materialism is bad for one’s emotional well-being. Psychology professor Tim Kasser, the author of one such study, was quoted in an International Herald Tribune article:

Consumer culture is continually bombarding us with the message that materialism will make us happy. What this research shows is that that’s not true.

Such findings trace back to the Easterlin paradox, first proposed in 1974 by the economist Richard Easterlin. Easterlin conducted a global study showing that wealth does not improve national happiness levels once basic needs are fulfilled. Since then the Easterlin paradox has become one touchstone of the positive psychology movement as it relates to happiness.rejoicing_at_sunset.jpg

Recently, though, the Easterlin paradox has been challenged. An article entitled “Maybe Money Can Buy Happiness” quoted two economists who found measurement problems with the data underlying the Easterlin paradox. “The central message,” one said, “is that income does matter.” Other economists agree.

Easterlin himself admits that people in richer countries are more satisfied, but cautions that correlation does not equal causality. In other words, wealth doesn’t necessarily cause satisfaction.

What are we non-economist, non-psychologist types to make of all this?

Well, it seems the experts agree on at least one thing: increased wealth clearly increases happiness for people living paycheck-to-paycheck. Yet unbridled materialism is a recipe for dissatisfaction. The problem seems to be our ability to effectively predict what will make us happy. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert put it this way in (yet) another IHT article:

If it were the case that money made us totally miserable, we’d figure out we were wrong … it’s wrong in a more nuanced way. We think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.

P.S. Today (5/2/2008), after completing the rewrite of this post, I discovered that Justin Wolfers, the author of Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox, wrote an extensive, six-part series on happiness. I really need to start reading more posts than I write …

This essay first appeared in a different form in the October 2004 issue of Japan Entrepreneur Report.

You may also enjoy:

What We Really Need to be Happy

The State of American Happiness

A Moment of Fulfillment

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