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Two Principles of Psychological Wealth, part 2: Happiness as a Valuable Resource

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Real life can't be that happy!In the Matrix movies we learn that there was a previous matrix: a total virtual world provided for the humans, a utopia in which everyone was happy. But the program was a failure. Too many of the humans rejected it and “woke up” because that world was too perfect. Apparently they knew subconsciously that in real life people weren’t supposed to be that happy.

What good is happiness? Is it anything more than taking Ecstasy or some other “happy pill”? Does it actually benefit you or society in any way, or is it merely feelings that are vacuous and fleeting?

happy sapEspecially in centuries past, many people have thought that happiness is just a trivial luxury that has no substantial benefits, is not worthy of pursuit, perhaps melancholic maneven somewhat characteristic of imbecilic airheadedness. Intellectuals were above such nonsense; melancholy was to be expected. Author of the classic Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert famously declared: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”

Albert Schweitzer said “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

Recently researchers have taken a different view. Ed Diener, probably the world’s foremost authority on the subject, with his son Robert Biswas-Diener, writes:

Modern psychological science has added a fascinating and counter-intuitive new dimension to the age-old discussion of happiness: happiness is beneficial. Rather than viewing happiness as a pleasant state of mind, research tells us that happiness is helpful and functional. It is a resource to be used rather than only to be enjoyed.

Popular book by top happiness researcherIn their popular book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Diener and Diener tell us that “happiness, as it turns out, not only feels good, but is often good for you and for society.” They include the cynical quotations above, and specifically state that “Flaubert was dead wrong.”

In Part II of the book, they discuss research showing that:

…happiness is associated with a wide variety of tangible benefits, ranging from improved health, to better marriages, to increased chances of attaining personal goals.

People often think of happiness as something you get, or a state you get to. But the authors discuss happiness as a resource you can use to increase the chances of success in other areas, as “emotional capital we can spend in the pursuit of other attractive outcomes”:

Research shows that happy people live longer, succumb to fewer illnesses, stay married longer, commit fewer crimes, produce more creative ideas, make more money, and help others more. Who wouldn’t want to be happier if it increases one’s chances of being physically fit, financially secure, helpful, and surrounded by friends?

So cultivating happiness actually has significant, multiple benefits. But how do you grow your happiness? A number of the articles on this web site will help you. One of them highlights where to look: In “Part 1” of this article I talked about another key principle of Psychological Wealth discovered by researchers. If you haven’t read it already, you may want to do so now: “Two Principles of Psychological Wealth, part 1.” If you have, check out some of the recommended articles above in the right column.

Two Principles of Psychological Wealth, part 1

Sunday, February 28th, 2010
  • “I’d really be happy if I could just get that promotion.”
  • “I can’t wait for my vacation!”
  • “I wish I had just a little more money so I could make ends meet.”
  • “I’d be glad if I could lose 10 pounds.”
  • “I want those shoes!”
  • “I should move to California.”
  • “Thank God it’s Friday.”

When people think about what they want, it often has to do with improving their circumstances. People assume they’ll be happier if they could have a situation that includes things like the ones listed above.

I’m pretty sure Ed Diener ( “Dr. Happiness” ) has done more scientific research on happiness than anyone, and is considered by many the world’s foremost authority. Recently he wrote a book on the subject with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener ( “The Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” ), who has also done some interesting research on happiness all over the world. If you want to be happier, it might make sense to listen to what they have to say.

The book is called Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.

Part 1 (of 4 parts), “Understanding True Wealth,” includes Chapter 2: “Two Principles of Psychological Wealth.” The excerpts below are from their discussion of the first principle.

Caveat Emptor: Bad Stuff Happens … Even to Princesses

Take a moment and recall the classic story of Cinderella. Remember how she was cruelly mistreated by her stepsisters and their wicked mother? Do you recall how they made her slave away at the daily household chores? Remember how the dress she labored so hard over was torn to shreds in a fit of jealousy, and her hopes of going to the royal ball lay in tatters? Of course, you probably best remember the happy ending of the fairy tale: Cinderella’s magical godmother arrives in the nick of time, whisks her away to the dance, and engineers a quick infatuation, with the result that the beloved protagonist marries the charming prince. But is that the end of the story, or just the beginning?

It is interesting to consider what happened to Cinderella next, after she was betrothed and took up residence in Charming Castle. For people who believe that happiness is a matter of favorable circumstances, the story of Cinderella turns out to be a slam dunk. With a Hollywood-handsome husband, a royal title, all the riches she could want, and soldiers to guard her from the paparazzi, how could our belle of the ball not be happy? But for folks who are inclined to think of happiness as a process, the matter of Cinderella’s emotional fate is far from clear. Did Cinderella’s husband treat her well, or was he a philanderer in later life? Did she find some meaningful pastime to keep her occupied on the palace grounds? Were her children spoiled brats? Did she harbor resentment about her upbringing, or try to get revenge on her stepsisters? Did she grow bored with royal balls and court intrigue, or did she organize a dance program for the poor kids in her kingdom? Happiness, as we have said, is a process, not a destination. Just as Cinderella’s life did not end with her royal wedding, your emotional bliss is not complete once you have obtained some important goal. Life goes on, and even those great circumstances you achieve will not ensure you lasting happiness. For one thing, bad things can happen even to beautiful young princesses. But even if Cinderella’s life encountered few bumps on the fairyland road, she might have grown bored with the wonderful circumstances surrounding her, and needed new aims and activities to add zest to her life.

In the end, Cinderella’s quality of life was probably dictated less by her favorable circumstances and more by how she construed them. Hardships are an inevitable part of life, and having psychological wealth does not mean there are never any risks or losses. Of course there are. Happiness is not the complete absence of tough times, because that would be unrealistic. But, as we shall see later in this chapter and later in this book, negative emotions have a place in psychological wealth, and subjective interpretation plays an important role in happiness.

-Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness, pp. 16-17
(Chapter 2: Two Principles of Psychological Wealth)

Cinderella seemed to end up with a lot of the things we want (and don’t we spend a lot of time trying to get them?): money, prestige, a good-looking romantic partner, security. She was “successful”; she had “arrived.” But research on happiness is showing that good circumstances (even those of storybook quality) don’t necessarily have a lot to do with how happy people are. Of course, goals are important, but happiness is more about the process than it is about where you end up.

The next section in the book, a kind of thought experiment, illustrates this nicely.

Needing the Rigors of the Game

We sometimes ask our students whether they would accept the following pact with a genie. After floating out of his lamp, he offers to give you everything you desire, and as soon as the wish comes into your head, without the typical three-wish limit. The smirking genie says that anything you want will instantly come to you. You can’t wish for happiness, and you can’t wish that you will need to work for things to obtain them: no trickery of this type is allowed. Just solid old-school wishing for gold, castles, travel, beauty, friends, sports talent, intelligence, musical talent, good-looking dates, fast cars, and the like is permitted. Of course, most students wave their hands wildly, signaling that of course they would accept this great offer. Undoubtedly they are thinking of school loans, good grades, summers in Paris, and body fat. But – typically – as the class discussion proceeds, doubts begin to creep in. Maybe this all-wishes-granted deal, having everything and working for nothing, would become boring. Maybe you would adapt to all your blessings and they would no longer produce happiness. The discussion proceeds a bit further, and a few students begin to think the infinite-wishes deal might be hell on earth. Things would become boring, they reason, and life would lose its zest.

Students’ qualms about receiving everything without effort express our intuitive understanding that working for things we desire can be part of the pleasure of obtaining them. Just as climbing the mountain may be the major part of the fun, and simply being boosted to the top by a genie would be much less rewarding, much in life might be more meaningful and rewarding because of the efforts needed to obtain it. Not only will the eventual reward be more exciting, but the activities needed to gain the reward can themselves be very rewarding. The former justice of the United States Supreme Court Benjamin Cardozo expressed this well: “In the end the great truth will have been learned: that the quest is greater than what is sought, the effort finer than the prize (or, rather, that the effort is the prize), the victory cheap and hollow were it not for the rigor of the game.” The renowned justice went beyond saying that the goal-seeking activities enhance the final reward; he claimed that these activities are in fact the prize itself!

-Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness, pp. 17-18
(Chapter 2: Two Principles of Psychological Wealth)

You’ve probably heard the saying “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it was also popularized by Aerosmith. If you do a Google search for “journey, not a destination” you’ll get a lot of interesting variations – other things that are “…a journey, not a destination”:

    Popular book by top happiness researcher

  • Success
  • Excellence
  • Fitness
  • Leadership
  • Sustainability
  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
  • CRM (Customer Relationship Management)
  • Windows Vista Security

But the most popular variation that comes up in the first few pages of Google is:

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

This is also the essence of the first principle of Psychological Wealth.

Can money buy happiness?

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Researchers find that it can – if you spend it on other people.

In the last few decades real incomes and real wealth have increased much more than people think, but people are no happier, according to research. Gregg Easterbrook wrote a book about this, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, which prompted Martin Seligman to invite him as a guest lecturer in an online course I was part of.

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, thought this might be because of the way people spend their money. “People often pour their increased wealth into pursuits that provide little in the way of lasting happiness.” They do things like buying flat screen TVs. Research has found over and over that you get a little jolt of pleasure from this, but it goes away pretty quickly. It turns out giving has more benefits. Also, just thinking about having more money makes people less likely to use it in ways that would make them happy (Vohs et al, 2006). And when a group similar to those in the third study below were asked to select the conditions in that study that would make them happier, they got it exactly backwards.

We’re actually not very good in general at predicting what will make us happy. One Harvard psychologist has devoted a lot of his research career to this. His engaging and witty best-seller is called Stumbling on Happiness, which I’ll definitely be talking about in a future post.

giftGetting back to Dunn and colleagues, who published their findings in March this year in Science, their research looked at this question in different ways by doing three separate studies. They concluded that buying stuff for yourself doesn’t make you happier, but spending money on other people does.

They surveyed 632 Americans, gave them standardized, validated measures of general happiness, and asked questions about income, spending on (1) bills and expenses, (2) gifts for themselves, (3) gifts for others, and (4) donations to charity. Spending on the first two categories was not related to happiness; spending on the second two categories was.

Next they looked at people who received a windfall profit-sharing bonus (mostly in the $3000-$7000 range), and how they spent it. General happiness measures were taken a month before and 6-8 weeks after. They reported what percentage of their bonus they spent on 6 different categories including “buying something for someone else” and “donating to charity.” High or low income didn’t affect the happiness measure, and the amount of the bonus didn’t either. But spending in the two “pro-social” categories I just mentioned predicted higher levels of happiness. How much people got wasn’t related to their happiness two months later. Spending it on others was.

A third study was an experiment which could demonstrate causality. Participants were given either $5 or $20 to spend by 5:00 p.m. and were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group they spent the money on a bill, an expense, or a gift for themselves, and in the other group they spent the money on a gift for someone else or to make a charitable donation. Those in the latter (pro-social spending) group had increased general happiness scores.

The researchers go on to say that it might be better to focus on “intentional activities” (“practices in which people actively and effortfully choose to engage”) in finding ways to increase happiness, rather than looking at life circumstances like income, gender, and religious affiliation. They also point out that a small change in spending habits can have a significant effect. Remember that in the third study, only $5 made a difference.

5 dollar bill


Elizabeth W. Dunn, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton (March 2008), “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” Science 21: Vol. 319. no. 5870, pp. 1687-1688. DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952.

Kathleen D. Vohs, Nicole L. Mead, and Miranda R. Goode (November 2006), “The Psychological Consequences of Money,” Science 314: Vol. 314. no. 5802, pp. 1154-1156. DOI: 10.1126/science.1132491.