Psychologist Are Waking Up to What Makes People Happy


“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly.” – Epicurus (third century B.C.)

Happy are those who spend the least amount of time alone, says Martin E.P. Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness,” in USA Today. They judge themselves according to their own value systems and not against some external rating system — e.g., one based on being richer, smarter, more popular, etc.

“Materialism is toxic for happiness,” Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, told the newspaper. Even rich materialists aren’t as happy as those who care less about getting and spending.

You heard it here first. Correct that. Jesus made that point 2,000 years ago. And Epicurus said so before Jesus. But if you have trouble accepting the sages of the past, you’ll find comfort in knowing that a growing field of psychology is now studying happiness (traditionally, psychology studies unhappiness and mental illness) and is coming to the conclusion that making it rich is a “set-up for disappointment,” according to Diener.

Here’s something I didn’t know: According to Seligman, people have happiness “set points” just as they have set points with their weight. You can improve or hinder your well-being, he says, but it is unlikely you will do so “in long leaps.” That seems right. I am, for example, a mildly cranky person who makes an effort to be positive. My sister DF is the same. KFF, my spouse, has a much happier set point. We all swing back and forth but the anchors are located in different seas.

Absence of pain is necessary for happiness, I’ve argued — but the new studies show that ill health is not necessarily an indicator of misery. Many people with perfectly robust health are unhappy about their health, these studies show, while others, burdened with all sorts of maladies, maintain a very positive view of life and are grateful for the health they have.

Other important discoveries about happiness:

* Happy people tend to be friend- and family-oriented.

* People are happiest when they are wrapped up in work they like.

* Responsibilities — even very large ones — do not in themselves cause unhappiness.

* Reciprocally, being unburdened with responsibilities does not make for a happy life.

* Happy people are generally grateful people.

* Altruism creates happiness — but in the giver, not the receiver. (This, you know.)

* Scandinavians are the happiest people in the world, according to Ed Diener. North Americans are happy too, but so are South Americans, Central Americans, and Spaniards. People from Europe and the UK are not quite so happy, and folks from Eastern Europe and Africa are, according to the studies, pretty miserable. Also grumpy are people from “Confucian countries” — Korea, China, and Japan (where negative emotions are seen as just as desirable as positive ones).

* One sex isn’t happier than the other.

* Satisfaction with life rises slightly with age.

* Happy people have good friends.

We can’t always know what will make us happy, Seligman says. He talks about how, after having two grown boys, he had wanted no more children. But his wife wanted two more. “So I compromised,” he said. “We had two more.” And to his happy surprise, he’s besotted by the new kids. And here’s another interesting finding: Self-esteem seems to make American women happy but it does little for Asian women whose cultures are more collectivist and family oriented than individualistic. (I have no idea why this wouldn’t apply equally to men. Perhaps it does.)

Each of us is born with a DNA-based happiness set point, as it were. This is sort of a pre-programmed regulator that determines how much happiness we are comfortable with. This genetic predisposition, the new studies say, can be counteracted by force of will — just as you can live at a body weight that is different from that which you are programmed to have.

It takes a lot of will power — especially at first, but it can be done. And although the studies don’t say so, I’d bet you can eventually change that set point, just as you can change your body weight set point by continued commitment to a different level.

Here are five things you can do right now to become happier:

1. Find work that you value.

2. Stay close to your family and friends.

3. Recognize that you need only a limited amount of wealth to be happy.

4. Stop worrying about taking care of yourself and start taking better care of others.

5. Be thankful for what you have.

To read more on this subject and to see tests and surveys on happiness and personal strengths, and to compare your scores to those of thousands of others, go to