Happiness is an abstract concept. We often stumble over it when we talk about it, for happiness has no particular shape, no unique determinant, and no easily expressed taste. Many philosophers, however, agree on one thing: happiness is central to human life. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described happiness as the ultimate purpose of human existence.
A Mystery in Need of Explanation
If happiness is as important to the human experience as Aristotle pretended, what, then, allows one to attain it? That is the question a myriad of philosophers have tried to answer, but so have an impressive number of psychologists and sociologists through their academic research over the past decades.
One thing clearly stems out from this scholarly work: “once people have their basic needs covered, more money can buy more things – luxuries that have morphed into essentials – but not more satisfaction”, says Lynda Hurst, in an article for thestar.com. If this finding is in line with what most people want happiness to be about, it certainly goes counter to what society imposes upon us – that is, economic growth. Of course, making and saving money partly contribute to one’s happiness, but the strict pursuit of wealth accumulation doesn’t capture happiness’ complexity.
There is indeed a strong contradiction between what our system dictates and the ultimate result it has. As Richard Layard asserted in his 2003 essay, “The Secrets of Happiness”, income in all western countries has significantly risen over time. Still the percentage of people claiming to be very happy has not moved in any quarter of income! More money in absolute terms therefore does not mean more happiness; this equation is far too simplistic.
Layard puts it bluntly: “Over the past 50 years we have got better homes, more clothes, longer holidays and, above all, better health. Yet surveys show clearly that happiness has not increased in the US, Japan, Continental Europe or Britain.” Layard points to the 1946-1986 US Gallup polls which asked people in the United States about their financial satisfaction: despite higher standards of living, the proportion of those claiming to be “pretty well satisfied” fell significantly.
The Perverse Effects of Income Comparison
This paradoxical situation where citizens own more, but report being less happy than their predecessors possibly reflects the effects of a phenomenon through which people compare their personal situation against an ever-rising norm. This norm, according to Layard, is driven up by two factors: “the income that [people] themselves have experienced” in the past, and “the income that others get, and which they try to rival or outdo”.
The former factor is responsible for habituation – that is, the self-adjustment for changing situations. Owning a car at a certain point in your life renders the spectre of losing it quite worrying. The latter factor can be held accountable for the modification of one’s personal requirements in relation to the situation of other people relatively close to him or her. Owning a modest house located steps from a castle-like domain can create a permanent sense of frustration.
Interestingly, however, this effect of comparison, which produces dissatisfaction, only seems to hold when it comes down to money-related issues. For instance, a sample of Harvard students reported that they would prefer to earn $50,000 if others earned $25,000 than to earn $100,000 if others earned $250,000. Fascinatingly, the same sample responded that they would prefer to have 4 weeks of vacation if others got 8 than to have 2 weeks of vacation if others got only one. There clearly is a double standard at play here.
People indeed appear to be much less competitive-aggressive when it comes to leisure, suggesting that income can’t be the one determinant of human happiness. The World Happiness Report, which was released earlier this year, actually noted that social factors including the degree of personal freedom, the absence of corruption and the strength of social support were more important than wealth in the pursuit of happiness.
Seeing Beyond Economic and Contextual Factors
But the contextual factors mentioned above are not everything. The World Happiness Report finds, indeed, that good mental and physical health, someone to count on, job security and stable families help happiness a great deal. One does not always have a tight grip on these individual-level factors though. So is happiness almost entirely out of one’s control?
Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon M. Sheldon, in a paper published in the Review of General Psychology, tackled the slippery question of how people themselves can increase their overall level of happiness and then maintain it. Their conclusion is that the most promising avenue appears to be the pursuit of intentional activities – that is, practices that people voluntarily and consciously decide to engage in with some degree of effort.
Going to the gym three times a week to increase one’s general physical condition, taking piano lessons and practising every day, or going out with friends on weekends are some examples of intentional activities that people can choose to pursue. Knowing that money is not the only key to one’s well-being and that happiness is not all left to chance is somewhat comforting, isn’t it? Doesn’t it mean, in a certain way, that the achievement of life’s ultimate goal is at hand, at least in part?
Guest Author Bio
Alexandre Duval is a freelance blogger for Tout Sur Mon Condo.
He is also currently completing his master’s degree in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
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