The Secret to Happiness May Lie in Our Relationship

The squishiness of the term “happiness” has long caused problems for those who study it. To gauge h...

The squishiness of the term “happiness” has long caused problems for those who study it. To gauge happiness and sidestep semantic problems, many of the psychologists who have tried to quantify it have used a measure called “Subjective Well-Being.” This measure, as its name implies, relies on individuals themselves to tell researchers how happy they are. Ed Diener, a University of Virginia psychologist nicknamed “Dr. Happiness,” pioneered the approach in the 1980s. 

Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.
“Close relationships and social connections keep you happy and healthy. Basically, humans are wired for personal connections.”
Today, Diener serves as a senior scientist at The Gallup Organization, which provides a key survey used in happiness indexes put out by most groups compiling such lists, including the United Nations.
But in recent years, a growing number of researchers have begun to acknowledge that this isn’t a particularly good fix; maybe a little more refinement is needed. What we really mean when we tell a researcher from a place like Gallup that we are “happy” can vary widely. If you ask a teenager or young adult to rate his happiness, he’s liable to base his answer on his weekend plans, how much money he has in his pocket, and how his peers treated him during lunch break.

The Secret to Happiness May Lie in Our Relationship
If you ask somebody with a little more mileage—someone with children, for instance—they are liable to look at a bigger picture, even if they have a bad back that’s been acting up, no babysitter for Saturday, and an appointment that afternoon for a colonoscopy.

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of researchers have begun to rethink exactly what happiness is and distinguish between two types: “hedonic” happiness, that positive mental high, and “eudaimonic” happiness. Aristotle was referring to this second kind when he wrote 2,300 years ago: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” 
This is the kind of happiness that qualifies a life well-lived, time on this planet well-spent. Medical technology may soon be able to engineer a momentary absence of fear, or the presence of a moment-to-moment sense of well-being, but engineering this second kind of happiness would be far more difficult.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling Stumbling On Happiness, suggests humans are already hardwired to raise their own hedonistic happiness, and we’re pretty good at it, without resorting to mood bots. Gilbert has spent his career studying the way we convince ourselves to accept our external circumstances, and return to a hedonic equilibrium, no matter what comes.

In a 2004 TED talk, Gilbert powerfully demonstrates this by displaying two pictures side by side. The picture on the left depicts a man in a black cowboy hat holding up an oversized lottery check. He has just won $314.9 million. The picture on the right displays another man, approximately the same age, sitting in a wheelchair, being pushed up a ramp. “Here are two different futures that I invite you to contemplate, and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer,” Gilbert says to the audience. Data exists, he assures them, on how happy groups of lottery winners and paraplegics are. The fact is, a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners are only slightly happier with their lives than paraplegics are.
The findings are unequivocal: Online connection decreases depression, reduces loneliness, and increases levels of perceived social support.
The reason people fail to appreciate that both groups are equally happy is a counterintuitive phenomenon that Gilbert calls “impact bias,” a tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events. We see this tendency, he notes, with winning or not winning an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, winning or not winning a promotion, passing or not passing a college exam. All these events “have far less impact, far less intensity, and for much less duration than people expect them to have.”

It’s that happiness set point again, returning to its base. But surely some things affect happiness? In fact, Gilbert tells Nautilus, “Much of our happiness is produced by things that have long evolutionary histories. I will place any wager that in 2045 people are still happy when they see their children prosper, when they taste chocolate, when they feel loved, secure, and well fed.”

The Secret to Happiness May Lie in Our Relationship
These are the “staples of happiness,” he continues. “It would take an evolutionary change on the order of species to even consider the possibility that those would change too. This question could have been posed a few years ago, 300 years ago, 2,000 years ago. It would never have been wrong to say, ‘You are the most social animal on Earth, invest in your social relationships, it will be a form of happiness.’ ” It’s an answer that is so obvious that most people dismiss it.

“There is utterly no secret about the kind of things that make people happy,” Gilbert says. “But if you list them for people, they go, ‘Yeah, that kind of sounds like what my rabbi, grandmother, my philosopher have said all along. What’s the secret?’ The answer is there is no secret. They were right.”

Generations of happiness research, stressing the importance of personal relationships, drops us into the middle of a surprisingly contemporary debate. We live in an increasingly networked society, and the rate of us in social networks, and the amount of time we spend online, continues to grow each year. Vaillant, of the longitudinal Harvard study, has no hesitation in saying what our lives online are doing to us.

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