It does not look like a picture of the pursuit of happiness.
In the photograph, social psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener is sitting on the ground somewhere in southwestern Kenya, with his back straight and his hands in his lap, the fingers of one wrapped fiercely around the opposite wrist. His short-sleeved shirt is half off. A Maasai warrior sits facing him, calmly poking a red-hot stick into Biswas-Diener's exposed pectoral muscle.
Which he did again and again.
"They're a culture of bravery," says Biswas-Diener, who travels the world to study happiness. "They do all these rituals of burning and scarification as a show of pain tolerance. I went to see a male circumcision on a 15-year-old, and it's pretty horrific. But the kid held completely still, almost as if he was asleep. The Maasai really do prize this capital of courage. They didn't necessarily have a lot of respect for my project. So I said, 'Sure, I'd be willing to have this ritual burning.' "
In the photo, Biswas-Diener clenches his jaw as the burning stick sears his flesh. One eyebrow juts wildly skyward. "It's just shameful," he says of his reaction.
But it worked. The Maasai warriors submitted in turn to that oddly American instrument of torture, the attitudinal survey. ("On a scale of one to seven, do you disagree or agree with the following statements? 'The life I live is close to the ideal' and 'If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing' and . . . ") It turned out that they were happy. Indeed, happier than the average American, despite having little or no formal education, few possessions other than their cattle, and nothing but spears to fend off hungry lions.
What makes people happy? Why do millionaires often seem wretched, whereas slum dwellers in Calcutta profess to be content? Why do we find satisfaction in activities that are painful in the actual experience, like running a marathon or rowing a 5000-meter crew race -- or being branded in a tribal ritual? If real happiness lies in our relationships with family and friends, as research suggests, how do we cultivate these relationships -- and not let these people drive us out of our skulls?
Over the past few decades, a small army of scientists has been working to answer such questions and tease out the elusive nature of happiness. The results of their work can at times seem dauntingly complex, as when two economists offer this formula for happiness: r = h[u(y, s, z, t)] + e. At other times, it can seem blissfully simple, as when the same two authors conclude, "The more sex, the happier the person." (But wait a minute. They also report, "The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is 1.") The good news about happiness is that it seems to be a skill we can acquire and develop. Studies indicate that even severely depressed individuals can increase their sense of well-being. Moreover, some of the most effective techniques are relatively simple and cost nothing.
Let's start with a list. I sat up last night making mine, and it was infinitely more gratifying than the more familiar 3 a.m. pastime of making "to do" lists. It was a list of things that, at one time or another, have made me happy. When I was a kid, for instance, we had a mulberry tree in the backyard, and on June mornings I used to wake up and go out in my pajamas and circle that tree, stuffing my face till my hands and feet and lips were purple with crushed berries. Sounds dumb, doesn't it? Most people don't even think mulberries taste good.
But the truth is that my list was full of trivial stuff: Driving my first car with one arm out the window and "Hey Jude" playing loud on the radio. Walking to my flat on Heytesbury Street in Dublin carrying a pint of milk with the cream rising to the top and a loaf of brown bread still warm from the oven. Sitting on a porch with a gin and tonic, looking out at Sheepscot Bay, while my daughter played nearby on a swing. Nothing you would put on your list of "99 Things to Do Before I Die."
But maybe it's not about big things, after all. We often stake our happiness on things that we know, deep down, will quickly leave us feeling empty -- acquiring the next big promotion, the slick new car, the hot date. We act as if all hangs on, say, our team winning this Saturday's big football game. But real life is not a vacuum in which a single event (acquiring the job of your dreams or the house you always wanted) changes everything.
Saturday afternoon comes and goes, says Harvard researcher Daniel T. Gilbert, Ph.D., and all the emotions stirred up by the game get "pushed, pulled, dampened, exacerbated, and otherwise altered by postgame pizza, late-night parties, and next-day hangovers."
In one experiment, Gilbert and other researchers asked participants how bad they would feel if they failed to win the big date. B-a-a-ad, they thought. But when they actually lost, they generally shrugged it off.
So the researchers upped the ante. They asked participants what quantity of a mood-enhancing drug they would want to ingest to make themselves feel better if they lost. A ton, they predicted. But on losing, they actually opted for a much smaller imaginary dose. We have, says Gilbert, a kind of "psychological immune system" for explaining away bad news.
This is, of course, a good thing. It enables us to find our way back to our familiar emotional baseline, even after a devastating event, such as the loss of a parent. Curiously, Gilbert suggests that we may also benefit from our inability to predict what will make us happy. Exaggerating the impact of future events may help us drum up the energy for Saturday's game. It may explain what Gilbert refers to as "our willingness to marry despite the responsibilities and constraints . . . or to raise children despite the pooping and howling."
On the other hand, it may also help sustain the illusion that we could be happy if we were just a little richer, say, or a little more physically attractive. Research has repeatedly shown that increasing your income, or even winning the lottery, is unlikely to make you much happier, once you get beyond the basic minimum necessary for food and housing. The psychological immune system is also good at explaining away even extraordinarily good events, so that they quickly seem ordinary "and perhaps even a little dull," Gilbert says. Thus, people who pin their hopes on the next big thing often end up on what researchers call "the hedonic treadmill," chasing goals that, once attained, don't seem to matter much anymore.
People also fool themselves about what made them happy in the past. In one experiment, for instance, test subjects' memories of their vacations were much happier than the feelings they expressed during the vacations themselves. This flawed memory made them more willing to repeat the vacation experience. The "peak/end rule," put forth by Prince-ton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., provides a possible explanation. Kahneman points out that there are 20,000 or so 3-second "moments" in the average waking day. Keeping track of them all is just too damned hard.
So, as a sort of shortcut, people's memories of an event are disproportionately influenced, according to Kahneman, by the peak moment and the ending. In one Kahneman experiment, people undergoing colonoscopies were divided into either group one, who received the routinely uncomfortable experience of having an examination tube put up their bums and moved around their bowels, or group two, for whom the procedure lasted a full minute longer -- but with modifications to make that final minute more comfortable. Patients in group two had a better memory of the experience and were also more willing to repeat it on schedule -- a critical outcome for good medical practice.
This may seem like a long way from happiness. But hang on. As scientists pick apart the psychology of phenomena like the peak/end rule, they're beginning to understand the mechanisms that make happiness possible -- and they're figuring out how to tinker with them. The peak/end rule, for instance, has practical implications: We're far more likely to feel happy about some past experience, and far more willing to go back for more, if the experience ended on a positive note. The moral is simple enough but easy to forget: Whatever you're doing, if you want to do it again with the same people anytime soon, send 'em away smiling.
At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a volunteer slides his head into the doughnut-hole opening of a magnetic resonance imaging machine, which pings and squeals as the huge magnetic coil spins around, constructing a picture of his brain in 30 slices. It's a little unnerving to see the living patient on one side of the glass wall and the image of his disembodied brain on the other, rotating 360 degrees or tilting up and back at the operator's command. The MRI is recording the life of the patient's mind, measuring activity in different areas of his brain at any given moment. This gives neuroscientists a way to measure something as insubstantial as happiness. It also helps explain why things often look gloomier than they really are.
Being negative is natural. We evolved to accentuate the negative, to notice the one dumb thing that goes wrong rather than the five or 10 things that go right. For instance, when researchers show people a paper on which are printed a grid full of smiling faces and one angry face, the test subjects instantly zero in on the angry face. Reverse the pattern and it takes them much longer to pick out the solitary smile.
Why be negative? Because focusing on what can go wrong helps us deal with danger. An angry face grabs our attention more urgently than a smile does because it represents a potential threat. Psychologists say "negativity bias" was built into our minds during millions of years of evolution, because early humans who wandered up to the local watering hole a little too casually tended to be eaten by lions. Staying alive to enjoy your moment of happiness in the sun meant having a quick eye for the unhappy possibilities.
On the other hand, if we spent all our time being skittish, we'd never leave our beds. We'd never go to work. Or if we did, we'd shut the door and hide under our desks to avoid all the problems, a behavior not unknown among new managers. So evolution has also equipped our brains with the opposite tendency, a "positivity offset," simultaneously encouraging us to approach rather than to withdraw, and thus enabling us to ask somebody out on a date, or apply for a big job, or elbow our way to the bar.
Every human being has an emotional set point, an individual tendency to approach or withdraw, according to University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., and the MRI is a way to index it. Activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex is associated with a whole package of approach behaviors, including the way we point, move toward an object, handle it, and then give it a name. The right side of the prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, specializes in withdrawal behaviors, particularly detecting threats and backing away from them.
So what does all this have to do with happiness? Davidson has found that people with a distinctly higher level of activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex rarely experience troubling moods, and tend to recover from them quickly. At the other extreme, people with a significantly higher level of activity on the right side of the brain are the most likely to have clinical depression or an anxiety disorder over the course of their lives.
But Davidson's most interesting finding is that people can shift their emotional set points. In a study at a Wisconsin company called Promega, volunteers undertook a regimen of traditional meditation techniques (sitting quietly, breathing deeply, becoming calm and mindful). After 8 weeks, MRI tests showed that they experienced a 10 to 15 percent shift in the ratio of brain activity, away from the right side, bastion of negativity and withdrawal, and over to the positive, forward-thinking left side. The test subjects themselves could feel the change.
"I don't react as much if my buttons are being pushed," says Promega employee Michael Slater. "Instead of reacting, I ask why this is bugging me, and then I choose what to do about it. It maybe takes half a second. It's not a big internal dialogue." Davidson suggests that becoming more positive is an important step toward happiness: "This culture is obsessed with certain practices, such as going to the gym to achieve demonstrable effects on the body. But there is every evidence that if we care for the mind in the same way we care for the body, positive emotions like generosity, happiness, and compassion can be trained up. They are skills, not fixed characteristics."
If being negative is natural, why tamper with it now? "We're no longer living in a hunter-gatherer society," says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Tayyab Rashid, Ph.D. "We have basic security." For the students who go to him suffering from depression, the negatives have piled up and become an impediment. They talk about how screwed up they are, how their mothers were very controlling, how their fathers were never at home, how the world is falling apart. "I listen," says Rashid. But he also asks them to write a 300-word true story, with a beginning, middle, and end, about an instance in which they exhibited strength. "They're resistant at first." Another paper. Just what a college kid needs. Couldn't we cut to the Prozac?
Like Davidson, Rashid believes that happiness begins with shifting the emphasis away from the negative. Instead of meditation -- or medication -- he employs a repertoire of exercises developed by researchers in the thriving specialty known as positive psychology. For instance, in the "blessings" exercise, patients take time each night to write down three good things that happened that day. "The brain is wired to be negative. So we don't remember the good things as well," says Rashid. Writing them down helps change that. "Maybe they saw a sunset. Or an old friend from Barcelona called. It gives them a sense that Gee, my life is not so miserable.' "
Next, Rashid has his patients write a letter of thanks to someone who has played an important part in their lives. Then they arrange to visit with their benefactor and read the letter aloud. The face-to-face experience of saying "thank you" is life changing for some people, Rashid says. The "very raw expression of goodwill" tends to open up channels of communication and build stronger relationships. In experiments by psychologist Robert Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis, these techniques helped test subjects boost their optimism, vitality, alertness, and other building blocks of happiness.
If expressing deep gratitude seems a little too raw, particularly for emotionally inhibited American males, Rashid says he understands: He grew up in Pakistan, as the youngest of five children. When their father's business collapsed, one of the older brothers went to work as a laborer, putting in 20-hour days 6 days a week. No one in the family had ever gone beyond high school, but the elder brother sent Rashid to private school and then to an American university. When Rashid eventually earned his doctorate, the brother came to the United States for graduation. Rashid had his letter of gratitude ready -- and could not read it aloud. "He would have been embarrassed," Rashid says. "But I gave him the letter, and he responded with lots of tears and hugs. The expression was there. But no spoken words. And it cemented our relationship."
These exercises are all aimed at spurring people to savor their own lives before it's too late. (For my list of happy moments, I am thinking about the time I paddled out into a bay with my wife and a friend to gather oysters and clams, which we cooked up in a little garlic, butter, and white wine. Also about the time my son helped me build a window seat for his sister.) It is the Warren Zevon lesson, articulated when the songwriter and performer was dying of cancer. Asked what his condition had taught him, Zevon replied, "How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."
But let's be negative for a moment. One gorgeous spring evening when the lilacs were in bloom, I looked in on a meeting of a "happiness club" in a windowless room in the basement of a municipal office building somewhere in New England. There was a flag in the corner and a memorial photograph of the World Trade Center on one wall.
A priestlike figure, dressed all in black except for his smiley-face tie, sermonized about "the unhappiness conspiracy." (Surprise: The enemy is us.) A rumpled, white-haired lawyer who looked like Harvey Lipschultz, the demented teacher in Boston Public, got up and announced, "God's will for me is perfect happiness." A doctor in tinted aviator glasses (picture Frank Costanza in Seinfeld) shuffled a stack of file cards with inspirational quotes: "Happiness is like a butterfly. . . . " Now and then, I noticed the sound of the soda-machine compressor kicking on. An old New Yorker cartoon came to mind, featuring a big yellow smiley face on a guillotine.
For the average American male, openly seeking happiness (as opposed to more tangible stuff like a new job or a cool vacation) can seem too raw, emotionally. It also risks seeming ridiculous. But the worst thing is to have hapless people like this calling a meeting to tell the rest of us how to be happy. (Both "hapless" and "happy," by the way, derive from the Old Norse happ, meaning "luck," and these folks looked as if they hadn't had any in a long, long time. Any luck, I mean.)
We are most likely to achieve happiness, it seems, when it is completely off the agenda. It shows up when we become so totally absorbed in an activity that time hardly seems to exist, and everything flows in the moment.
"The surgeon can't afford to feel happy during a demanding operation, or a musician while playing a challenging score," writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first proposed the concept of "flow." "Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened, and then we are flooded with gratitude for the excellence of that experience -- then, in retrospect, we are happy."
The key to happiness, Csikszentmihalyi suggests, is figuring out what gives you that feeling of flow. For me, it happens when I'm writing, or rowing a boat. For you? Sailing a catamaran, or cooking Thai food, or even revising a profit-and-loss statement are all equally legitimate contenders.
But wait. We naturally think of happiness mainly in terms of pleasures. And yet some of these things sound suspiciously like work. In fact, some researchers suggest that flow -- and happiness -- often occurs when we set difficult goals for ourselves and go about achieving them -- even at a cost of considerable pain. For instance, Carnegie Mellon University economist George Loewenstein, Ph.D., describes mountaineering as "long periods of stultifying boredom punctuated by brief periods of terror." So, what's the appeal?
Mountain climbing might seem like the ultimate instance of the hedonic treadmill: the peak, once achieved, often feels anticlimactic. But Loewenstein writes that it's almost impossible to fake it when you're climbing a mountain. In addition to the potential for flow, for living in the moment, this makes it "an ideal venue for self-signaling," he says. He suggests that a sense of well-being depends on the need not just to build a good name and impress other people, but also "to impress oneself." Science underrates the importance of such motives, says Loewenstein, basically because it hasn't yet figured out how to measure them.
Our happiness depends finally on other people and on the strength of our connections to them. This may be hard to swallow. We like to think, after all, that we're rugged individualists. But it turns out, when we get back down from the mountaintop, that we are still social primates with a physiological, intellectual, and emotional need for companionship. When Biswas-Diener found that the Maasai in Kenya, and slum dwellers in Calcutta, were relatively happy, one key factor was that they had a strong sense of their place in a social network. On the other hand, homeless people in Fresno, California, lacking such a network, were deeply unhappy.
When Biswas-Diener's father, the psychologist and happiness researcher Ed Diener, examined the traits of the happiest people in his studies, he also found that, without exception, they enjoyed the benefit of strong social relationships. A person does not necessarily need to maintain a vast circle of friends, or a busy social schedule, to be happy. It may just be the people you play softball with. It may be, good grief, the other hapless people in your happiness club. But everybody needs somebody.
When I look at my little happiness list, the connections to other people are everywhere. I see myself climbing into my mother's arms when I was 3. I see my 5-year-old daughter riding out of my arms for the first time on her bike. I see the time my sons appeared together in their high-school production of West Side Story. (One of them played Tony, and the other got to kill him, our little Cain-and-Abel moment.) I see us all lying around together in various houses and on beaches, our noses buried in different books. I see my English teacher from freshman year in college, rumored to be a death-camp survivor, walking on a city street. "Hello," I said, "How are you?" And I can still feel the way she beamed at me, lifting her chin to indicate the sky. "The sun is shining!" she explained.
Then she passed contagiously by, and I'm not sure why, 30-odd years later, her happiness still makes me so happy.
But this is perhaps too high-minded a note to end on. So bear in mind this final piece of useful advice about one of the most important ways we connect with other people: When in doubt about what will make your significant other happy, have sex with her. In a recent study, researchers asked 900 working women in Texas to log their activities of the previous day and rank them according to happiness. They rated sex as the activity that produced the most happiness. (The least happy part of their day was commuting to work.)
Oh, what the heck, do it twice. Send her off on that commute with a big fat grin.
From the world of happiness research, this is perhaps the ultimate take-home.
The Smile Quotient
7 ways to test your pursuit of happiness
1. How would you describe your MP3 playlist?
A) Full of escape songs.
B) Fast and furious. I get pumped up.
C) Thoughtful. I can relate to the lyrics.
Norah may be smiling, but she's bringing you down. Moody music leads to self-focus, and that reinforces sad moods, says Jeffrey Green, Ph.D., a social-psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. A better playlist: jam-band music, like Phish.
2. How often do you send instant messages?
A) It's practically my only way of communicating.
B) I use it as a fast way to be in touch.
C) I still haven't figured out how to do it.
According to the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, IM addicts are less satisfied with their lives than people who use conventional communications. Instant messaging isn't as good at building the strong relationships that sustain happiness, says Melanie Green, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina.
3. How did your mom raise you?
A) She was more like a friend than like a parent.
B) I felt like a Brady kid. I always knew my needs came first.
C) Sad to say, she wasn't ready to be a mom.
A study at the University College of London surveyed 356 young adults and found that warm maternal care significantly correlated to high self-esteem and low self-criticism, both of which are linked to happiness. If it's too late to get that from Mom, make sure you marry well, and cultivate a supportive group of friends and mentors.
4. When shopping for a new television, you . . .
A) Debate it for a few weeks.
B) Head for superstore. Lay down credit card.
C) Shop around. Forever.
Unhappy people exhaustively search through every option for almost every decision, according to Kennon Sheldon, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. And although those obsessives may end up with a better deal, they also bring more stress into their lives and are ultimately less content with their decisions, according to Sheldon.
5. You would rather buy a . . .
A) High-end watch.
B) Bicycle, kayak, or backpack.
C) Leather couch.
Instead of "having," focus on "doing." Investing money in experiences makes people happier than buying material possessions can, according to the journal Review of General Psychology. The thrill of a big purchase fades, but the social relationships built during an adventure endure.
6. What's your strategy when it comes to dinner?
A) I fit it in when there's time.
B) I prepare my meals at home as best I can.
C) I pick up fast food on the road.
Dinner may be the easiest way to improve your mood. Two-thirds of people say a good meal in a calm environment is a major source of happiness, according to the Journal of Happiness Studies. So, regardless of what you can cook, eat it at home. Avoid the burger-land franchises. "Fast-food restaurants are depressing places," says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "Even the people who work there are demoralized."
7. When someone opens a door for you, you . . .
A) Say thank you.
B) Nod your head and move on.
C) Expect it as common behavior and don't really acknowledge it.
Gratitude is a huge predictor of happiness, and showing it verbally makes a big difference. "It changes your mindset," says Peterson. "We take the good for granted, but if the bad is all we pay attention to, life is going to be a very grim business." However, saying thank you boosts mood by making you more aware of good things in life. And it has a sustained effect if you say it on a regular basis. Why not start right now?
1) A=3, B=2, C=1
2) A=1, B=2, C=3
3) A=2, B=3, C=1
4) A=2, B=3, C=1
5) A=1, B=3, C=2
6) A=2, B=3, C=1
7) A=3, B=2, C=1
17 to 21 points Are you on something? Would you share?
11 to 16 points You probably have good and bad weeks. Tip the scales in your favor by being more optimistic. If you think positively, you're more likely to make good things happen. And, as a bonus, optimists have a 55 percent lower risk of early death than pessimists, so your happy mood may last a while.
7 to 10 points Unhappy with your score? It figures. Check the questions where you bottomed out, and follow the implicit strategies. Better smileage is within your reach.