The truth about happiness may surprise you
By David Martin
THE next time you are deciding between ice cream and cake, buying a car or taking a trip to Europe, accepting a new job or keeping your old one, you should remember two things: First, your decision is rooted in the desire to become happy -- or at least happier than you are now. Second, there's a good chance the decision you make will be wrong.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert summed up our failings this way: "People have a lot of bad theories about happiness."
It's not for lack of trying. The Declaration of Independence affirms that we have an inalienable right to pursue happiness, and it's something we do with a vengeance.
Americans will spend $750 million on self-help books this year and more than $1 billion on motivational speakers. More than 100 colleges now offer classes in positive psychology – the science of happiness. With all those resources focused on achieving happiness, we should all be brimming with joy.
So where do we go wrong? Gilbert, author of the recent book "Stumbling on Happiness," blames our culture, our genes and our imagination.
Our culture implores us to buy bigger, newer, better things, but research shows "stuff" does not buy happiness. By and large, money buys happiness only for those who lack the basic needs. Once you pass an income of $50,000, more money doesn't buy much more happiness, Gilbert said.
Our genes hardwire us to reproduce, but children have a small negative effect on happiness, research shows. If you're a parent reading this, you're most likely shaking your head. But Gilbert said the findings are clear when parents are asked about their level of happiness in the moment.
"When you follow people throughout their days, as they're going about their normal activities, people are about as happy interacting with their children, on average, as when they're doing housework. They're much less happy than when they're exercising, sleeping, grocery shopping, hanging out with friends," Gilbert said. "Now, that doesn't mean they don't occasionally create these transcendent moments of joy that we remember as filling our days with happiness."
Finally, our imaginations fail us, Gilbert said, because when we envision different futures we see either perpetual gloom or happily ever-after scenarios. In fact, neither unhappiness nor joy last as long as we expect. As you've probably guessed, winning the lottery will not guarantee a life of bliss.
By the same token, becoming disabled does not relegate one to a life of unhappiness. The disabled spend their days about as happy as the general population, according to Gilbert.
So what makes us happy? In general, the older you get the happier you get -- until you reach very old age.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, the happiest age group is men 65 and older; the least happy: men 18 to 29.
The survey also found:
•Married people are happier than singles.
•College grads are happier than those without a college degree.
•People who were religious are happier than those who aren't.
•Sunbelt residents are happier than other U.S. residents.
•Republicans are happier than Democrats – but both are happier than independents.
(For the full story, click CNN.com, Nov. 15, 2006.)