Untangling the Happiness Paradox

(co-authored with SmileyCynic)

The research on happiness has been discussed recently by Bryan Caplan, Tyler Cowen, Will Wilkinson, and our own Brian Doss. Reading these discussions, an apparent paradox in the research presents itself. Some studies show that material wealth and similar factors have little effect on happiness. But research into methods such as gratitude journals has shown that these techniques can increse happiness. So what's going on - is happiness a matter of nature (genes) or nurture (choices, wealth, environment, attitude)?

As with most aspects of biology, nature does play a large role. But we can resolve the conflict about whether nurture matters by considering the differences between the variables used in the two studies. Roughly speaking, one set tends to focus on aspects of the external world, while the other looks at attitude and perspective: the internal response to external events. In other words, what happens may not matter, but how you deal with it does.

Perspective is certainly not easy to change, and a hardwired perspective is surely an element of the hardwired levels of happiness claimed by the no-nurture studies. But it also makes sense that changes in perspective can have a significant affect on overall happiness levels. After all, there is no objective mapping which says we should respond to event A with happiness level B. Why can't different mental approaches (like focusing on positives instead of negatives) help us change this mapping?

Essentially, we are shifting our utility functions upwards - which must result in having increased total happiness. Rather than only increasing happiness by choosing our actions, we can also do it through changing our attitudes, to wring more utility out of any given set of experiences.

Pessimism is sometimes justified by the idea that if you expect bad things, you won't be surprised when they happen. This may smooth out life's downs, but all those negative thoughts lower the ups too. After all, we only have a limited amount of thinking time. If we think mostly about negative things, we're likely to have a negative mood. And in fact, we're likely to realize more of the negative things that happen to us, because we're looking for them.

The optimist, on the other hand, notices and dwells more on positive events. He may sometimes make poor decisions because he fails to anticipate negative events, but its not clear that this reduces his overall utility. This can be taken too far, of course. But a cautious optimism seems most likely to achieve accurate planning while boosting general happiness.

Its a classic economic fallacy to see wealth as only being transferred, never created. There may be a similar psychological fallacy here, where economists sometimes narrow-mindedly consider the payoffs for actions in the game of life to be fixed. Its important to realize that some strategies can change these payouts, thus sweetening the entire game.

Share this

I am curious to know where

I am curious to know where the apparent opposing view comes from. Are there people who literally advocate dwelling on the negative? It seems to me the objections are typically to delusion and denial, with real costs involved. A friend of mine, for instance, who was a strong positive-thinking advocate was shot dead because he approached a potentially dangerous situation with inadequate caution. You would simply class this as "taking it too far", but I think this whole question of what is "too far" illustrates that this issue may largely revolve around quantitative judgements based on different levels of awareness and life experience, and not around some supposed philosophical predilection for negativity. He did not think it was too far, and he was overall a very smart guy.

The gratefulness studies to which you refer, which by the way were funded by a religious studies foundation, defined gratefulness, essentially, as being happy you got something for nothing--specifically that you attained some advantage not due to your own efforts, but due to some external factor beyond your control. (Really, go read their paragraph defining gratefulness.) The examples given of what their subjects were grateful for were "to the Lord for just another day", "waking up this morning", "for wonderful parents", "to God for giving me determination", "the generosity of friends", and "to the Rolling Stones". The positive results, in turn, were all subjective impression and recall, heavily subject to priming by the associated reporting task. The positive consequences on the seemingly most objective measures, such as health and exercise, vanished (in two subsequent studies) when recall was shortened to a single day rather than a week, which not only undermines the original claim for these factors but also supports the hypothesis that the entire effect is localized around the experimental task.

There is no doubt that subjective perception is manipulable. The question that remains open is what efforts in this direction are desirable or beneficial. Taking time out to feel good that you gained something for nothing may well give you a warm bubble of feeling ahead of the game for a while, but is this actually a net improvement in your life? What if, for instance, their constrast task, instead of just asking people to cite annoyances, was "Think of something about your life you would like to be better, and name at least three things you could do to make this come about."? Their subject's immediate reporting of warm-fuzzy feelings may not be as high, but what about long-term effects?

Simon- A friend of mine, for


A friend of mine, for instance, who was a strong positive-thinking advocate was shot dead because he approached a potentially dangerous situation with inadequate caution.

Another story you've told me about this person is that he intentionally killed a client of his skydiving rather than trying to untangle the parachutes, and had no guilt about it. There were others about his malicious actions. In other words, he did take a lot of things too far, and isn't a very representative example of positive thinking.

Delusion and denial are dangerous. But you can focus on life's positives while still being realistic.

You're thinking of someone

You're thinking of someone else, I'm afraid. That bloke killed himself while contour-flying an airplane at night. I'm nearly certain y'all would have liked (and identified with) Dave a lot, actually.

In general, Dave's overly positive outlook worked well for him. Until it didn't. Thus I think is the nature of it--it is a credit draw on the future, but not because happiness is a finite quantity, but rather because reality integrates your attentiveness and action and could care less about your happiness.

It is already a part of most any self-aware person's agenda to enjoy life as much as they can. The question, however, of how much thought can be devoted to this at the expense of considering contingencies, in each particular context no less, is no trivial matter--certainly not as simple as just "focus on the positives". If you had but one moment left to live, it might be so simple, but you have many, requiring a balance be found between this moment and all yet to come.

Learn from the past, enjoy the moment, and plan for the future. It's the first and the last that make the middle possible.

Simon - There are pessimists

Simon - There are pessimists who argue that we should focus on the worst so we're either unsurprised or pleasantly surprised. Also, some people seem to dwell on negatives naturally - I'd call it a biochemical predilection and not a philosophical one. (As is often the case, the philosophy is more likely to be invented to serve the intuition, rather than the intuition developed in line with the philosophy). I'm not advocating denial, but rather a focus.

I agree that the gratitude studies rest on somewhat shaky foundations. Their religious funding and definition of gratefulness don't seem relevant, but you raise an excellent point about their methodology. The methodology of the broader happiness studies is questionable too, which is why many economists are quite skeptical about them. (For example: suppose people respond to questions about happiness by comparing themselves to the average person they know. Then you will get an approx. identical average for every area. But that does not mean people really have the same levels of happiness everywhere.)

But I've seen fairly convincing anecdotal evidence that a positive focus can make people happier. Which is not to say they may not suffer bad consequences for this later - that's a tricky thing to figure out. But I do believe that it can at least have good short-term effects.

I am not advocating feel-good as a substitution for planning and goal achievement, rather as a companion. Try to do what you can, but then feel as best you can about the results. Sure, it might be even better if the subjects planned how to make their lives better. But that is not an argument against also trying to feel good.

Figuring out how to achieve your goals likely has a declining marginal utility. Hence at some point, it may be more effective to direct your efforts towards feeling good about what you've already accomplished. After all, if you never focus on what you've accomplished in order to feel good, how will accomplishment ever make you happy?

Simon: I am not sure that

I am not sure that the data point about your friend dying because he wasn't sufficiently prepared for being shot is very valuable - after all, I know that a lot of people get shot even while they are carrying guns, or while they are being 'careful'. I don't think we can definatively claim that it was 'positive thinking' that got your friend killed.

It might have been optimism - He might have assumed that the people who shot him wouldn't. I get that way sometimes, and on the whole, I still think it is a win. If I assume people are mostly nice and decent, it makes each day of my life more pleasant. It might mean that when I am wrong, I get hurt more. But I think of it as a 'nothing ventured nothing gained' sort of thing. And I feel better giving people the benefit of the doubt. It increases my daily happiness. And I think it is average daily happiness and happiness high point that matter more than total lifetime happiness.

On the gratitude question, I am grateful for lots of things, some of them are windfalls, others are things that I am personally responsible for. I am grateful for the Rolling Stones - after all, it was really good of them to have become musicians and entertained me. Granted, they did pretty well out of the bargain, but there was no guarantee they would when they started, and they started anyway. I am also grateful that I have _my_ life - I prefer it to any other I can think of. My life rocks. I love my work, I love my wife, I love my home, I love my friends, I love my hobbies. And, not infrequently, I remind myself of that. Especially when I am becoming depressed by my relative poverty, or by some setback. I think about my life, and I remember how awesome it is to be a professional artist. How great it is to create, with other artists, something so powerful and downright nifty! And it makes me feel better.

What do you think happiness

What do you think happiness is, and why do you want more of it? If it's just warm fuzzy feelings I'm confident you can train yourself to feel happier. Is happiness the point of your life?

"I am not advocating

"I am not advocating feel-good as a substitution for planning and goal achievement..."

Why not? Why do you want to achieve?

I understand that crystal

I understand that crystal meth is a great aid to supremely positive thinking. Not only are you happy, but you become much more intelligent, full of self-confidence and eager to explain all about happiness to anybody you meet. It helps you have fun - it allows you to derive joy from accomplishing simple things, like, say, taking your TV set apart and scattering the pieces all around your apartment.

Just don't ever run out, that's all.

Deceptions "Of course I was


"Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning.  I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt."

--Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding.  All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

Slums, years, have buried you.  I would not dare
Console you if I could.  What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.

- Philip Larkin