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Daniel

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Can You Be Too Happy?

A compelling new study finds that being a little less content may actually make you more successful.

By Wray Herbert
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Dec 5, 2007

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, how could he have known the way 21st-century Americans would twist around the phrase "pursuit of happiness"? The Founding Fathers certainly weren't envisioning the billions of dollars that Americans now plunk down every year for shelf upon shelf of self-improvement books, audio tapes and DVDs. Yet that's what it's come to: even people who consider themselves pretty happy today are demanding to be happier, and they are paying big bucks for that entitlement.

But is it really a good thing to be ultrahappy? Nobody thrives on sheer misery, of course, but might there be perils in endlessly striving for more and more good cheer and sunny days? Or, put another way: is happiness overrated?

A growing number of psychologists are thinking it might be, and one team in particular has been conducting some large-scale, data-heavy studies to test the point. Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener and Richard Lucas decided to compare people who see themselves as being extremely happy with people who describe themselves as being only moderately so. Surprisingly, this had never been done before—at least not this thoroughly. They studied men and women, young and old, students and working people, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the globe. After all the data crunching they came up with some consistent and surprising insights.

For the sake of shorthand, let's call the two groups the Blissful and the Contented. The psychologists weren't interested in fleeting moments of ecstasy but rather in stable states of happiness—people's summary judgments of their own lives. Once they had the Blissful and the Contented sorted out, they looked at various measures of healthy functioning: enduring intimate relationships, education, career and financial success, civic involvement, charity, and so forth. Some of the studies were longitudinal, which means they could see if happiness at one age actually led to healthy functioning much later on.

Not surprisingly, the scientists found that Blissful people were more likely than the merely Contented to have rich and stable intimate relationships. They had predicted this, figuring that people who are less happy about their lives in general would be more motivated to shake things up, which could mean a roaming eye. People who are extremely happy, by contrast, may construct more positive illusions about their partners, which create and sustain enduring relationships, which in turn make people even happier.

But the findings about education and work and financial success were not so intuitive. For example, in one part of the study focusing only on students, the merely Contented were much more conscientious about their schooling: they skipped fewer classes and had better grades. By the time they hit the working world, the merely Contented were more highly educated, and they went on to be more successful in their careers than the Blissful. They also brought home much fatter paychecks. Indeed, in one substudy, college freshmen with the most cheerful dispositions ended up 19 years later, at the age of 37, making about $8,000 less than their drearier counterparts.

Why would this be? Well, think about it. You know these slightly discontented sorts. The glass is never entirely full to them, and they always want more. They have an edge to them, and this edge may give them the competitive drive to excel in school and on the job. In short, a little bit of discontent sparks success. Call that $8K the dreariness premium.

The same dynamic may be at work in the political domain. The psychologists found that the Blissful were less politically engaged than the Contented. Civic involvement is usually considered one measure of healthy functioning, so this may seem surprising at first. But again there is a certain logic to it: people who are slightly grumpy probably see the world as imperfect and in need of fixing, so they do something to fix it. Or to look at it the other way around, the positive attitudes and general agreeableness that make some people good partners may make them not so great citizens.

The most surprising finding to come out of these ambitious studies has to do with acts of charity. As reported in the December issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, when the psychologists asked the Blissful and the Contented about volunteer work, they expected to find something akin to political engagement. That is, they figured that volunteers would be motivated by their restlessness and discontent to change a world that badly needed change. But in fact they found the opposite: the Blissful were much more likely than the Contented to give away their time and energy for a cause, to act altruistically. It appears that volunteering is less like work and politics and more like love and intimacy, requiring a kind of selflessness that's not particularly practical.

Remember that what we've been calling the Blissful are not ascended masters. They're just the happiest of us regular folk. And what we're calling the Contented are just that: happier than average. But the psychologists' argument here is that it may be pointless for the Contented to strive for anything more than that. Indeed, it may be detrimental, especially if the quest for a constant state of happiness becomes obsessive, hedonistic thrill seeking. Seeking a perfect state of bliss is still perfectionism, after all, and that kind of seeking rarely makes anyone happy.


Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human…" blog at We're Only Human....
 
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but what is the ultimate goal in life then? the article seems to imply that success is more important than being happy. personally i'd rather be happy and have a good social network than be making that extra $ 8000 and less happy.
 

Daniel

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That's probably why this article is a "web exclusive" and didn't make it to the printed magazine :) The article does seem rather crass by focusing more on "fatter paychecks" without addressing work satisfaction or a sense of meaningfulness that could result from the Contented group excelling more at work and school. According to the article, though, the people in the "Contented" group do have social connections and have above average levels of happiness. They just aren't in the blissful category. So the $8,000 bonus for being less blissful is like a consolation prize, I guess.

The more surprising point in the article favors the Blissful category:

They figured that volunteers would be motivated by their restlessness and discontent to change a world that badly needed change. But in fact they found the opposite: the Blissful were much more likely than the Contented to give away their time and energy for a cause, to act altruistically. It appears that volunteering is less like work and politics and more like love and intimacy, requiring a kind of selflessness that's not particularly practical.

However, in favor of the Contented, less blissful group:

Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Ten years ago, Harry Lewenstein was riding a bike down a hill in southern Portugal when he hit a bump without warning. The 70-year-old retired electronics executive was going fast, and the shock propelled him clear over the handlebars.

When his wife and friends rushed up, they found him flat on his back. Sensing that he might have spinal cord damage, one friend poked his foot with a sharp object, and then slowly moved up his body. Lewenstein felt nothing until his friend poked his upper chest.

Back at his home in California, it became clear that the injury had permanently deprived Lewenstein of all control over his legs. He had limited use of his arms but could not pick anything up with his hands. His fingers were rigidly curled.

Now 80, Lewenstein has outlived many predictions of his death, but that is not the most remarkable thing about him: He has spent no time, he says, feeling sorry for himself or regretting the accident. He knows he was riding the bike faster than he should have. And each day, he discovers new ways to be resourceful with what he does have -- and new reasons to feel grateful.

"Some people feel sorry for themselves or mad at the world," he said. "I did not . . . after I was injured, I was so totally incapacitated and so much out of everything that every day turned out to be a positive day. Each day, I recovered a little more of my memory, of my ability to comprehend things."

Lewenstein's story is especially instructive in light of a study published this week about a paradox involving happiness. Americans report being generally happier than people from, say, Japan or Korea, but it turns out that, partly as a result, they are less likely to feel good when positive things happen and more likely to feel bad when negative things befall them.

Put another way, a hidden price of being happier on average is that you put your short-term contentment at risk, because being happy raises your expectations about being happy. When good things happen, they don't count for much because they are what you expect. When bad things happen, you temporarily feel terrible, because you've gotten used to being happy.

"I have some friends who are very well off and have great lives," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside. "If you ask them, they will say, 'I am very happy,' but the most minor negative events will make them unhappy. If they are traveling first class, they get upset if they have to wait in line. They live in a mansion, but a little noise from their neighbors infuriates them, because their expectations are so high. Their overall happiness is high, but they have a lot of daily annoyances."

Lewenstein is the kind of person who can teach people a thing or two about contentment. All his life, he said in an interview, he has been satisfied with what he had. When he had a small car, he liked it. When he upgraded to a convertible, he felt swell. He never spent time thinking about the nicer convertible his neighbor was driving.

"This ability to accept where I was and what I was, was very important after the accident because I was able to accept the fact I was not going to be able to do a lot of things," he said. Asked whether he had regrets about going to Portugal, he said, "None whatsoever."

"I accept the fact, I do not resent it, that I spend my time in bed or in a wheelchair," he said. "I don't think of myself as being heroic."

The study, in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, offers a new twist on an old idea. Previously, psychologists such as marriage expert John Gottman said that people's day-to-day satisfaction, whether with themselves or with their intimate relationships, was the sum of the positive and negative things that happened each day.

Researchers had found that people need a certain ratio of positive to negative events to be happy -- couples, for example, seem to need about three times as many positive interactions with each other as negative interactions to feel satisfied with the relationship. A variety of therapists have focused on trying to increase the ratio of positive to negative events in their clients' lives.

But according to the new study, led by University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, people who report a large ratio of positive to negative events also seem to derive diminishing returns from additional happy events -- and ever larger adverse effects when they encounter negative events.

By contrast, Oishi found that even though Japanese people were less happy overall than Americans, they needed only one positive event to regain their equilibrium after experiencing a negative event. European Americans needed two positive events on average to regain their emotional footing.

Oishi's research also provides an intriguing window into why very few people are very happy most of the time. Getting to "very happy" is like climbing an ever steeper mountain. Additional effort -- positive events -- doesn't gain you much by way of altitude. Slipping backward, on the other hand, is very easy.

"Positive events in our intimate relationships lose their force over time; consider for example, the fifth time you kissed your partner versus the most recent time," said Thomas Bradbury, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "A preponderance of positive events in a relationship might somehow be beneficial to one's global happiness but detrimental to one's mood or daily happiness, in the sense that having high expectations for positive events reduces the impact of each new one."

People and couples who start out the happiest, Bradbury said, might be most vulnerable, both because it is much easier for them to slide back down the mountain than to go further up, and because being euphoric at the outset raises their expectations that they will always be happy. Actually, when you start out very happy, you have to run pretty hard just to stay where you are.

The psychologists are studying ways to help people retain their sensitivity to positive experiences. Individuals and couples who attend to everyday accomplishments, celebrate the positive and cultivate a sense of gratitude for what they have seem to have the best odds of getting off the happiness treadmill.

Or, in other words, they let some of that Harry Lewenstein magic rub off on them.

Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing? - washingtonpost.com

When Less is More: Too Much Happiness May Be Too Much of a Good Thing

University of Virginia News Release

Are you happy? Well don't try to be happier; you might become less happy. That is the gist of a multi-cultural study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study by University of Virginia psychology professor Shigehiro Oishi and colleagues at three other institutions found that, on average, European-Americans claim to be happy in general – more happy than Asian-Americans or Koreans or Japanese – but are more easily made less happy by negative events, and recover at a slower rate from negative events, than their counterparts in Asia or with an Asian ancestry. On the other hand, Koreans, Japanese, and to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans, are less happy in general, but recover their emotional equilibrium more readily after a setback than European-Americans.

"We found that the more positive events a person has, the more they feel the effects of a negative event," Oishi said. "People seem to dwell on the negative thing when they have a large number of good events in their life.

"It is like the person who is used to flying first class and becomes very annoyed if there is a half-hour delay. But the person who flies economy class accepts the delay in stride."

Oishi, a social psychologist who grew up in Japan and then moved to the United States at 23, is interested in comparing how people from East Asia and the United States respond to the daily events of life.

He and his colleagues surveyed more than 350 college students in Japan, Korea and the United States over a three-week period. The students recorded daily their general state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life, as well as the number of positive and negative events they had during the course of each day.

The researchers found that the European-Americans needed nearly two positive events (such as getting complimented or getting an A) to return to their normal level of happiness after each negative event, such as getting a parking ticket or a lower grade than expected. The Koreans, Japanese and Asian-Americans generally needed only one positive event to make up for each negative event.

Oishi said that people who become accustomed to numerous positive or happy events in their life are more likely to take a harder fall than people who have learned to accept the bad with the good. And because negative events have such a strong effect when occurring in the midst of numerous positive events, people find it difficult to be extremely happy. They reach a point of diminishing returns.

This is why the extreme happiness people may feel after buying a new car or a house, or getting married, can be rapidly diminished when the payments come due or the daily spats begin. It becomes a problem of ratio, or perspective.

"In general, it's good to have a positive perspective," Oishi said, "But unless you can switch your mindset to accept the negative facts of everyday life — that these things happen and must be accepted — it becomes very hard to maintain a comfortable level of satisfaction."

His advice: "Don't try to be happier."

Study: Too Much Happiness May Be Too Much of a Good Thing
 
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Daniel

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ladybug said:
the article seems to imply that success is more important than being happy.

For clarification, I viewed the abstract of the original research article, which was more limited in scope than the Newsweek article and included social functioning as a measure of success:

Psychologists, self-help gurus, and parents all work to make their clients, friends, and children happier. Recent research indicates that happiness is functional and generally leads to success. However, most people are already above neutral in happiness, which raises the question of whether higher levels of happiness facilitate more effective functioning than do lower levels. Our analyses of large survey data and longitudinal data show that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. Once people are moderately happy, the most effective level of happiness appears to depend on the specific outcomes used to define success, as well as the resources that are available.

Blackwell Synergy - Perspect on Psych Science, Volume 2 Issue 4 Page 346-360, December 2007 (Article Abstract)
 

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Mangopork said:
Happiness is simply higher self esteem.

I wish :) It's more accurate to say that self-esteem is more like a necessary than sufficient condition for happiness. Happiness, at least for me, is more variable and conditional than self-esteem. If my car breaks down, I'm not happy but my self-esteem may be the same.
 
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If you want to be happy, life this moment.
If you want to be useful, keep see and run to future, get stumbled by rocks in the road of present, and hunted by wolves of the past.
 

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