Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Some of What We Know About Happiness"

I attended a wonderful lecture yesterday by one of my school's most well-known professors, the psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz. His most famous concept is the theory of the "paradox of choice," which basically says that having more choices may not necessarily be the best thing for your mental state, which I'm sure I've mentioned once or twice in blog posts here.

Anyway, this week is Gratitude Week at my school, so Barry Schwartz gave a lecture called "Some of What We Know About Happiness." Sounds like something you'd want to know about, right? I thought it was wonderful, and so I'm sharing with you my notes on the lecture--with my thoughts in parentheses and direct quotes in, well, quotes--so that maybe you can take something away from it as well!

"Some of What We Know About Happiness" by Dr. Barry Schwartz
1. How is happiness measured?
  • Ask people!
  • Around the world, people are most happy about family, but not on a daily basis; rather, they like the abstract idea of family (This made me laugh, but it is SO TRUE)
  • People are least happy about commuting: "So if you had to choose between a mansion an hour away from work, or a hovel right at your work's doorstep... you should choose the hovel."
  • People are bad at predicting what makes them happy, thus they make bad choices. They also seem to be impervious to instruction, so they continue making bad choices.
  • On a larger scale, can you measure something like gross national happiness, sort of like gross national product? "Well, if governments had to choose between measuring something really important in vague, imperfect terms, and precisely measuring something not so important, they will always choose to thoroughly and precisely measure the unimportant thing." (Again, LOL)

2. What makes people happy?
  • Money. Come on, let's be honest. But there is a "threshold of subsistence" beyond which more money does not make a difference on one's happiness. Rich countries are happier than poor countries, and rich people within each country are happier than poor people, but increasing the wealth of a rich country doesn't make the people happier.
  • Meaningful, engaging, intelligent, controllable work that contributes to the improvement of others' lives
  • Close relationships
  • Marriage, not just cohabitation: "Marriage does make people happier. It makes people much happier for a few years, and then it only makes people slightly happier." (LOL)
  • Security: physical, emotional, financial
  • Democracy
  • However, inequality seems to matter surprisingly little
  • Having norms of ethical conduct
  • If an experience has a good high point (climax) and a good end, people will generally be inclined to think well of it and do it again.

3. What is happiness good for?
  • It feels good, of course!
  • Health: happy people live longer - "So it's better to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day than be happy than to not smoke and be unhappy."
  • Work productivity: happiness broadens cognitive outlook, increases creativity
  • The myth of the suffering artist is FALSE: "The French are not that happy. Their happiness is kind of the equivalent of everyone in that country having gone through a divorce. We don't know yet why this is the case. Maybe they really buy into the whole 'suffering artist' myth. Like, if we Americans believe in it, the French believe in it 5 times as much."
  • Improves social relations: people would rather be friends with happy people

4. How can you be happier?
  • Change your genes--"And by that I don't mean jeans" *points at his pants*--there have been studies that suggest that happiness may be hereditary
  • Pay more attention to what's good in experience and less on what's bad
  • Gratitude is a habit that should be developed
  • Focus on the little things, make it a daily routine to write down things you are grateful for, and eventually this will become habitual
  • Writing (not talking or thinking) narratives about bad/tragic experiences decreases its impact on your psyche; write in a way that helps you try to comprehend the experience
  • Lower your expectations: learn to be satisfied with less than perfection

"So if you lower your expectations, write about your bad experiences, and make it a habit to be grateful, you'll live forever." The end!

(Most of the direct quotes were said facetiously, of course.)


  1. I definitely believe gratitude is a "habit" we can develop and get further into! Thanks for sharing your notes -- very timely and inspiring!

  2. Oh, I love this! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Love this post, thanks for sharing! I would have to agree with the abstract idea of family and being least happy about commuting. That's one of the reasons why it's so hard to get up in the morning - commuting is a such a hassle. In my old job, we had the option of working from home and I loved doing that.

  4. Just the right post I needed this day, thanks for sharing.[It actually made me unlurk. :)] The skill of lowering my expectations is something I badly need to learn. It's only leads me to disappointment. And yeah, I have to agree with befriending only the happy and optimistic people. Who wants to be friends with an emotional vampire?

    I have a question, though, what does "change your genes" exactly means?

  5. This was really interesting - thanks for sharing. Skins like it was an enlightening and entertaining lecture. Makes me miss school.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! I found the part about writing (but not talking/thinking) about a bad experience really interesting. Sounds like a good excuse to buy a new journal. :)

  7. I find it interesting that "don't be poor" isn't on the final list. If you don't have enough money to live sustainably, gratitude only gets you so far.


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