Magazine article The Futurist

The Science of Happiness

Magazine article The Futurist

The Science of Happiness

Article excerpt

Scientists zero in on who is happy and why. Their findings may help more people find happiness in the years ahead.

For millions of people, finding the right partner, achieving professional success, and acquiring wealth are all means to a single end: being happy.

In this special section, THE FUTURIST offers two articles that attempt to shed light on happiness and on what we can do to become more happy in the future.

In "The Science of Happiness," psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener discuss scientific research data that reveal who is happy, who is not, and why. The authors identify the traits of happy people and the impact of relationships, debunking myths along the way.

In the second article, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, widely known for his "flow" theory of happiness, concentrates on the links between creativity and happiness. He analyzes how achieving a creative "flow" experience in work and play can enhance one's satisfaction with life.

Does happiness favor those of a particular age, sex, or income level? Does happiness come with satisfying close relationships? With religious faith? What attitudes, activities, and priorities engender a sense of well-being?

Such questions not only went unanswered during psychology's first century, they went largely unasked. Psychology has focused more on negative emotions than on positive ones. From 1967 through 1995, Psychological Abstracts included 5,119 abstracts mentioning anger, 38,459 mentioning anxiety, and 48,366 mentioning depression - but only 1,710 mentioning happiness, 2,357 mentioning life satisfaction, and 402 mentioning joy. This 21 to 1 ratio of negative to positive emotions studied is changing, and researchers are offering fresh insights on an old puzzle: Who is happy and why?

Although the scientific pursuit of happiness has recently mushroomed, speculations about happiness are ages-old. Ancient philosophers believed that happiness accompanied a life of intelligent reflection. "There is no feel who is happy, and no wise man who is not," said the Roman philosopher Cicero. In the centuries since, some sages have suggested that happiness comes from living a virtuous life, and others, from indulging pleasures; some that it comes from knowing the truth, and others, from preserving illusions; some, that it comes from restraint, and others, from purging oneself of pent-up rage and misery. The list goes on, but the implication is clear: To discover the truth about happiness, we must ask how these competing ideas relate to reality. In short, we must study happiness scientifically.

Assessing Happiness

To probe people's "subjective well-being," researchers have asked them to report their feelings of happiness or unhappiness along with their thoughts about how satisfying their lives are. Like tangerines and oranges, happiness and life satisfaction are subtly different, yet they have much in common.

Sometimes researchers probe with simple questions, such as, "Taking all things together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" and, "How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Are you very satisfied? Satisfied? Not very satisfied? Not at all satisfied?

Other researchers use tests that measure the relative frequencies of people's positive, happy feelings and their negative, depressed feelings. Surprisingly, the amount of good feeling a person experiences over time does not predict how much bad feeling the person experiences. Some people experience intense good moods but also intense bad moods. High highs alternate with low lows. Others are characteristically happy, or melancholy, or unemotional.

Although swayed by temporary moods, people's self-reported well-being on such measures is moderately consistent over years of retesting. The stability suggests the influence of enduring traits and circumstances, and the change indicates the influence of recent life events. …

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