The pursuit of happiness

21 09 2014

It shouldn’t be a surprise that true, lasting happiness comes when we give, when we look outside of ourselves, when we are kind. So, what makes happiness a worthy goal? Well, research has shown that happiness results in longevity, better immune system, more creativity, better negotiation skills, better academic performance, more productivity, being more trustworthy etc., among others.

It makes sense because happiness is a state in which we have our minds open, we have positive emotions and feelings, we worry less and hence have more energy to deal with life.  Happy people:

  • have fulfilling relationships
  • are often spiritual or religious
  • savor the pleasures of the moment
  • have meaningful life goals
  • practice optimism about future
  • feel more gratitude
  • tend to help others more
  • make physical activity a habit

Sonja Lyubomirsky says that there are two main ways positive emotions help us:

  1. They open us. Literally widens the boundaries of our awareness and thus help us look at the big picture. (Directly relates to being more creative, problem-solving etc.)
  2. They transform us for the better. In fact, they bring out the best in us.

She moves on and emphasizes that a positivity ratio (no. of positive emotions/no. of negative emotions) of at least 3 is essential to experience happiness. Of course, we need to track this ratio on a daily basis for a while, say two weeks or so, to be able to comment upon our general degree of positivity. She has put up a free website to enable people to know and track their positivity ratio: How nice of her. It’s disturbing to realize that ratios lower than 3 are very common.

And we need to consciously strive to become happier. This brings us to the question  – how to go about it? Or in the first place – is it possible to become happier? The pessimistic arguments include:

  • We all have a set-point or baseline of happiness that we are born with (determined by our genetics)
  • Happiness is a life-long personality trait, something which cannot be changed easily
  • We succumb to the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation”, which means that we all adapt to things which give us happiness and after a while they don’t make us happy any more.

While there is ring of truth to these ideas, Lyubomirsky and her colleagues believe that there are intentional activities we can pursue to counteract our set points and hedonic adaptation. According to them, the determinants of happiness are:

  • 50% – genetic disposition
  • 10% – circumstances
  • 40% – intentional activity

While these percentages are approximations, she draws our attention to the small role of our circumstances in determining our happiness. She also alerts us to the fact that the 40% intentional activity may increase or decrease our set-point. So, we must be really careful about our actions.

Some of the things that hinder the process of achieving happiness include certain mental habits, which include our inability to correctly judge what is going to make us happy and how long will it make us happy. A phenomenon, referred to by Dan Gilbert, a happiness expert, as affective forecasting suggests that we are bad at predicting how a life event will affect us. We usually revert sooner than we think we will. Our psychological immune system works better than we think it does. Hedonic treadmill also adversely affects our pursuit of happiness.

The point is we should not look for happiness in wrong places. As Daniel Kahneman deduced, above a certain point ($75k per annum), increase in income level does not result in increase in level of well-being. Another psychologist, Tom Gilovich has found out that people derive greater happiness down the line from the money spent on an experience in contrast to the money spent on a material good.

To conclude, let me put down the three essentials that contribute to happiness.

  • Moderate levels of Physical exercise
  • Sound sleep
  • Sense of achievement

But trying to become happier is like trying to lose weight. You need to work on it consciously, steadily, and with perseverance. And we were given our first happiness practice. It’s called “Three Good Things”.

Instructions: Each day, write down three things that went well for you that day. Be as detailed as possible. Focus on positive feelings. Explain what you think caused it.

This is a good start. What do you say?

Part 2 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1


Frugality is an art

17 12 2009

I’ve never been good with saving money. I usually desire to buy and enjoy numerous things – both tangible and intangible. I do a little impulse shopping now and then, like to have a large wardrobe and accessories, travel a lot, and usually choose convenience &  more positive experience over lower price tag (within reason, of course). In short, I’m a spend thrift. While it’s not at any alarming rate, I can’t help think that I should incorporate certain degree of frugality into my habits.

Being frugal, also means efficient use of those which are bought, not just  optimizing spending (which of course are interrelated). I’m not very good at this either. 😦

Once in a while, I do try to pull back the reins of my spending spree, but only to get back to my usual pace within a short time. What I save in one case, I end up spending in another. I really get discouraged at such times and wonder how others are able to save better. I even started to think that frugality is an art, which I can never master.

As I observed the life style of some acquaintances known for their husbandry, I found some distinct characteristics that distinguish them from people like me:

  • They buy something only when there is an absolute need, which cannot be left unmet for all practical reasons. Here, “only”, and “absolute” are the keywords.
  • The sole factor influencing their buying decision (for other not-so-essential items) is usually the price tag. And the fact that the price is higher than they are willing to pay (which is usually around the lowest price the product can normally have) immediately makes them lose their interest in the product.
  • They usually have a dislike towards outside food and like to always have home cooked food, thereby eliminating the dine-out spending. Dining-out is a very rare occurrence for them.
  • They usually don’t like to eat lots of snacks or junk food – anything that can increase their grocery spending considerably. They regulate their eating habits accordingly.
  • They usually don’t travel much – preferring short outings, if at all they wish to go.
  • They are very good energy savers – be it gas for car by minimizing the trips to market or work or be it electricity – using it to the minimum possible (I know, “minimum possible” is a very relative term, but I can’t explain it further here.). These savings of course directly result in saved pennies.
  • They usually like to buy things which can be used in multiple ways or circumstances, so that they have to buy lesser items at the end of the day.
  • They almost never buy anything impulsively.
  • They usually prefer a lower price tag to convenience or experience. (willing to take extra pains to bag something at lower price )

There definitely are many others, but I think these will suffice for now. All these can be summed up into:

  • They have less costly habits and tastes
  • Their primary goal is to spend as less as possible
  • They adjust their desires and wishes around the amount they are willing to spend.

It might look sometimes that they are sacrificing or depriving themselves of many things, but it’s not that way at all. Their aversion to spending is genuine and they are not repressing anything. Frugality is an attitude and a way of life, to which they have been accustomed, shaped by different factors like genes, upbringing, cultural influence, and personal experiences.

Truly frugal people really come up with many different strategies to minimize cost and are usually efficient in everything they handle. Most of those tactics never fail to awe me.

So, just restricting one’s actions doesn’t result in permanent results, unless the thought process and attitude itself is changed. And I think it takes a lot for this change to happen – at least for people like me.  🙂 Since I don’t wish or hope to be ‘very’ frugal, I feel just an effort towards that direction (by picking up some tips), at least for the ‘efficiency’ part, would definitely help.

Money and happiness

15 11 2009

Mind of the Market, by Michael Shermer, is by far the most complex and in-depth book I’ve ever read. I talked a little about it in my earlier post – Folk Numeracy. Now that I’ve finished reading it I have more to say.

As I mentioned in my other post, Mind of the Market talks about the evolution of the markets from hunter-gatherer to consumer-trading. All through the book, he tries to explain how human brain has evolved to work in hunter-gatherer system since ages but is required to operate in consumer-trading culture today and how this affects and shapes the markets. He also makes it a point that both markets and minds are moral.

The author talks about, among other things, free markets, libertarian paternalism, trust, happiness, money, science, rules, virtues, evil etc.  At some point, he even explained how a fMRI scanner works, the technical details of which escaped me the first few times I read those passages.

From the myriad of topics discussed in the book, I found the chapter -Why Money Can’t Buy You Happiness the most interesting. In that chapter, Michael Shermer addresses the question and analyzes the emotion of happiness. Though most of us agree, at least intellectually, that Money is not everything, we see people doing crazy stuff for money and the power it brings. We came to  view money and the comforts and thereby status it brings as a sign of ultimate success and most of the times pursue wealth in order to gain more happiness.

But as all wise people realize and say, money can’t buy you happiness and it’s been proven time and again. Studies show that despite the increase in absolute wealth people in America are no more happier than they were half a century ago.

Michael states that happiness is often equated with pleasure and the pursuit of pleasure is what makes people land on a hedonic treadmill. According to Hedonic treadmill theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which result in no permanent gain in happiness.

Like all other emotions, happiness is also a proxy to deeper instincts and needs and the author defines happiness as:

Happiness is an evolved emotion that guides us to find meaning in the simple social pleasures of interacting with our immediate family and extended family, friends and social circle, and to direct us to find joy in the meaningful purposes of life that most directly involve helping ourselves, our family, our friends, and our community.

An observation I found intriguing is that we all have our own set point for happiness set by our genes and tweaked by the environment and we usually return to our set-point within certain time after a happy or sad event.