'20/20' Friday: What Makes People Happy?

The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human endeavor — it seems as if human beings are hardwired to contemplate, chase and cherish this complex and often elusive emotion. Americans place tremendous value on this pursuit; after all, it's a primary feature of the U.S. Constitution.

America is the land of the happy hour, the Happy Meal, and the smiley face. Happiness committees are popping up across corporate America while positive psychology has become the most popular course on campus and a best-selling topic in bookstores.

But while the universal search is indisputable, actually defining the what, where, when and how of happiness is a far more complicated quest — one that has produced conflicting answers.

Can happiness be measured, studied and nurtured? After a decade of brain scans and global surveys, new science says yes, and shows that there are six fundamental theories about this important emotion.

Future Happiness Is Unpredictable

According to Harvard professor and author of "Stumbling on Happiness," Daniel Gilbert, most of our attempts to predict future happiness are erroneous.

"There are two fundamental problems with predicting how you're going to feel in the future," Gilbert said. "First, imagination can fail you. It can play tricks. The future you imagine is not always the future in which you're going to find yourself. Second, society gives us some myths about sources of happiness. Everyone from our grandmother to our bartender to the taxi driver to Dear Abby has some prescription for the happy life. Turns out that if you submit these to scientific analysis, some of these prescriptions are right, but some of them are dead wrong."

Society Often Tricks Us

Not only do society and our imagination confuse our pursuit, our genes also play a heavy role. Gilbert claims genes are particularly influential in proving the phrase "bundles of joy" to be a bit of a misnomer.

"Our genes tell us that if we procreate we'll be happy, and one of the ways they perpetuate themselves is by getting us to do their bidding. Now usually people won't do things unless they think those things are gonna make them somewhat happy, and so we had developed in our culture, like all cultures, a strong belief that children are a strong source of happiness," said Gilbert. "The data suggests otherwise. The data don't suggest that children make you miserable, but they suggest that, by in large, it's a wash. Children have very little effect, it appears, on their parents' day-to-day happiness."

Several studies also suggest marriages are happier without kids. Additionally, despite the high divorce rate in the United States, married people remain happier than single people, which explains why so many divorcees get remarried.

The Money Mirage and Living Purposefully

Theyer Willis, the author of "Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth" and heir to the enormous Georgia-Pacific Timber fortune, will testify to that fact. Raised in a life of leisure and privilege, Willis by her mid-30s found herself isolated and miserable with no sense of purpose.

"Having a fulfilling, meaningful life and being happy doesn't have to do with what we have," she said. "It has to do with how we live our lives."

Willis now counsels families that are very rich and very sad. One of the strongest messages she imparts to her clients: find meaningful work.

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