Posts Tagged ‘Happiness’

* Alok Jha, science correspondent
* The Guardian,
* Tuesday January 29 2008

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday January 29 2008 on p12 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 09:23 on January 29 2008.

People are most likely to become depressed in middle age, according to a worldwide study of happiness. The team of economists leading the work found that we are happiest towards the beginning and end of our lives, leaving us most miserable in middle years between 40 and 50.

The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, showed that people’s levels of happiness followed a U-shaped curve, a pattern that was remarkably consistent in the vast majority of countries the researchers looked at, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

For both men and women in the UK, the probability of depression peaked at around the age of 44. In the US, men were most likely to be unhappiest at 50, while for women the age was 40.

Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, and David Blanchflower, from Dartmouth College in the US, led a study of more than 2 million people from 80 countries to find if happiness was related to age.

They found that the signs of mid-life depression were consistent across many groups of people, irrespective of socio-economic status, whether they had children in the house, were divorced, or were facing changes in jobs or income.

“Some people suffer more than others but in our data the average effect is large,” said Oswald.

“What causes this apparently U-shaped curve, and its similar shape in different parts of the developed and even often developing world, is unknown.

“However, one possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations. Another possibility is that cheerful people live systematically longer.”

A third possibility is that older people might compare their lives with their peers’. Seeing their friends die could mean people value their remaining years more highly.

Oswald added: “It looks from the data like something happens deep inside humans. For the average person in the modern world, the dip in mental health and happiness comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year.

“Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period. But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old. Perhaps realising that such feelings are completely normal in mid-life might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

A total of 72 countries were found to follow the U-shaped pattern of happiness. In the eight countries that did not seem to follow the pattern – mostly developing countries – Oswald said that the available data had been less robust, so discerning patterns had been difficult. He added that shorter lifespans might skew the results of a country.

Links:
Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

Happiness Takes Effort

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Twenty strategies adapted from the scientific research and applied to New York living.

By Ben Mathis-Lilley
Published Jul 9, 2006 New York Magazine

Decide where to go to college by picking two decent schools and flipping a coin.
The relatively unexamined life is worth living. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice documents numerous studies in which thinking too hard about multiple choices leads people to preemptively regret the options they’re going to miss out on. This triggers a stress reaction that tends to focus narrowly on random variables—producing unwise decisions, paralysis, and superfluous law degrees. Those who seize the first option that meets their standards (which don’t have to be low, just defined) are happier than those who insist on finding the perfect solution.

Don’t go to law school.
Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).

Fire your therapist
Illustrations by Knickerbocker

Fire your therapist if he so much as mentions your childhood.

Contra Freud and pro common sense, much of Authentic Happiness author Martin Seligman’s research suggests that rehashing events that enraged you long ago tends to produce depression rather than sweet closure and relief.

If someone tells you he’s still pining for his ex, ask the ex out.
Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert is currently conducting a study designed to show that the best way to predict how much you’ll enjoy a blind date is to ask the last person to go out with your date how much fun he had.

If you can’t decide what TV to buy, walk across the hall and ask your neighbor if he likes his.
In multiple studies, subjects felt they’d be better able to predict their reaction to an experience by imagining it, rather than hearing somebody else’s testimony. Even regarding such seemingly straightforward activities as deciding whether to eat pretzels or potato chips, they were wrong. Turns out, people are happier following advice.

Send the kids

Illustrations by Knickerbocker
Send the kids off to day care, summer camp, and boarding school.
On a day-to-day basis, caring for children creates roughly the same level of satisfaction as washing the dishes. In fact, surveys of parents invariably find a clear dip in happiness after the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, which continues unabated for twenty years—bottoming out during adolescence—and only returns to pre-birth levels when the child finally leaves home.

But make sure they’re busy once they get there.
Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life.

If you go on a shopping spree, throw away the receipts.
In one study cited by both Schwartz and Gilbert, photography students were allowed to keep only one picture taken during their course. Some students were later allowed to swap their choice for a different photo, yet those who couldn’t change were much happier. How did they deal with inflexibility? By rationalizing how much they enjoyed their new decoration.

If you’re on the fence about whether to sell your stock, sell it.
Most people predict that they’d be more unhappy if they sold a stock that went through the roof than if they kept one that tanked. They’re wrong—aggressive actions that go awry are mentally catalogued as valuable learning experiences.

Take the local, and don’t wait for the express.
Inaction, on the other hand, gnaws away at the mind relentlessly, like so many rats chewing on an empty Mountain Dew bottle someone dropped onto the tracks as you idly waited for the 4. You should have just jumped on the 6.

Give up the great American novel, and start temping.
Some poor countries (China, Brazil) are happier than others, but few nations are mired in spiritually fulfilling poverty. Money, when used to feel secure about your ability to shelter and feed yourself, can, in fact, buy happiness.

But don’t work overtime . . .
The marginal life-enhancing value of each extra dollar quickly levels off, however; hence the existence of James Bond villains and studies showing that lottery winners and Forbes 100 members are no more likely to be satisfied than anyone else.

socialize-in-your-tax-bracket.gif

Illustrations by Knickerbocker
. . . As long as you’re content socializing within your tax bracket.
Nevertheless, being aware of how much less money one has acquired than one’s peers is quantifiably frustrating.

Join a church, a yoga studio, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, or an underground fight club.
People who have more friends and belong to community-building groups are happier. To paraphrase the Norm MacDonald–era “Weekend Update,” perhaps that’s the kind of finding that could have been published in the scientific journal Duh, but there it is.

takeout.gif
Illustrations by Knickerbocker
Order from the same takeout menu every time.
Researchers found that subjects asked to choose their meals weeks in advance mistakenly predicted that variety would make them happier, while those who simply decided what to eat on the spot were completely satisfied with the same thing each week. (Although eating macaroni and cheese endlessly, like repeating any pleasant experience over and over, reduces its appeal—so switch it up with cheeseburgers.)

Take advantage of your exercise machine’s “cooldown period.”
One study found that men who underwent short, uniformly unpleasant colonoscopies found them more repulsive than men who had long procedures with a brief respite near the end. Adding a slightly less grueling epilogue to a grueling but valuable experience—like a workout—makes you more willing to repeat it in the future, even if it means an increase in the overall gruel endured.

Patronize King Cole’s and other establishments that employ a “mixologist”; avoid any bar named after an Irish person.
Spending your alcohol allowance on a few finely crafted cocktails is probably better than guzzling giant troughs of beer, since the ability to limit one’s indulgence is one of the baseline characteristics of happy people. Researchers aren’t sure whether moderation is chicken or egg, but they do know that teetotaling doesn’t confer any particular advantage.

Ask the next person you meet on Match.com to marry you.
Studies show that married people are happier than unmarried people. Too much choice, whether over tonight’s dinner or your partner for the next 50 years, can create paralysis and anxiety. If you make a mistake, you have the capacity to rationalize the worst decisions. And if all of that doesn’t work, well, we’re able to find happiness in even the most hopeless situations.

Splurge on a restaurant after the Yankees playoff game.
College kids surveyed in the weeks before emotionally high-stakes athletic competitions tended to dramatically overestimate how happy they’d be after wins because they forgot victories don’t eliminate sources of irritation. Similarly, they overestimated how upset they’d be after their team lost because they failed to remember that they could be comforted by other sources of pleasure.

Don’t watch the Knicks.
Not related to any recent scientific findings. Just sound advice.

Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

Posted: November 30, 2007 by Doc in Happiness
Tags: ,

Rubik’s Cube by Stephen Doyle
Rubik’s Cube by Stephen Doyle

More and more psychologists and researchers believe they know what makes people happy. But the question is, does a New Yorker want to be happy?

By Jennifer Senior
Published Jul 9, 2006 New York Magazine

The smiley face, that symbol of empty-headed cheerfulness, is a visage no New Yorker (or happiness researcher, in fact) could love. So, in the following pages, several New York graphic designers offer their own riffs on the icon

They say you can’t really assign a number to happiness, but mine, it turns out, is 2.88. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I was being graded on a scale of 1 to 5. My score was below average for my age, education level, gender, and occupation, sure, but at exactly the 50 percent mark for my Zip Code. Liking my job probably helped, being an atheist did not, and neither did my own brain chemistry, which, in spite of my best efforts to improve it, remains more acidic than I’d like. Unhappy thoughts can find surprisingly little resistance up there, as if they’ve found some wild river to run along, while everything else piles up along the banks.

The test I took was something called the Authentic Happiness Inventory, and the man who designed it, Chris Peterson, is one of the first people I meet at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike many who study happiness for a living, he seems to embody it, though he tells me that’s a recent development. He offers me an impromptu tour of the place (walls of salmon and plum and turquoise; tables piled high with complimentary granola bars), then wanders toward his office, absently hugging an orange-juice bottle to his stomach as he drifts, having graciously offered to check, at my request, which Zip Codes are the happiest and the most miserable in his 350,000-person database. At the end of the day, I check in with him.

The happiest, he reports, is Branson, Missouri’s.

“But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not representative respondents,” he says. “These are just people who logged on to our Website and took our happiness measure.” In other words, hundreds of mental patients from Chicago could have decided to take the test, while only fifteen Buddhists in Baja did the same, which would result in a very skewed perception of the well-being of Chicagoans and Bajans. I ask how many people from Branson took the test. “A small number,” he warns. “I think it was two or three. And the other happiest Zip Codes are also represented by a very small number of respondents. Nonetheless, I think the results are kind of interesting. Missoula, Montana. Rural Minnesota. Rural Indiana. Rural Alabama. Savannah, Georgia. The Outer Banks. Is there a theme here? There’s a theme here. It seems to run through the Bible Belt and go straight up north. And if you want to know the absolutely most miserable Zip Code—and this is based on a very large number of people—it seems to start with 101.”

That’s the prefix assigned to many of the office buildings in midtown Manhattan. “Staten Island is also miserable,” he adds.

So what does this say about New York? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe that if you make it there, you can make it anywhere, but you won’t be happy doing it.”

This past spring, the Boston Globe reported that the single most popular course at Harvard was about positive psychology, or the study of well-being. Its immense appeal took everyone by surprise. Just one year before, the instructor, Tal Ben-Shahar, offered the course for the first time, and although it was certainly a hit, with 380 students enrolled, no one could have imagined that the following year the number would have jumped to 855.

There’s a theme here, too. Back in the mid-1840s, a Scot by the irresistible name of Samuel Smiles was invited to lecture before a class in “mutual improvement” in the north of England—a class, he later noted in a book, that also began with two or three young men but grew so large it took over a former cholera hospital. That book is called Self-Help, published in 1859. It is considered by many to be the first of its genre. Today, it’s still in print, and has even come up in Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class. He has tremendous respect for it.

“For many years,” says Ben-Shahar, “the people who were writing about happiness were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. It was all ‘five easy steps,’ rather than dignity and hard work. What I’m trying to do in my class is to regain respectability for the concept of self-help. It’s a great thing, if you think about it literally. It’s what this country was built on.”

The pursuit of happiness was indeed at the heart of America’s conception. But the study of happiness—as a science, with random-assignment, placebo-controlled testing—is a far more recent phenomenon. And right now, it’s booming. At least two basic positive-psychology textbooks are being published this fall, one written by Peterson, the other by a University of Kansas professor named Shane Lopez, whose publisher estimates that roughly 150 colleges will be offering some kind of positive-psychology course next year. Since 2000, the University of Erasmus at Rotterdam has been publishing the Journal of Happiness Studies (whose editorial board is represented in curious disproportion by Californians and Germans). At Barnes & Noble, there are three excellent books about happiness now sitting on the shelves: the divinely readable Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, about how hopeless we are at predicting our moods; The Happiness Hypothesis, by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt, about the ways that ancient wisdom about flourishing intersects with the modern; and Happiness: A History, an intellectually elegant work by historian Darrin McMahon, which is exactly as it sounds, but darker.

Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard, ventures that the explosive interest in positive psychology is, like so many cultural curiosities involving self-obsession, a boomer phenomenon. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I’m not going off to some nursing home,’ ” she says. (And she should know: During the seventies, she found that the more control nursing-home patients had—over watering their plants, for example—the longer they were apt to live.) And there are undoubtedly other factors at work. Universities, for example, have become more sensitive today to the intense pressures on their students (at Harvard, the chief of mental-health services recently came out with a book called The College of the Overwhelmed). Economics has also started to take the discipline of psychology seriously again—Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a sure testimony to this—and the psychology of positivity and productivity were a perfect fit for the ethos of the bubble years. (Recently, I’ve come to wonder whether positive psychology isn’t also the perfect discipline for the era of George Bush, the decider, the man who remains shinily optimistic no matter how many red lights are glowing on his dashboard.)

Story continued at New York Magazine

Links:
Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness
Happiness Takes Effort