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The Happiness Problem

Expecting Better in an Uncertain World

by Sam Wren-Lewis

Policy Press (Bristol), 232 pages, paperback, 9781447353553, 138 mm x 216 mm, 8 November 2019, RRP £12.99

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£11.43 inc. free UK delivery

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Over the past few decades, the study of happiness has sought to bring clarity and empirical legitimacy to a subject that has traditionally been the domain of philosophy, theology and self-help. 

     In the 1970s, with his seminal paper on the happiness of lottery winners and people with disabilities, the psychologist Philip Brickman paved the way for what became known as the academic field of ‘positive psychology’—the study of what makes people mentally healthy, beyond the absence of mental illness.

     Around the same time, the economist Richard Easterlin compared the gross domestic product (GDP) growth of nations with their average levels of happiness. He showed that the latter does not necessarily follow from the former, which paved the way for the academic field of ‘happiness economics’—the study of what makes people better off, beyond the accumulation of financial wealth.

     Together, positive psychology and happiness economics form the backbone of the ‘study of subjective wellbeing’, which is often referred to as the ‘study of happiness’. This burgeoning interdisciplinary field of academic study also includes research from sociology, anthropology, critical studies, politics, evolutionary biology, affective neuroscience and philosophy. 

In our cossetted First World, we invest a lot in the idea of control, and imagine that happiness is proportional to how much we can perfect our lives—the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect family, the perfect house. In The Happiness Problem Sam Wren-Lewis argues against consumerist simplicities and talks constructively about how the embrace of insecurity and uncertainty provides a more reliable basis for a satisfying and compassionate life

The study of happiness has also attracted the attention of policy makers around the world. In 2010, the UK launched its ground-breaking wellbeing programme, which aims to monitor national progress beyond measures of GDP, and assess and develop policy partly on the basis of its impacts on people’s wellbeing. In 2011, the United Nations followed suit. The UN General Assembly adopted a Bhutan-sponsored resolution that called on member states to measure and promote national wellbeing. The UN now produces an annual World Happiness Report, which includes a global ranking of countries on happiness. 

     These global happiness rankings sum up the optimism shared by many happiness researchers and policy makers. Typically, Scandinavian countries top the list. These countries are prosperous, healthy and trusting. Corruption is low. Generosity is high, individuals feel empowered to make key life choices. The social welfare state limits the inequalities between wealth and poverty, and delivers public services to all citizens. This reflects the six conditions that explain most of the variety in life satisfaction scores between the most and least satisfied countries in the world. According to the World Happiness Report, average national happiness is determined by economic prosperity, physical and mental health, political freedoms, social support, generosity, and social trust.

     On the basis of such findings, proponents of happiness stress that, although economic prosperity matters, other key conditions matter too, such as health and social capital. Other findings from the subjective wellbeing literature support this view. When it comes to people’s level of happiness, close relationships are often cited as the most important factor. Marriage makes a lasting positive difference to people’s happiness, whereas divorce has the opposite effect. Being religious also has a positive impact—a finding that tends to be put down to the benefits that come from being an integrated member of a community. Last, one of the most harmful factors for people’s happiness is unemployment. Beyond the financial insecurity involved, unemployment can often be socially isolating. 

Sam Wren-Lewis is a wellbeing consultant and former Head of Research and Development at the UK charity, Happy City, which works with local authorities and other organisations to improve the quality of life for all scales of community. He has a PhD from the University of Leeds on the philosophy of happiness and has written papers on the topic. His website is www.happinessproblem.com

The study of happiness highlights just how important non- material conditions can be in our lives. Relationships matter. Health matters. For instance, according to the UK national wellbeing programme, citizens who reported having bad health were 13.6 times more likely to report having the lowest combined levels of life satisfaction, happiness, anxiety and sense of worth. This is a big factor—one that dwarfs the impact of other conditions, such as people’s levels of income. Happiness research shows the importance of the things we may have sacrificed in our pursuit of financial and material wellbeing. 

     In general, the happiness literature has identified five major ingredients for happiness:

 

  • Health and longevity 

  • Close relationships 

  • Community belonging 

  • Purpose and achievement 

  • Financial and material wealth

 

It is hard to imagine being happy without these conditions in place. Nations are right to promote these things in their public policies, and individuals are right to try and achieve them in their own lives. The question is, even if these things make us happier, will they make us happy? Will they provide us with a lasting sense of meaning and satisfaction? 

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One of the most interesting things about the study of happiness is that it has not just identified the conditions that make people happier. It has also identified the conditions that don’t make people happier in the long run. It turns out that increases in income, above a certain level, do not make people lastingly happier. Nor does educational attainment. In fact, the list of things that do not make people any happier in the long term is potentially far greater than the list of things that do.
     Happiness researchers initially explained these findings with reference to the ideas of ‘hedonic adaptation’ and ‘set-point theory’. Hedonic adaptation is the idea that, once we have achieved a particular state of affairs—a new promotion, a fancy car, getting married and so on—we soon get used to it and move on to the next achievement. We do not wake up months after receiving our promotion still feeling the same amount of happiness we did when we initially got it. This is an instance of the more general process of psychological adaptation—the more times we are exposed to something, the more it fades into the background. When we walk, for example, we do not feel all the sensations going on in our feet.

     We have got used to these sensations—walking becomes something we do largely on autopilot. The same goes for the circumstances that make us happy. After a while, we cease to pay much notice to them. 

     The phenomenon of hedonic adaptation inspired set-point theory—the idea that people have fixed levels of happiness, which are determined more by their genes and their personality than by their circumstances. This goes back to Brickman’s influential paper on lottery winners and people with disabilities. He found that, around six months after either winning the lottery or becoming severely disabled—which, not surprisingly made the former happier and the latter unhappier—people’s level of happiness went back to what it was beforehand. Although we think that these conditions would have a lifelong impact on our level of happiness, Brickman found that, in reality, the impact these events had on people’s happiness was short-lived. This study was followed by a number of other studies that found the same thing: no matter what happens to us, our level of happiness eventually goes back to normal.

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Set-point theory is no longer widely held by happiness researchers. More recently, a number of important exceptions have been found, showing that, even if we adapt to most conditions, we do not adapt to everything. Marriage, divorce and employment, for instance, all have a lasting impact on people’s happiness. The five major ingredients of happiness listed above are all made up of conditions that people do not entirely adapt to. 

     But the influence of set-point theory lives on. It showed that happiness is not straightforwardly a result of our circumstances. Our psychology plays a big part in what makes us happy or unhappy in the long term. Many of the things we think will make us lastingly happier do not. And many of the things that do make us happy in the long run, do not make us as happy as we think they do. Happiness research has shown that nothing makes us live ‘happily ever after’. 

     Psychological adaptation makes sense when achieving a stable state of affairs is impossible. Consider again, for example, that new promotion. It may be that our new promotion signifies the pinnacle of our career—there is nowhere else to go, we have achieved everything that we could possibly achieve. More likely, however, is the fact that our promotion is the next step in a long line of potential improvements. In fact, if we fail to work harder, we may even lose our newly achieved work status to someone who would like to be where we are. We must continue to improve our situation because improvements can always be made and staying still may not be an option. It makes sense, then, to quickly adapt and set our sights on how to do even better. 

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One way of making this point is that psychological adaptation reflects our insecurity. Our circumstances are never entirely safe or stable. We must continue to advance to make them secure as we can. And we must continue to stay vigilant—to protect ourselves from any potential threats. 

     This explains why most conditions do not make us lastingly happier or unhappier and why some do. When we achieve most things, it makes sense quickly to adapt to our new circumstances and move on. This is likely to be the case, for example, with increases in income above a certain level—where are basic needs have already been met. There is little to be gained from basking in our newly acquired wealth, and more to be gained from the next potential achievement. In contrast, there are some conditions that require our continued attention. Having a chronic health condition, for example, may require us to monitor how we’re feeling on a daily basis to figure out how to best manage our symptoms. Or maintaining a close relationship may require our continued care and affection. 

     The fact that we are insecure makes the pursuit of happiness much more complicated. We can no longer look towards the study of happiness for a list of ingredients that will make us happy ...

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The Happiness Problem

Expecting Better in an Uncertain World

by Sam Wren-Lewis

Policy Press (Bristol), 232 pages, paperback, 9781447353553, 138 mm x 216 mm, 8 November 2019, RRP £12.99

Save £1.56

£11.43 inc. free UK delivery

Click here to buy

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