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In Pursuit of Happiness

Psychologists explore everyone's favorite emotion

Jonathan Haidt, Timothy Wilson and Shigehiro Oishi Jack Looney

How would you reply if a psychologist asked how satisfied you were with your life? Professor Shigehiro Oishi says his former graduate adviser once received a curious answer to this question from a woman in India: “Ask my husband,” she replied. Oishi, who studies cultural differences in life satisfaction, suggests that this answer rings off-key because we typically think of ourselves as experts on our own happiness. But how do we define our happiness? Is it something we can predict and manage like physical health? And what does it do for us, anyway?

Academic interest in happiness isn’t new. Indeed, Aristotle pronounced it life’s ultimate goal. The healthy-mindedness movement in the 1890s promoted the curative properties of positive feelings and beliefs. More recently, the field of positive psychology has developed to encompass the causes and consequences of “flourishing.” Three professors in the University’s psychology department—Shigehiro Oishi, Jonathan Haidt and Timothy Wilson—are examining the nature not only of happiness but also the entire spectrum of emotions.

Moderately happy people, while less successful in relationships than their very happy peers, tend to achieve more, because being a little disgruntled can serve as an incentive to improve.

Oishi’s research focuses on variations in happiness across cultures and eras, as well as examining “optimal” levels of happiness. He has found that many cultures around the world—East Asian, Russian, German and French—associate happiness with luck and thus don’t consider it something that can be intentionally achieved. By contrast, Oishi has found that Americans consider happiness attainable through planning and hard work. “In the U.S.,” Oishi says, “you’re still at the mercy of the stock market and Katrina, but the myth is that if you work hard you can pretty much get what you want—you have control over your life.” Oishi suggests this attitude is partly the result of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of the right to “the pursuit of happiness”—a line he thinks Thomas Jefferson wrote to refer to social mobility and fortune rather than cheerfulness.

Cultures that associate happiness with luck report less happiness than Americans. Yet, when Oishi conducted an experiment comparing the happiness of Japanese and Latin American college students, he was surprised by the results. While Japanese and Latin American college students reported nearly identical levels of dissatisfaction with specifics such as textbooks, professors and classes, Latin American college students reported much higher levels of satisfaction with overall education than their Japanese counterparts. Oishi thinks one explanation might be that certain cultures have standards of perfection for happiness. “If you look at French or Japanese culture,” says Oishi, “they pay attention to detail, which is good for achieving the perfect croissant or perfect sushi. But when you try to apply that perfection to your life—good luck.”

Oishi also examines the consequences of happiness in our work and personal lives. The very happiest people tend to have the most successful relationships with others. Oishi conjectures that this is because they employ positive illusions, an optimistic filter through which they regard their partners. The happiest people, however, tend to have slightly fewer professional achievements than other groups. Moderately happy people, while less successful in relationships than their very happy peers, tend to achieve more, because being a little disgruntled can serve as an incentive to improve.

Timothy Wilson analyzes our ability to predict how we’ll react emotionally to future events, a behavior called affective forecasting. “We’re not terrible at affective forecasting.” Wilson explains that we are generally accurate in predicting the valence of an event—whether it will have a positive or negative impact on us. Our trouble is that we tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of future emotional states, which can lead us to make life decisions based on inaccurate forecasts. We imagine that a breakup will devastate us for a long time, or that we’ll still feel blissfully happy days after passing a test. In fact, we tend to settle back to our normal state more quickly than we predict. One reason for our resilience is an internal mechanism—Wilson calls it the psychological immune system—that unconsciously diminishes the impact of bad news by contextualizing it or attributing it to some special cause.

Wilson conducted an experiment with UVA football fans to test affective forecasting. One group of fans was asked to think ahead to the UVA vs. Virginia Tech game and predict how they’d feel if UVA won or lost and for how long. On average, the fans responded that they’d be happy for days if UVA won and sad for days if they lost. And yet, a single day after their team lost, the fans had returned to their pregame levels of happiness. Another group of fans was asked to contextualize before predicting—to first think ahead to a day in the future and imagine what they would be doing in each hour of that day. Contextualizing the result of the football game led them to make more-accurate predictions about their responses, because they were more likely to realize that they would not be thinking very much about the game as time went on. “Sooner rather than later, we’re thinking about homework, relationships, what TV is on tonight,” says Wilson. “We tend to forget that life goes on.”

Jonathan Haidt came to the study of happiness indirectly—via morality. His research focuses on the emotional basis of morality, in particular on two opposing moral emotions: disgust and moral elevation. Haidt fears the link between morality and happiness is lost in our shallow, modern conception of happiness. “We tend to think of it as a feeling we want to have as often as possible,” Haidt says. “The ancients thought of it as a life well lived. Virtue plays a large role in that.”

In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt argues that humans have evolved to live like bees in a hive—in tight, cooperative groups. Haidt has found that many people, when asked to remember the happiest time in their life, will refer to an intense, hivelike group experience such as military service, a band or just a time when they had a close group of friends. “During the Enlightenment, we busted out of the hive and created modern, independent ways of living,” Haidt says. “Now we fly around asking, ‘Why am I not satisfied?’”

Part of the reason behind our dissatisfaction is that too much freedom isn’t always good for us, Haidt contends. When faced with limitless choices, we don’t always choose wisely. Freedom also deprives us of moral order, the ability to be part of a group of people who “cooperate, sanction, punish and criticize each other,” Haidt says.

If that doesn’t sound exactly like a blueprint for paradise to you, consider this fact: survey research (reviewed by sociologist Arthur Brooks) shows that the self-reported happiest people in the United States are Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians. These two groups live in cohesive communities grounded on what they perceive to be an objective moral order. The unhappiest? Liberal atheists, who don’t tend to believe in objective moral order. Haidt suggests that “when people feel that anything is permitted, it’s a recipe for existential emptiness, for anomie.”

Haidt has lots of empirically supported practical advice for a happier life: Exercise, reduce daily hassles and nurture your relationships. “Happiness comes from between,” he says. “It comes from getting the right relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work, yourself and something larger than yourself.” For Haidt, teaching at the University satisfies each of these conditions, giving many faculty members “a sense that we’re pursuing something noble in the company of people we admire.”