There’s been a spate of recent research and popular science writing on happiness and what affects it (and what doesn’t affect it). I find this research to be fascinating stuff in its own right, and often a great leaping point. I write about it a fair amount, but I don’t think of what I’m writing to be scientific.
I actually think I write about philosophy. The philosophy of happiness, if you will. I use my own personal experience, the personal experience of others, the philosophy of others, and scientific studies that show certain trends, and I put it all in a blender, and you read the results.
I want to emphasize, though, that I don’t think that what makes me happier will make everyone in the entire world happier. If having a more fulfilling life is something you’re interested in, then collecting different viewpoints and ideas is one way of pushing forward your own quest. Maybe some of the theories and ideas I talk about will inspire or resonate with you.
But when ideas about individual happiness are presented as scientific fact or a fait accompli, then the issue becomes more confused. Which is why I was really happy to read the recent Scientific American blog post by Jamil Zaki entitled “Psychological studies are not about you.” Dr. Zaki decries popular science writing that implies that the studies cited are about individuals. Indeed, he says:
“…Psychological studies… can tell us about how changes in behavior (again, think generosity) might affect the well-being of whole populations…. Most sciences—including psychology—are much better suited to these broad applications than to telling any one person about their life.”
This is because psychological studies mostly involve groups and use statistics. So their findings focus on large-scale trends as opposed to the individual. For example, on average, people may increase their happiness by a certain amount if they engage in gratitude practice. But you as an individual might find that using gratitude practice increases your happiness a lot more than that, or alternately that is doesn’t have a very strong effect at all. Neither of those things make you at all strange since the study in question was talking about averages over a certain population.
Then of course there are the controversies where there are differing points of view. For example, there is a theory of happiness called the set point theory of happiness, or the hedonic treadmill, that states that people have a predetermined happiness set point. There have been a few famous studies, one that looked at people who had been paralyzed and ultimately returned to the same levels of happiness they had been at prior to injury and another that looked at lottery winners that returned to their pre-winnings level of happiness.
But now there are studies showing that this isn’t always the case: that indeed, sometimes people who win the lottery do have increased happiness over a period of time, and sometimes people who divorce do have increased happiness afterwards. There are also examples of individuals having permanently decreased happiness levels. There is more discussion about the forty percent of happiness levels that aren’t controlled by genetics but by intentional activity. And even if the set point theory of happiness is statistically present over a large population, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily apply to you personally. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.
Which isn’t to say that reading about these studies or about other people’s personal anecdotes or philosophies can’t be enlightening and helpful. Just as with writing advice, we’re allowed to take whatever works for us and throw everything else away. We each get to learn about the unique combination of what makes us tick and make decisions based on that self knowledge.
What advice about happiness and fulfillment hasn’t worked for you? What advice has?