What determines happiness?

Who is happy?

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize winner for economics, Daniel Kahneman, answered these two questions. His findings were fascinating.

For example, researchers measured the happiness of people who had lived in a popular state for their entire lives. Most were happy, but no more so than those living in other states. As a matter of fact, research revealed that those who grew up in that aforementioned state viewed it the same way as they did their 10 toes: “nice, but not something one thinks much about.”

In a connected study, Kahneman addressed the question, “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” Many assume they devote a lot of time to thinking about their condition. For those forced into the condition because of an accident, their condition is a primary focus – initially. But, unless they are in constant pain, they adapt to their new way of life. After that, they think little of their condition. Instead, they behave in the ways of everyday folks; they “work, read, enjoy jokes and friends, and get angry when they read about politics in the newspaper.”

Kahneman discovered that individuals who win the lottery experienced euphoria in the beginning. But those feelings diminished over the following year. Then life and their way of thinking returned to that of the pre-lottery condition.

A word has been coined to describe people who “Exaggerate the effect of significant purchases or change circumstances on our future well-being.” The term is miswanting. That’s a good word, isn’t it? We have a want that, when it is fulfilled, we realize – it was a miss.

Take, for example, someone who commits to buying a brand-new car and joining a new social group, such as a recreational softball team in a league. In the beginning, both decisions will bring feelings of excitement as the newness begins. But, no matter how nice the car, the person driving the new vehicle will think less about it over time. The feelings of euphoria will diminish. This will all probably be imperceptible. Yet, with the softball team, there will be a consistent focus. Dealing with teammates requires attention because there are many variables when relating to someone else while attempting to achieve a goal.

I find all this fascinating for several reasons. The chief one is this: Americans invest an incredible amount of money in material things that, once they own them, will receive very little of their attention.

It’s like the air hockey table I got for my birthday during my first year in high school. They were just becoming popular in jukebox joints, and I desperately wanted one for our home. After many months of waiting, I finally received one. My friends and I went crazy playing air hockey–for about a month. Then our school transitioned from football season to basketball, and our attention was diverted. I forgot about that air hockey table until years later when I found it in a storage unit holding empty pots for plants. My mom had purged the long ago forsaken item from our home.

A proverb states, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” Thoughts are powerful, and what we think about is critically important. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

We need to rethink what makes us happy.

For further reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


Photo by D Jonez on Unsplash