The Science of Happiness

I recently came across an interesting article on the science of happiness in Harvard Magazine recounting the emergence of “positive psychology” as a field of study, its findings and the emergence of new research areas such as the study of joy instead of happiness.

Many of the findings will be familiar to the readers of my previous posts on happiness. However, a few of the research results were surprising such as the fact that having kids tends to slightly decrease happiness.

Here are two interesting paragraphs:

“Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton (see “The Marketplace of Perceptions,” March-April 2006, page 50) asked thousands of subjects to keep diaries of episodes during a day—including feelings, activities, companions, and places—and then identified some correlates of happiness. “Commuting to work was way down there—people are in a terrible mood when they commute,” Etcoff says. “Sleep has an enormous effect. If you don’t sleep well, you feel bad. TV watching is just OK, and time spent with the kids is actually low on the mood chart.” Having intimate relations topped the list of positives, followed by socializing—testimony to how important the “need to belong” is to human satisfaction.”

“Gilbert reconsiders his grandmother’s advice on how to live happily ever after: “Find a nice girl, have children, settle down.” Research shows, he says, that the first idea works: married people are happier, healthier, live longer, are richer per capita, and have more sex than single people. But having children “has only a small effect on happiness, and it is a negative one,” he explains. “People report being least happy when their children are toddlers and adolescents, the ages when kids require the most from the parents.” As far as settling down to make a living—well, if money moves you into the middle class, buying food, warmth, and dental treatment—yes, it makes you happier. “The difference between an annual income of $5,000 and one of $50,000 is dramatic,” Gilbert says. “But going from $50,000 to $50 million will not dramatically affect happiness. It’s like eating pancakes: the first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third OK. By the fifth pancake, you’re at a point where an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any greater degree. But no one stops earning money or striving for more money after they reach $50,000.”

  • Hi Fabrice,

    Thanks for the article. I printed it out and read it at home this evening. Some similar concepts to a book I just finished reading: Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.

    Anyway, good stuff.


  • Fabrice, I still have the PDF on happiness from that investment company on my desktop, I read it regularly!

    Being a parent I would have to say that the dip in reported happiness is most likely down to some of those other factors like finance, social relationships and particularly lack os sleep rather than being the result of the ‘child’ itself.

    I think most of us have been conditioned that the job and the car and the fancy restaurants are the keys to happiness, and all these things are effected and restricted with the birth of a child.

    I think how the parents adapt their lives is then the key to happiness. It’s easy enough to adapt around a child if thats what you want.

    It’s harder if money is seen as more important than the child, because that will just create a very tough work routine which will result in years of very little sleep.

  • Thanks for these, most interesting pursuit of all.
    FYI, article and whole dossier in the Economist week of December 22nd 06(?) on the subject, including the first return to the Hedonistic calculation method of grading hapiness based upon inflections in the muscles when the subject smiles.
    One shall hence be able to measure effectively the effect of anything on hapiness.
    And how much hapier is one buying a brand X car 10 times the price of a brand Y car: a little 🙂

  • I read Flow: Psychology of Optimal Experience a long while back and positive psychology has come a long way since. It’s finally getting the center stage spotlight it deserves!

  • Paul – yes, my wife and I were surprised to see kids listed as a negative on the happiness scale. I think you’re right… if you adapt positively to the lifestyle changes kids necessitate, you’ll be happy. If you still pine for unfettered nights out and loads of discretionary income, then you will likely be less happy. 🙂

  • very interesting indeed, children (from my experience) bring both
    moments of stress, arguments, noise, chaos, conflicts, anger, etc… every day, and all together (on top of the traditional routine) these negative times amount to a daily 30 minutes (rough estimate).
    positive: moments of pure joy and ecstasy, great intimacy, sharing life values, discovering emotions, learning, and personal development through their constant questioning, deep and genuine insights of our selves and our world, nearly everyday for a few minutes.
    So you would say that mathematically speaking the negatives win, and you are right, I understand why people do not want children.