What is happiness, and how can we measure it?
The first "happiness study" was published in 1978, in the Journal of Personality and social Psychology. The question the researchers asked of people who were interviewed was: what do you think will make you happy?
The researchers thought this would highlight some fundamental elements that contribute to happiness in most people's lives. They assumed money and comfort would probably be mentioned as main contributing factors by the people interviewed. What they found, instead, was that people often mispredicted which future events would make them happy. They predicted material possessions, financial improvements, a vacation, etc would affect how happy they would feel. In reality, though all these things can make one feel better, at least temporarily, they didn't make them HAPPY. People who had good things happen to them seemed to be as happy as people who did not.
Some more recent books in this field (The Politics of Happiness by Derek Bok, Happiness around the world: the Paradox of Happy peasants and Miserable Millionaires by Carol Graham and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert) reached similar conclusions, thirty years or so later. Peasants in Bangladesh, for instance, report twice the level of happiness as the Russians, who make four times as much income, one of the books quotes.
Clearly, according to these studies, there seems to be no direct connection between the amount of income (though having more money of course can make life easier) and one's level of happiness.
I am not surprised by these results, as the people who come to my office feeling unhappy come from all different socio-economic backgrounds and yet they express similar feelings about how they see their lives. Happiness is very complex concept difficult to define, and the factors that contribute to it are many.
One element, for instance, that is absent in these studies is the level and quality of social and emotional connections a person has in his or her life. We know people who are alone tend to be unhappy and more vulnerable to depression and other emotional symptoms. We know they tend to have poorer health than people who are in happy relationships. If we measure wealth not as G.D.P. but as social capital, perhaps a different picture may appear.
If we go back to the Bangladeshi peasant, for instance, we may see that his strong family and social networks may create a positive counterbalance to the challenges and stressers that come from his low income. Looking at this problem this way, we may discover that this peasant is actually "richer" than the wealthy American who lives in a huge suburban house all alone and disconnected from his family and community.
Jean Baker Miller, a psychologist who became quite known in the seventies, was the first to point out the value and "wealth" offered by healthy, supportive, accepting social connections for individuals. The lesson here is that, in addition to all the elements that these books studied to determine what creates happiness in people, the importance of healthy social connections should be ignored when we research what makes people happy.