Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous 20th century philosopher, was miserable all his life. Depressed and anxious, he once wrote in his diary, “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” Yet minutes before he died, he muttered: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
The concept of happiness is universally understood, yet escapes all comprehension. Can someone really be both unhappy everyday and happy over a lifetime? Does the notion of happiness change throughout the world, between communities, between people? Most importantly, do we have any choice in the matter?
Recent research in psychology, economics and public policy may help unravel this tangled knot of questions.
“Objective choices make a difference to happiness over and above genetics and personality,” said Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia. Headey and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.
Headey’s findings, published in the October 19th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, run contrary to what is known as the happiness set-point theory — the idea that even if you win the lottery or become a paraplegic, you’ll revert back to the same fixed level of happiness within a year or two. This psychological theory was widely accepted in the 1990s because it explained why happiness levels seemed to remain stable over the long term: They were mainly determined early in life by genetic factors including personality traits.
Instead of existing as a stable equilibrium, Headey suggests that happiness is much more dynamic, and that individual choices — about one’s partner, working hours, social participation and lifestyle — make substantial and permanent changes to reported happiness levels. For example, doing more or fewer paid hours of work than you want, or exercising regularly, can have just as much impact on life satisfaction as having an extroverted personality.
But even this dynamic choice-driven picture does not fully capture the nuance of what it means to be happy, said Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University developmental psychologist. He warns against conflating two distinct dimensions of happiness: everyday emotional experience (an assessment of how you feel at the moment) and life evaluation (a judgment of how satisfied you are with your life). It’s the difference between “how often did you smile yesterday?” and “how does your life compare to the best possible life you can imagine?”
Kagan suggests that we may have more choice over the latter, because life evaluation is not a function of how we currently feel — it is a comparison of our life to what we decide the good life should be.
Kagan has found that young children differ biologically in the ease with which they can feel happy, or tense, or distressed, or sad — what he calls temperament. People establish temperament early in life and have little capacity to change it. But they can change their life evaluation, which Kagan describes as an ethical concept synonymous with “how good of a life have I led?” The answer will depend on individual choices and the purpose they create for themselves. A painter who is constantly stressed and moody (unhappy in the moment) may still feel validation in creating good artwork and may be very satisfied with his life (happy as a judgment).
This distinction can explain the apparent contradiction of Wittgenstein (Kagan’s favorite example) — someone whose negative day-to-day feelings did not at all match his positive life evaluation.
However, because “people across the world and across historical time have different ethical standards,” said Kagan, “the same replies in Uzbekistan and New York can’t have the same meaning.” In other words, the same phrase — “I’m happy” — refers to very different conceptions of each person’s idea of the good life.
While Kagan is skeptical that notions of happiness can span oceans, Brookings Institution senior fellow Carol Graham, whose most recent book is called Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, said there is remarkable consistency in the correlates of happiness between different countries. The consistent relationship between certain factors — like age, income, employment status, or health — persist regardless of culture, level of development or GDP.
However, Graham agrees with Kagan that definitions of happiness do vary — hence the paradox of the happy peasant and frustrated achiever. “Very poor rural respondents with very limited means report to be very happy,” said Graham, but “people who have actually made a lot of progress and increased their income report to be miserable.” This finding is puzzling, but according to Graham, it may be partly explained by the expectations people set for themselves in different situations.
For example, a poor person surrounded by crime and corruption may adapt to his situation and try to find happiness in day-to-day experiences, like spending time with friends and family. A wealthy person in more privileged circumstances may work long hours for a promotion (judging a prestigious job to be an important component of a good life), but not have many happy moments as she goes through her day.
Graham thinks that people may evaluate their happiness based on whichever dimension — happiness at the moment, or life evaluation — they have a choice over.
“If you’re a poor peasant in Afghanistan and just don’t have the agency to change your life circumstances … then surely you derive your happiness from a simpler definition — happiness as contentment,” Graham said. But if you have the capacity (through money or education) to lead a purposeful life, she explained, you think of happiness in the life evaluation sense.
In other words, when it comes to happiness, our choices may matter — but it depends on what the choices are about, and how we define what we want to change.