Global Crisis/ Innovation Blog

Happiness – What Neuroscience Shows

By Shlomo Maital

  BBC has been running a four-year series on the science of happiness.  The results are truly fascinating.  In some ways, they are encouraging, because they indicate that there are many ways to be happy, or more happy, without gaining wealth or income – good news in an era when many people, in the U.S. and Europe, are struggling to find employment.

   Here is a short précis on what scientists studying happiness have found:

***Happy people live a lot longer:   According to Professor Diener the evidence suggests that happy people live longer than depressed people. “In one study, the difference was nine years between the happiest group and the unhappiest group, so that’s a huge effect”.

*** We’re richer but often not happier:  “Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all, and in some cases has diminished slightly,” said Professor Daniel Kahneman of the University of Princeton.  “There is a lot of evidence that being richer… isn’t making us happier”.

**** Above the minimum, money doesn’t count much:  “Once you have a home, food and clothes, then extra money does not seem to make people much happier.”

***  Why money doesn’t make us happier?  Two reasons.  We go for things which give us short bursts of pleasure whether it is a chocolate bar or buying a new car.  But it quickly wears off.  Secondly, it is thought that we tend to see our life as judged against other people. As we get richer, so do our peers, often.”

 *** What DOES bring happiness?  Ed Diener:  First, family and friends are crucial – the wider and deeper the relationships with those around you the better.   It is even suggested that friendship can ward off germs. Our brains control many of the mechanisms in our bodies which are responsible for disease.   Just as stress can trigger ill health, it is thought that friendship and happiness can have a protective effect.  According to happiness research, friendship has a much bigger effect on average on happiness than a typical person’s income itself.  [One economist, Professor Oswald at Warwick University, has a formula to work out how much extra cash we would need to make up for not having friends.  The answer is £50,000. ]   Marriage also seems to be very important. According to research the effect of marriage adds an average seven years to the life of a man and something like four for a woman.  The second vital ingredient is having meaning in life, a belief in something bigger than yourself – from religion, spirituality or a philosophy of life.

 The third element is having goals embedded in your long term values that you’re working for, but also that you find enjoyable.  Psychologists argue that we need to find fulfilment through having goals that are interesting to work on and which use our strengths and abilities.

   None of this is new or surprising, and all of it is consistent with common sense.  Yet, remarkably, how many of us pursue wealth and income, in the pursuit of happiness, often at the expense of those very things that do bring us happiness?  Why?