What is a greater priority in your life: happiness or success?
While it is possible to achieve both, we often sacrifice one for the other when making major life decisions such as what career to pursue, whether to move to the suburbs to afford a bigger house, or whether to attend a family event if it means getting less work done.
The science of happiness, also known as positive psychology, basically studies human behavior and positive emotions with the aim of determining what factors can result in an increased level of happiness. The conclusions from this research can provide interesting insights into how we can maximize our happiness.
The following concepts are featured in the book Happiness Hypothesis, which is a great book for learning about the findings from happiness research.
Does Increased Income Improve Happiness?
Research that examines the correlation between income and happiness has found that increased income has a very small correlation with happiness for most people. The exception is for people who live in the conditions of poverty, in which money can help provide basic necessities like food, shelter, and transportation. Once people reach the middle class however, additional income tends to have little effect on happiness.
This counterintutive finding can be explained by our ability to quickly adapt to new conditions, also known as “the adaptation principle”. While winning the lottery may provide an immediate boost in happiness, studies suggest that lottery winners return to a level close to their baseline happiness in about one year. We’ve all heard stories of the miserable millionaire or the unhappy but successful professional. This finding suggests that it can be a big mistake to pursue a career primarily to gain a higher salary over a career that you intrinsically enjoy.
The Progress Principle
Pursuing worthwhile goals is often a major aspect of how we choose to spend our time. People can spend years pursuing a specific goal while imagining how happy they will be once their goal has been achieved. However, “the progress principle” suggests that we receive more happiness from making progress toward our goal than we do from achieving a goal. This can be explained by our brain’s reward system which provides a boost in dopamine immediately after we make progress towards a goal in order to encourage behavior that leads to genetically favorable outcomes like accumulating wealth or power. This supports the old adage that the journey is more important than the destination or as Shakespeare said : “Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing”. If you are not enjoying the journey, you may not be pursuing the best goal.
Reducing Your Commute
The American Dream has traditionally involved getting a good job at a corporation so that you can buy a nice house in the suburbs. However, the adaptation principle comes into play as we quickly adapt to having a larger home but we typically don’t adapt to a traffic filled and unpredictable commute. People who experience slow traffic arrive to work with higher stress hormones in their blood and commuting to work is often reported as one of the most unpleasant activities in our day. Choosing to live closer to your work, even if you have to buy a smaller home, can be a wise decision in terms of maximizing your happiness.
The Importance of Relationships
One of the strongest variables in happiness that we can control is our personal relationships. An increased quantity and quality of personal connections can have a significant impact on our happiness. This is one reason that people who attend church are happier on average than non-church goers and married people are happier on average than single people. Spending more time with your close family or friends rather than working extra hours can also lead to a happier life. Additionally, your income can provide a more positive impact on happiness if you choose to spend it on experiences that you share with family and friends such as a dinner at a restaurant or a vacation instead of buying luxury items like expensive cars or accessories.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the name “flow” for the idea of engaging so deeply in an activity that you lose track of time. The Happiness Hypothesis describes flow as the “state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities. It is what some people call ‘being in the zone’”. Finding what activities lead to a state of flow for you, such as playing a sport or writing a guest blog post, and allocating more time to these activities can lead to a more enjoyable career and life.
Happiness research may not provide the secret to achieving happiness but it can suggest ways in which we can potentially increase it. The conclusions are often based on the “average person” so these ideas may not work for everyone. However understanding the findings from happiness research and experimenting in your own life can help you determine what will ultimately lead to “the good life” for you.
What do you think about these ideas? Do you have any experiences that support or contradict any of these ideas? Please leave a comment below.
Charles Sipe enjoys listening to audiobooks, blogging and playing basketball. He is also the editor of Criminal Justice Degree Schools, a resource site providing information on criminal justice degrees and careers.