The headline of a recent MSN Money article was “7 Smart Ways to Buy Happiness.”  It’s odd to talk about happiness as something that can be bought; it makes it seem tangible like a car or a computer.   MP Dunleavey, the article’s author and an MSN Money Contributing Editor, isn’t talking about frequenting a happiness vendor, though, but about spending money to foster (mostly intangible) things that are likely to result in increased life satisfaction.   Much of what Dunleavey writes here is influenced by research findings from psychology and economics.  Dunleavey has written a book titled Money Can Buy Happiness, which seems to be a more extensive consideration of the topics considered in the article. 

Happiness for sale?

Happiness for sale?

Here’s Dunleavey’s list of the seven ways of spending money to increase happiness, with a brief explanation for each item:

  • Relationships–since those who have strong relationships tend to be happier, Dunleavey suggests you spend money on things that will connect you to others, such as buying a plane ticket to go visit a close friend.
  • Time–make extra time for yourself by paying others to do unappealing tasks or negotiating extra time off at work.
  • Health–buy better but pricier food, a gym membership, and the like.
  • Learning–buy books, DVDs, and experiences that will teach you something; in a broader sense, invest in activities that will create a challenge and lead to a sense of flow.
  • Debt Relief–rid yourself of one burden by paying down your bills. 
  • Givaways–donate money or time to enhance the welfare of others, since doing so makes you happier as well.
  • Security–start saving money for retirement, providing you with a greater sense of control over your life.

Though I think it’s fine to do all the things on the list, I find it rather peculiar that the reason given for doing all of them is to increase personal happiness.  Shouldn’t we get out of debt and save for the future because it’s fiscally responsible and will benefit us in the long term, not because we’ll feel better if we do so?  Aren’t strong relationships valuable for their own sake, not just because they increase our life satisfaction?  And what about giving to others just to make oneself feel good?  There is a debate between social psychologists who believe that all help given to others is meant to benefit the self and social psychologists who think that sometimes helping is solely intended to benefit the recipient. Even for someone taking the former view, though, Dunleavey seems particularly interested in what can be gained by the helper.  She writes:

Studies show that altruism not only tickles the feel-good centers in the brain, but it also creates a sense of social bonding and mutual support that enhances your personal well-being.

Can’t we help others because we genuinely care about their welfare, not because generosity will “tickle” our “feel-good centers?”  I hope that, during those too-infrequent times when I offer assistance to someone else, I do it at least in part out of concern, not hedonic calculation.   

In my previous post, I wrote about the book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist.  I didn’t much care for his belief that our momentary experience of satisfaction or pleasure is all that is meant by happiness, nor for his assumption that measures of that experience have much importance at all.  I didn’t say much about the main argument of his book, though, so I’ll remedy that omission here. 


Gilbert suggests that our ability to think about the future—to imagine some state of affairs that we anticipate happening—is what makes us uniquely human. Unfortunately, our imagination isn’t all we imagine it to be—it doesn’t do as well as we expect at accurately envisioning future events.  Why is that?  For one thing,  we fill in details of what a particular event will be like (Gilbert uses the example of a spaghetti dinner), with the particulars (canned or cooked; with tomato sauce, cream sauce, or no sauce) that may differ markedly from how the event actually transpires.  At the same time, we fail to include many pertinent features in our mental picture of what things will be like during that future event, such as the locale, our companions, the lighting, etc. Such features may have a tremendous impact on our emotional reactions to the event.  For example, in one study University of Virginia students overestimated how happy their football team’s upcoming victory over UNC would make them, probably because they thought only about the game and not about other events that occurred in close proximity, such as having to study for an exam or having a paper due. 


Besides anticipating some details incorrectly and omitting other things that are likely to occur, we are often erroneous in our expectations of how a future event will make us feel.  In general, we are likely to be less affected by negative events than we expected to be.  Another danger here is what Gilbert calls “presentism”, the tendency to think that future feelings will be like those we are having now.  Thus, the depressed person can’t imagine that even positive events will make him or her feel any better.  True, we do try to adjust our expectations, but, even then, we use present feelings as a starting point and don’t make sufficient adjustment from where we began (those familiar with Tversky and Kahneman’s work on cognitive heuristics might recognize this as an example of the anchoring heuristic).


Still another reason why we don’t feel as badly about things as we expected to is that we defend against unhappiness—we have what Gilbert characterizes as a psychological immune system to protect us from an overly negative view of ourselves and our situation.    Thus, the jilted lover comes up with reasons why being dumped was one of the best things that happened him or her, and the person who paid too much for crummy merchandise decides that this MP3 player or computer is the only one that has just the features they want.  We don’t anticipate constructing such rationalizations, though, so we expect that negative events will deflate us more than they do.


Gilbert does a good job of explaining each of the above points, and also marshals plenty of research evidence to support the argument.  His basic point—that we don’t do well at predicting how we will feel about future events—seems pretty well established.  If we don’t know what will make us happy, we aren’t very likely to choose well between possible courses of action.  Notice what Gilbert isn’t arguing, though. He’s not claiming that we have systematic biases that lead us to chose things that will make us unhappy:  the argument that we would be happy only if we chose X, but human nature makes us always chose Y instead.  For Gilbert, it’s something of a crapshoot; our imaginations fail us, so we are often making choices in the dark, or at least in lousy lighting.  His solution—to depend on the real-time reports of those who are undergoing the experience we are contemplating—may be helpful in some cases, though he has only tested it in matters such as predicting how one will feel after eating potato chips.  Before adopting such a strategy, I’d like to know how it works for predicting matters of more substance—how well it would predict how I would feel after switching careers, for example, or after retiring.

Kelly Walter Carney sent me a link to an article on happiness published today in the Los Angeles Times. The author, Marnell Jameson, talks about the emprical research on happiness conducted mostly by psychologists over the last few decades. She notes that there has been something of an explosion in research on happiness since 2000. She appears to have talked to some of the leaders in the field, most notably Sonja Lyubomirsky and Martin Seligman. She’s obviously quite taken by the scientific study of happiness, and even claims, “Though many people think happiness is elusive, scientists have actually pinned it down and know how to get it.”

Izzat so? What great new things have her sources come up with to pretty much guarantee our lasting felicity? Practice gratitude. Forgive others. Engage in challenging activities. Find a meaning for your life. Hadn’t we heard of these things back in the dark ages before psychologists started studying happiness?

Actually, the article is a fairly good one, and I am glad that so many psychologists have devoted themselves to researching happiness. I just wonder whether they’ve generated all that many new approaches to becoming happy.

In an earlier post, I described the most important constructs that Daniel Nettle, in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, used to analyze our efforts to achieve happiness.  Compared with many of the psychologists who write about happiness, Nettle is more optimistic that happiness can be intentionally increased.  In this post, I’ll discuss the three avenues he points to for increasing one’s happiness.  They are: To reduce the impact of negative emotion, to increase the amount of positive emotion, and to stop thinking so much about happiness.


If, as Nettle maintains, our evolutionary heritage saddles us with overly intense and persistent negative emotions, what can we do about this?  We can override our “negative emotion programs” using “information from context, planning, logic, further reflection, and so on.”  (p. 149)  In particular, Nettle advocates the methods of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) to identify and replace irrational thoughts.  Ever since the Greeks, one line of philosophical thought has promoted using reason to control the passions; the current ascendance of CBT among therapeutic approaches seems a continuation of the rationalist trend.  As Nettle admits, though, simply decreasing negative thoughts doesn’t make one more happy, just less unhappy.


Nettle’s second suggestion is aimed at increasing the amount of positive emotion experienced.  He advocates “happiness training programmes” consisting mainly of “pleasant activity training.”  In brief, the person determines what activities he or she finds pleasant and deliberately engages in them more often.  Nettle holds that we are so busy chasing after the things we desire—the bigger salary, faster car, and the like—that we neglect doing what we enjoy.  Maybe so, but it seems to me that listening to my Dylan boxed set or drinking chocolate milk more often may increase my level of pleasure, but won’t make me happy.  Nettle reads like a hedonist here.


He moves away from hedonism in his last prescription, though.  He recommends that people get away from thinking about their emotional state and think instead about something other than themselves.  He suggests thinking about nature or religion, and also mentions favorably the Stoic emphasis on relinquishing desires.  In the end, he concludes that it probably isn’t such a good idea to devote oneself solely to pursuing happiness:


With important but limited returns from happiness, we may as well attempt to broaden our holding in the other stocks that make up good human life, such as purpose, community, solidarity, truth, justice, and beauty.  (p. 175)


By pursuing these other goods, we may arrive at a sense of fulfillment and completeness, and thereby paradoxically gain happiness.  Though it detracts from the main emphasis of his book, Nettle eventually concludes that we are most likely to be happy if we treat it like an escaped puppy, i.e. stop chasing it and wait for it to come to us.