A recent New Yorker article titled “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” actually describes research findings indicative of greater unhappiness AND greater happiness among Facebook users, depending on what they did on the site.  Several studies were summarized, including a recent study by a team of researchers led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.  Those researchers sent text messages to research participants five times a day for two weeks, asking about Facebook use and emotional status.  The more the Facebook use at the time of one text, the worse these participants felt at the time of the next text.  Greater Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being over the course of the two-week study.  Another study found that looking at Facebook posts made by others was associated with increased envy, a phenomenon thought to be the result of social comparison. How can social comparison have this effect? Within the last 24 hours, friends on my Facebook feed have posted pictures from Hawaii, a college football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and a street festival.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my bedroom writing this post.  Am I envious?  No, actually, since I’m still getting over jet lag from a great trip to Washington and don’t want to be anywhere with more sizzle than where I am right now, but you get the idea.

Not all studies find that social media use puts us in the doldrums.  Some studies have found such use to be associated with increased happiness, social trust, and engagement.  Even the thought of sharing something via social media increases activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  Why have the findings about social media use and emotional states been so inconsistent?

One possible way of accounting for the different results comes from a 2010 study by Moira Burke of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues.  Among those who actively interacted on Facebook by posting themselves, commenting on others’ posts, or even liking those posts, loneliness was decreased and feelings of bonding were increased, particularly bonding with those who live in close proximity.  On the other hand, passively consuming content posted by others was associated with more loneliness and decreased bonding.  Thus, perhaps it is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but whether the user is participating actively or only passively.

So, the following rules for increasing happiness (or at least minimizing misery) among those of us who use Facebook seem consistent with the research to date:

  1. Use sparingly.
  2. Have as friends those to whom you aren’t particularly likely to compare yourself (I manage to follow this rule, since I use Facebook largely to keep up with former students, my kids, and my nephews and nieces, all of whom are at very different stages of life than I am).
  3. Don’t just passively scan your feed.  Comment, like, and post things yourself.

The last rule may make you happier, but, to the extent you are creating more content for your friends to passively scan, it might have an adverse effect on them.  Ah, the ethical dilemmas of Facebook use!

I’ll conclude this post by sharing some great pictures from my trip to Washington.  Research indicates it will give me great pleasure to do so.  Beware, though: looking at them without liking or commenting on this post may be hazardous to your emotional well-being!

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

I recently drove up to Washington, DC and spent a day touring museums.  I saw a couple exhibits devoted to Andy Warhol, fifteenth century tapestries celebrating Portuguese king Afonzo V’s conquests, and some of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.   The exhibit that had the deepest impact on me, though was    “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through January 8, 2012.  According to its website description, the exhibit is an examination of “the nineteenth century American belief

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

Peale's "The Artist in his Museum"

that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation.”  The exhibit is introduced by a self-portrait of 19th century naturalist and artist Charles Wilson Peale holding open a curtain revealing a museum of natural specimens.  Peale apparently did found such a museum where he exhibited a mastodon skeleton and other natural wonders.

The exhibit portrays significant technological advances of the age, including steam engines, railroads, and steamboats.  I was particularly struck by the section on railroads.  Included is the often-reproduced photograph of trains from east and west meeting nose-to-nose, linking the country by rail.  There are several paintings depicting trains chugging across the countryside.  Most of these show the train in the distance– pencil-thin and with a puff of smoke tethered overhead—an unobtrusive and innocuous addition to the landscape.  One picture titled “The First Train” shows Native Americans watching with wonder as a train steams across the prairie.  Another painting is probably more accurate in portraying the destruction that railroads brought in their wake.  A town is in the middle distance, smokestacks piercing the sky.  A train chugs up from the town; a barren field of tree stumps is shown in the near distance.  According to the curator’s notes, the artist was not lamenting nature being despoiled, but was instead favorably disposed towards the progress that the scene represented.

"The Waterworks"

The works included in the exhibit seldom give any evidence of conflict over the changes wrought by technological advances.  Some works dress these changes in noble garb.  A striking example is an 1825 sculpture by William Rush titled “The Waterworks” (I found the photograph of the sculpture here).  It is a celebration of the Fairmount Waterworks on the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia.  The reclining woman represents the river; she’s dressed as if she were a river goddess from classical times.  Her hand is posed over a water wheel and she’s smiling, apparently delighted at having her waters flow through this mechanical device.  The faux-classical blessing given the water plant seemed pretentious to me, but it was apparently well-received at the time.  I researched the history of the Fairmount Waterworks and learned here that “it was celebrated as a prime example of the blending of nature and technology.”  A park was built at the site, and it became one of the primary tourist attractions in the area.  Rush’s sculpture was once displayed there.

The 19th century’s unabashed celebration of technology contrasts with the 21st century’s ambivalence over technological advances.  We may like the comforts and electronic gadgets associated with technology, but we recognize the Faustian bargain by which the pleasures of modernity come at tremendous cost to the planet, to those less fortunate, and to our souls.  That sense of conflict over technology has been present in our society my entire adult life (that is, since the late 60s), and I imagine it’s been the dominant response to progress since the world wars.

Claire Perry, who curated the exhibit, seems heavily influenced by this conflict.  She’s appears uncomfortable with the exuberance over technological wonders and the confidence in progress that was so much a part of the 19th century mindset.  I infer such discomfort based on her inclusion of some topics that have little to do with America’s “genius for innovation.”  For example, there’s a room of works portraying Niagara Falls; another room on buffalo, and a third room devoted to the trees of California, especially the sequoias. Why include these things?  The curator’s notes speak about American’s fascination with the natural bounty of the country and the belief that the vast American continent provided a suitable canvas for living out America’s destiny.  I think there’s more to Ms. Perry’s choices than cataloguing America’s fascination with abundance.  The pictures she chooses show buffalo herds being killed promiscuously and sequoias being logged to excess despite being unsuitable for construction.  Though she doesn’t say so directly, Ms. Perry seems appalled by such destruction in the name of progress.

Whether or not she disapproves of the felling of trees and buffalo, seeing images of such destruction had a powerful effect on me.  Pictures showing multitudes of wounded or dead buffalo in particular evoked horror and revulsion.  What sort of progress is this, to slaughter such magnificent animals for sport?  An even greater travesty was lightly touched on; the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans.  I came away from the exhibit troubled by our nation’s capacity for destruction and even more conflicted than before about science and technology.

The story is told of an incurably upbeat man who jumped off the Empire State Building. As he hurtled down past the 20th floor, he was heard to shout, “So far, so good!” According to neuroscientist Tali Sharot, we’re all like that. Sharot describes our strong proclivity to don rose-colored glasses in her book The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. I haven’t seen the book yet, but did read an excerpt in the June 6, 2011 edition of Time.

According to Sharot, the optimism bias is the belief that the future will be much better than the past and present. As her subtitle implies, we humans incline toward optimism even when the evidence for our positive expectations is weak. She reports the results of numerous brain imaging studies showing that the brain areas most associated with having positive thoughts about the future are the amygdala and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, but I was less interested in the neural basis for optimism than the reasons she gives for its pervasiveness. Sharot notes that optimism is useful; being optimistic provides a variety of benefits. Optimistic heart patients are more likely to take vitamins, eat a proper diet, and exercise than are their pessimistic counterparts. Optimistic cancer patients have longer life spans. Depression is associated with an absence of the optimism bias. Sharot isn’t just a cheerleader for optimism, though, noting that in some circumstances it is maladaptive. In this context, I like British psychologist Havelock Ellis’s quip: “The place where optimism flourishes most is the lunatic asylum.”

Sharot gives an origin myth for optimism. She suggests that optimism developed in conjunction with our ability to imagine ourselves in the future, that is, to engage in “mental time travel.” The capacity to picture the future was a mental advance that probably aided our survival tremendously. However, with it came the awareness that we would die one day. Following biologist Ajit Varki, Sharot claims that awareness of our impending death would have rendered us unable to function had it not emerged alongside irrational optimism. Sharot provides no argument to support this theory (though of course I’m drawing only on her article, not the book), and it’s not too hard to poke holes in it. For example, our optimism only pertains to our expectations for such things as getting a good job and a loving spouse; it is not an expectation that we’ll cheat death. So if awareness of mortality would immobilize those of our ancestors who didn’t have an optimistic bias, why wouldn’t it have done the same for ancestors who think they’ll have a few successful hunts or harvests before going the way of all flesh? If awareness of death leads to despair, it should do so for everyone, not just pessimists. Also, since our ancestors were for the most part members of collectivist societies for whom the survival of the group was more important than individual survival, shouldn’t their optimism have focused more on prospects for the group than on their individual well-being? As Sharot notes, we more easily become pessimistic about the future of our group than about our personal futures. That seems contrary to what would be expected from the evolutionary theory she advocates.

I don’t think of myself as much of an optimist, at least in the sense of having a general expectation that the future will be better than the past. In many ways, I’m convinced it won’t be. My aching knees will only ache more, and that little bit of difficulty I now have with glare when driving at night will get worse. I’ll have more trouble remembering people’s names, and words won’t come to mind as easily (I had the hardest time this week remembering the word “embalm” after someone mentioned dead people being injected with formaldehyde). My income will be falling in a few years, and I expect finances to be tighter. Despite such pessimistic expectations, I see myself as a person with hope.

Sharot seems to use optimism and hope synonymously, but I think there is a meaningful but subtle difference between the two. I did a web search on “hope vs. optimism” that helped me think about how they differ. This post is already long, though, so I’ll write later about what I found.

On April 9, I attended the Carolinas Psychology Conference, a venue for undergraduate psychology students to present research that they’ve done.  We had four students from our program at Methodist University who were presenters.  As I watched them and the other students present, I appreciated both the hard work they had done on their projects and the efforts of the sponsoring faculty members to teach them about research methods and guide them through the research process.

One of the presentations I saw concerned happiness, a focus of this blog.  The study raised some interesting questions, so I’ll summarize the presentation and discuss its findings.  The student who presented was Alexander Rodgers, from North Carolina State University; the sponsoring faculty member was Shevaun Neupert.  The focus was on the relationship between busyness and happiness.  College students (aged 18-24) and older adults (aged 60-92) rated their level of busyness and feelings of happiness over 8 consecutive days.  For the young adults, there was no relationship between self-reported busyness and happiness.  For the older adults, though, higher levels of busyness were associated with greater happiness.  The researchers looked at factors that might have explained the relationship.  It couldn’t be accounted for by the participant’s tiredness or by the number of physical ailments they had.  Older participants gave higher ratings overall on the item, “I spend my time doing what I want,” but there was no relationship between that item and happiness.

All of the adults had been recruited at senior centers or retirement communities; none were working.  I suspect that busyness wouldn’t be associated with happiness in a sample of working older adults.   I know at least a couple of employed older adults whose employment keeps them quite busy and who are dissatisfied when they compare themselves to age-mates with more opportunities for leisure.  I’m not surprised that, once older adults retire, there isn’t a relationship between doing what one wants and happiness.  I would imagine that most retirees have the leeway to do as they please, so the correlation with happiness would be attenuated. 

What might produce the association between busyness and happiness in retirees, though?  Since the finding is correlational, we can’t be certain that it’s the increased activity that causes happiness.  The causal relationship could be reversed (happy people get involved in more activities), or some other factor, such as self-efficacy or the size of one’s social network, might influence both busyness and happiness.  One possible reason for the association is that a sense of purpose might result both in an increased activity level and more life satisfaction.  It’s known that retirees who have planned out what activities they will engage in after leaving the workforce make a more successful adjustment than those who don’t make such plans.  I’m always struck by how busy most of the retirees I know are.  The ones who are volunteering their time at church or for community organizations seem particularly fulfilled.  My parents volunteered quite a bit for about fifteen years after retirement, though they have slowed down as they’ve gotten older and had more health problems.  Still, my dad seems quite satisfied when he’s able to play the piano for nursing home residents or speak to elementary school classes about World War II.  Research has found a relationship between helping others and happiness.  This study didn’t try to parcel out the sorts of activities that the older adults were engaged in; I wonder whether it is particularly those busy contributing to the welfare of others who are happiest.  That would be fitting; for altruistic elders, doing good would be its own reward.

I haven’t posted for a while on happiness research, but scientists continue to churn out relevant studies. Recently, Daniel S. Hamermesh and Jason Abrevaya of the University of Texas at Austin published “Beauty is the Promise of Happiness?” exploring the relationship between attractiveness and self-reported happiness. USA Today’s write-up of the results can be found here. The study is based on an analysis of five different data sets. In three of these, gathered in the United States, Canada, and Germany, an interviewer asked numerous questions, some pertaining to happiness or life satisfaction, and, near the end of the interview, rated the attractiveness of each participant. One of the remaining studies, using a sample of Wisconsin high school graduates, used ratings of high school graduation pictures taken in 1957 to measure attractiveness, and assessed happiness with interviews conducted in 1992 and 2004. In the final study, British children born March 3-9, 1958 were rated for attractiveness by teachers when they were 7 and 11, and were asked questions about their happiness several times between ages 33 and 51.

Hamermesh and Abrevaya found a positive relationship between beauty and happiness for all the data sets.  The relationship is present for females in all of the samples and for males in all but the Wisconsin sample. Overall, the authors conclude that a one standard-deviation increase in beauty is associated with an increase of life satisfaction or happiness of 0.087 standard deviation units for women and 0.088 units for men. The effects are largest in the studies where measures were gathered concurrently (as the authors note, in these studies responses to previous questions could have biased judgments of attractiveness). The effects are smallest in the Wisconsin study, where changes in attractiveness over the years could have attenuated the results.

The authors also consider whether the effect of beauty on happiness is direct or indirect. Being economists, their interest is whether beauty produces market advantages that lead to greater life satisfaction. As the USA Today article referenced above notes, beauty is associated with better financial prospects.  Attractive people tend to have higher incomes and also marry spouses who are higher-earning. There is certainly bias in the workplace against those who are less attractive. A 2010 Newsweek survey found that the majority of hiring managers said that qualified but unattractive applicants will find it harder to get hired than attractive applicants. Managers listed looks as the third most important out of a list of nine desirable features of prospective employees. In the Hamermesh and Abrevaya study, individual and family income were used to measure the economic advantages of beauty. About half of the effect of attractiveness on beauty could be accounted for by increased income. Such indirect effects were greater for men than for women. In the USA Today article, Hamermesh is quoted explaining the difference as follows: “For a woman, it just matters to walk down the street being good-looking. For a man, beauty’s direct relation to happiness is not as great. It will give you a better-looking wife, a higher-earning wife, and, most important, extra earnings.”

I wonder whether Hamermesh’s explanation is adequate for either women or men.  Is it really just the awareness that she is attractive that makes the woman walking down the street happy? Couldn’t it also be the attention she receives in the form of smiles, men holding doors for her, drivers slowing, and the like? And for the man, couldn’t his increased earnings matter less than not having to battle to get his ideas accepted and his efforts appreciated? Life is better for those who are regularly affirmed, regardless of the reason for that affirmation.

Of course, physical attractiveness is far from the best basis for allocating attention, affirmation, and wealth. Unfortunately, attractiveness is such a salient feature of those around us. Perhaps it would help if our idea of beauty was closer to the Navaho view. 

Navajo Sandpainting, from

Beauty – Hózhó – is central to the Navaho way of life.  For them, though, beauty is not something that is perceived by an observer when an attractive person, work of art, or the like is encountered.  It is something created.  As Gary Witherspoon puts it:  “The Navajo does not look for beauty; he generates it within himself and projects it onto the universe. The Navajo says shi/l hózhó ‘with me there is beauty’, shii’ hózhó ‘in me there is beauty’, and shaa hózhó ‘from me beauty radiates’. Beauty is not ‘out there’ in things to be perceived by the perceptive and appreciative viewer; it is a creation of thought.”  For Navajos, beauty truly comes from within.  The act of creating is what matters, not the external features of the person doing the creating or the finished product that is created.  The Navaho way of beauty is the way of wholeness, harmony, and balance.  Would that the beauty we desired was of this sort!

I recently read The Age of Empathy, by Frans De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University.  He argues that some elements of empathy are evident in all mammals, and even the most advanced elements are not limited to humans but are found in species such as chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants.   He does well at distinguishing between the basic responses that serve as a foundation for empathy (mimicry and emotional contagion), intermediate empathic responses (concern for others and consolation of those in distress), and the advanced capacities that only humans and a few other species are capable of (perspective-taking, helping targeted to the sufferer’s needs).

The book is rich in descriptions of animal behavior both in the lab and in natural settings.  I was quite interested in an experiment concerning fairness that De Waal and a student did with pairs of capuchin monkeys.  The two monkeys were each handed pebbles that they could give back to get a cucumber slice; first one received a pebble, then the other.  Both monkeys were content to exchange  pebbles for food.  The researchers then modified the interaction so that one monkey now received grapes, a preferred food, in exchange for pebbles, while the other still could only trade each pebble for a cucumber slice.  When its partner began earning grapes, the monkey still receiving cucumber slices became agitated, threw the pebbles out of the test chamber, and sometimes even tossed out cucumber slices.  De Waal and his student interpreted the disadvantaged monkeys’ responses as indicating that they were capable of “inequity aversion,” a term used by economists to describe the negative reactions that people have when others receive much larger rewards than them. 

It is interesting to see how inequity aversion has developed in my grandchildren, who are seven and three years of age.  They each watch carefully what goods the other receives, be it extra desert, more attention from one of their parents, or extra time in front of the TV.  If they don’t receive the same benefit that the other did, they whine and complain.  Like the monkeys, they often reject something they would otherwise welcome because it is less than what their sibling got.  (More specifically, it seems less.  Their parents are good at dividing resources equitably, but each of them seems biased to perceive what the other got as more than it was.)  Like the monkeys, neither had been taught explicitly that they should always get as much as someone else.  They came up with that conclusion on their own (though perhaps with the help of modeling by peers during their time in child care or school).

De Waal goes on to suggest that there are two types of unfairness that we (and the monkeys) are sensitive to.  The first is inequalities in rewards received, and the second is unequal relationships between effort and reward.  Calvin and Theo each think at times that they should get exactly what the other got; that’s the first kind of fairness.  At times, Calvin (the older of the two) applies the second standard, arguing that, because he put forth more effort, he should get more reward than his brother.  De Waal, who immigrated from the Netherlands to America, claims that Europeans are more sensitive to inequalities in the rewards received, but Americans are more sensitive to differing relationships between rewards and consequences.  Americans tolerate huge differences in income, but we do think that the person who is working harder should receive the greater reward.  Thus, we accept mammoth discrepancies between what the average corporate employee earns and what the CEO earns.  In fact, to some extent we see such discrepancies as rewards for achieving the American dream: the hardworking, talented person can achieve a disproportionate share of society’s spoils.

De Waal’s point is a good one, but Americans do seem to have at least some sensitivity to inequalities in rewards received, the first type of unfairness.  As a result, we debate the extent wealth should be spread around among all contributing members of society or should go largely to the most capable and dedicated citizens.  These two ideals seem to have played some role in the recent impasse between public-sector unions and Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, for example.  There is not just one American Dream, but competing visions of that dream, one consisting of striking it rich, the other of everyone having enough.  A 2009 article by David Kemp in Vanity Fair describes various conceptions of the American Dream.  The phrase “the American Dream” was coined by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America, published in 1931.  Adams described “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  Both fairness ideals seem to be present in his vision: everyone can benefit from the enhanced life that he is describing, but ability and achievement have a role to play in the degree to which one experiences such a life.   It’s interesting to think of the American Dream as based in conceptions of fairness that are found even in our primate cousins.

The New York Times recently had an article on a new methodology for measuring the nation’s emotional well being.  Rather than ask people whether they are happy or sad, the researchers cull cultural products for evidence of our collective mood.  Specifically, the researchers gathered the lyrics of hundreds of thousands of songs and millions of blog entries, then subjected these documents to a content analysis, rating the positive or negative valance of a sample of the words each item contained.  The cumulative result is taken as a measure of our collective satisfaction uncontaminated by self-report biases.  During the period covered by the study, well-being was at its lowest ebb on September 11, 2001, and crested the day that President Obama was elected.

One interesting analysis was of blog entries by age of blogger.  Not surprisingly, the glummest blogs were written by teens.  Entries were progressively more positive with increasing age, peaking with us marvelously content bloggers in our 50s and 60s.  Older than that, though, the average rating declined some, presumably because entries contained more words like “wrinkled,” “arthritic,” and “incontinent.”

Let’s see. . . even as I write this, researchers are trolling the blogosphere, analyzing each word to determine the nation’s well-being.  It’s especially incumbent on us middle-aged bloggers to show the world that we Americans are HAPPY, by gum!  So, here goes: Satisfaction!  Contentment!  Fulfillment!  Goodness and beauty!  Peace and prosperity!  Happy happy, joy joy!

George Vaillant
George Vaillant

The June, 2009 issue of The Atlantic has an article on the Harvard Developmental Study (also known as the Grant Study after department-store magnate W. T. Grant,  who provided initial funding), begun in 1937 to trace the long-term course of healthy adult development.  Here is a link to a video in which George Vaillant, who has been the study’s lead researcher for over 40 years, discusses life lessons that he extracted the accumulated data.  Though the Atlantic article frames the study as being about happiness, the intent all along has been to study each life in all its complexity, regardless of whether the outcome was joy or misery.

Vaillant is a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist whose initial involvement stemmed from his fascination with the rich trove of information found in the study’s archive.  He was successful at revitalizing the study at a time when resources were quite limited, and has continued the work unabated until its final phase, when data collection is nearing the end as participants die off. 

In reviewing the information gathered, Vaillant concluded that the men’s lives were successful or unsuccessful not because of their good or poor fortune—the favorable or unfavorable events that happened to them—but because of their adaptations to those events.  By “adaptations,” he didn’t mean so much conscious coping strategies but unconscious reactions to the world.  In other words, he was interested in the defense mechanisms first identified by Freud and subsequently described most thoroughly by the ego analysts.  Adaptations range from the primitive, psychotic reactions, through the immature and neurotic reactions, to the healthy, mature reactions. 

Besides adaptations, Vaillant found that relationships were invaluable to fashioning meaningful and fulfilling lives.  In 2008, he told an interviewer that “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”  In particular, he found that the Harvard men’s relationships at age 47 were the best predictor of adjustment in late life.  Not surprisingly, relationships early in life were also important to later life adjustment.  One finding is particularly fascinating: “93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.”  Sibling relationships have been neglected in most psychological theories; maybe they are more important than we realize.  

We tend to think of positive emotions as something people always seek.  Who doesn’t want to be happy or joyful?  As described in the article, Vaillant thinks positive emotions have a cost as well.  Hopes can be dashed; love has inherent within it the possibilities of rejection and loss; the pride felt in success can be accompanied by the fear of future failure.   Vaillant thought that it was because of such considerations that some of the Harvard men avoided experiences that would have been likely to evoke positive emotions.  For example, one of the men, a physician, retired when he reached 70.  His wife secretly contacted many of his patients and asked whether they would be interested in writing a letter of appreciation.  A hundred of them did.  His wife collected these and presented them to him.  During an interview with Vaillant eight years later, the man proudly showed the box containing the letters.  He started crying, and said “I’ve never read it.”  Vaillant’s comment about the incident was, “It’s very hard for most of us to tolerate being loved.”  What a paradox: we desperately desire yet desperately fear love.


On Santorini last summer--a purchased experience.

On Santorini last summer--a purchased experience.

Say you have $30 to spare.  What would you prefer to do: spend it on a new shirt or use it to take a date to a movie?  Or say you have not $30 but $3,000.  Would you rather put the money down on a new car or spend it vacationing at a nice resort? Whatever amount you have, would you be more inclined to purchase a material possession or an experience? 

Researchers have looked at which type of choice is more likely to increase happiness.  The conclusion: you get more happiness for your buck if you pick the experience over the possession. 

According to a 2005 review article written by psychologist Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado at Boulder, there are several reasons for this.  First of all, people who are highly materialistic turn out not to be very happy.  The more people agree with statements such as “Some of the most important achievements in life include acquiring material possessions” and “Buying things gives me a lot of pleasure,” the less life satisfaction they report.  Materialism is correlated with symptoms such as depression, narcissism, and paranoia.  We already know that it is also correlated with debt!

Van Boven and colleagues also conducted a series of surveys in which they asked respondents to report on their purchases of material goods and of experiences and how happy each purchase made them.  (The authors note that some purchases, e.g. a bicycle, could fit either category; they went by the person’s stated intention in those cases.)   Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or marital status, money spent on experiences made people happier on average than money spent on material goods.  The difference between happiness levels resulting from material and from experiential purchases increased as income level increased. 

Van Boven suggests three reasons why experiences may make people happier than material goods.  First, experiences are more likely to be reappraised favorably after the fact.  Thus, the bike trip that at the time left me cold, sore, and bored will be described later as a bracing, fitness-enhancing jaunt down wooded paths.  One way to think of such reappraisals may be that we commonly reevaluate experiences so as to construct a positive narrative of our lives, but don’t have a similar tendency to reconstruct the meaning of material goods.  A new TV just doesn’t make as good a story as a trip to the Smithsonian.

Second, experiences don’t suffer as much from negative comparisons.  My new cell phone can easily pale in comparison to your new cell phone, but it’s much harder to know whether my trip to see fall foliage was better or worse than your trip to see fall foliage. 

Third, experiences are more likely to have social value.  We usually take vacations, go out to eat, or go to the theater with others.  In contrast, wearing new clothes or riding in our new car are more likely to be solitary activities.  This last point seems to contradict the view of economist Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899.  He coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to refer to the waste of money and/or resources in order to indicate that one has a higher status than others.  To the extent that our purchases are status displays of this sort, both expenditures on experiences and those for material goods are deeply social in character. 

Regardless, the main point is that we will be happier purchasing experiences than things.  Another benefit of experiences is that many of the best ones don’t cost anything at all.   So, go for a walk, have a good conversation, or read a (library) book.  Happy now?






Last Friday, I wrote a blog entry on an MSNBC report of recently published in the British Medical Journal on the contagion of happiness.  A few Methodist University colleagues have sent me links to other articles reporting on that study.  Dr. Steven Brey of the Philosophy and Religion Department saw a New York Times article, and librarian Arleen Fields found a CNN report.  There were a few interesting details in these studies.  For example, the NYT was more specific about the effects of distance: 

“A next-door neighbor’s joy increased one’s chance of being happy by 34 percent, but a neighbor down the block had no effect. A friend living half a mile away was good for a 42 percent bounce, but the effect was almost half that for a friend two miles away.” 

The only way to explain such a steep distance gradient is that face-to-face contact is necessary.  It must be that, like the flu, happiness can’t be caught over the phone or internet.   The NYT adds that only people in our social networks who have recently become happy will boost our happiness.  Those perpetually cheery people you’ve known a long time are old news and no longer give your mood a boost. The CNN report mentioned that size of one’s social network is also important.  Someone at the hub of a large network of people (meaning not just that one relates to lots of others but those others relate to one another, too) are more likely to become happy.   I guess that means Happiness Network it’s a good idea to introduce your friends to each other and do things as a group.

Finally, the CNN article had a nifty graphic of  the social network used in the study.  I’ve put their graphic to the right.  Yellow dots are happy people, blue are sad individuals, and green represents those in between.  It’s interesting that there are some large yellow clusters.  It looks like blue people sometimes cluster, but their groups are smaller and many of them seem scattered thoughout the yellow and green networks.  It’s a nice way to represent the study’s findings.

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