Tag Archives: happiness

Too much free time can be just as depressing as no free time — if you’re wasting all of it

We all need free time in our day but, according to new research, too much free time can be just as detrimental to our well-being as not enough.

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania might have bad news for us all: there really is such a thing as too much free time. They report that people with too little free time experience higher levels of stress, which damages their perception of their own well-being. At the same time, however, people who have too much free time are liable to feel unproductive, even useless, which also damages the levels of well-being they report experiencing in their day-to-day lives.

Too much of a good thing

“People often complain about being too busy and express wanting more time. But is more time actually linked to greater happiness? We found that having a dearth of discretionary hours in one’s day results in greater stress and lower subjective well-being,” said Marissa Sharif, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the paper. “However, while too little time is bad, having more time is not always better.”

We all know, intuitively, that free time is a key part of feeling happy and fulfilled. However, new research explains that this is only true up to a certain point. Having too much free time can actually reduce our subjective well-being, the team authors explain.

The study is based on data from 21,736 Americans who took part in the American Time Use Survey between 2012 and 2013. As part of the survey, participants gave a detailed account of their last 24 hours, providing an accurate time and duration for each activity they performed. They were also asked to report on their subjective levels of well-being. Perceived levels of well-being increased with the availability of free time up to around two hours per day, and then leveled off. At five or more hours of free time per day, well-being started to decline. Both of these correlations were statistically significant, the team explains.

Data from the National Study of the Changing Workforce, which also recorded information about free time and life quality of 13,639 working Americans between 1992 and 2008, also supported the conclusions drawn from the first survey. Higher availability of free time significantly increased life satisfaction but only up to a certain point. Since the overwhelming majority of participants in this survey didn’t have five or more free hours per day, however, the negative effect of having too much free time was much less apparent in this dataset.

In order to flesh out these datasets, the team carried out two online experiments, totaling over 6,000 participants. In the first one, they were asked to imagine what it would be like to have a certain amount of discretionary free time (i.e. time they could devote to whatever they desired) for a period of six months. Each participant was randomly assigned to either a low (15 minutes per day), moderate (3.5 hours per day), or high (7 hours per day) amount, and asked to report on how much enjoyment, happiness, and life satisfaction they could draw from this free time.

Participants in both the low and high time amount groups reported anticipating lower well-being and happiness than those in the moderate time group. Those in the low free time availability groups anticipated feeling more stressed than those in the moderate group, which impacted their well-being. Alternatively, those in the high levels of free time group anticipated feeling less productive than those in the moderate group, which also lowered their well-being.

During the second experiment, the researchers looked at the role that productivity could play in shaping well-being. Participants here were asked to imagine having either moderate (3.5 hours) or high (7 hours) levels of free time daily, but they were required to spend this either productively or unproductively (for example working out or engaging in hobbies vs. watching TV or using the computer). Overall, participants with the highest levels of free time reported lower levels of well-being when engaging in unproductive activities. However, those that engaged productively with their free time anticipated similar levels of well-being as those in the moderate group.

“Though our investigation centered on the relationship between amount of discretionary time and subjective well-being, our additional exploration into how individuals spend their discretionary time proved revealing,” said Sharif. “Our findings suggest that ending up with entire days free to fill at one’s discretion may leave one similarly unhappy.”

“People should instead strive for having a moderate amount of free time to spend how they want. In cases when people do find themselves with excessive amounts of discretionary time, such as retirement or having left a job, our results suggest these individuals would benefit from spending their newfound time with purpose.”

The paper “Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being” has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Yes, more money will always make your life better, but that’s not all there is to happiness, says new study

In a twist that’s bound to surprise nobody, a new study finds that there isn’t actually any limit past which more money won’t make you happier. Yes, that sounds disheartening, but the authors also caution that it’s not the only thing that makes us happy by a long shot. Chasing money at the expense of everything else might actually make us less happy.

Image credits Mabel Amber.

The relationship between wealth and happiness has always fascinated researchers. One widely-known bit of research in the past suggested that the magic number is $75,000 per year. You won’t gain more happiness by gaining more than that, it added. But if you’ve had to bear through the pandemic jobless or in a job you hate but had to take, struggling to make ends meet, while watching rich people ‘suffer’ in mansions with gardens or spending their holidays on private islands, you might not put too much stock in that idea.

New research agrees with you.

The more the merrier

“[The relationship between money and well-being is] one of the most studied questions in my field,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn’s Wharton School who studies human happiness, lead author of the paper. “I’m very curious about it. Other scientists are curious about it. Laypeople are curious about it. It’s something everyone is navigating all the time.”

Killingsworth set out to answer the question with a wealth of data. The technique he used is called experience sampling, and it involves having people to fill out short surveys at random times of the day. These serve as ‘snapshots’ of their feelings and moods over time, and how these fluctuate.

All in all, he collected 1.7 million data points (‘snapshots’) from more than 33,000 participants aged 18 to 65 from the US through an app called Track Your Happiness that he developed. This allowed him to obtain measurements from each participant a few times every day, with check-in times being randomized for each participant. These were measured on a scale ranging from “very bad” to “very good”, and every participant also answered the question “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” (on a scale of “not at all” to “extremely”) at least once. These all measured evaluative well-being, he explains.

“It tells us what’s actually happening in people’s real lives as they live them, in millions of moments as they work and chat and eat and watch TV,” he explains.

But the study also tracked experienced well-being by asking about 12 specific feelings. Five were positive — confident, good, inspired, interested, and proud — and seven negative — afraid, angry, bad, bored, sad, stressed, and upset. Two other measures of life satisfaction collected on an intake survey were also factored in here. Evaluative well-being measures our overall satisfaction with life, while experienced well-being indicates how we feel in the moment.

All in all, Killingsworth says the findings suggest that there is no dollar value past which more money won’t matter to an individual’s well-being and happiness.

“It’s a compelling possibility, the idea that money stops mattering above that point, at least for how people actually feel moment to moment,” he adds . “But when I looked across a wide range of income levels, I found that all forms of well-being continued to rise with income. I don’t see any sort of kink in the curve, an inflection point where money stops mattering. Instead, it keeps increasing.”

“We would expect two people earning $25,000 and $50,000, respectively, to have the same difference in well-being as two people earning $100,000 and $200,000, respectively. In other words, proportional differences in income matter the same to everyone.”

Killingsworth used the logarithm of a person’s income, rather than the actual income, for his study. In essence, this takes into account how much money someone already has. This approach means that rather than being just as important for everyone, each dollar will matter less the more a person earns.

He found that higher earners are happier in part because they feel more in control over their life. More money means more choices, options, and possibilities in regards to how we live life and spend our time, as the pandemic brutally showed. Someone living paycheck to paycheck will have less autonomy over their choices than someone who’s better-off — such as not having to take any job, even if you dislike it, due to financial constraints. Still, in Killingsworth’s eyes, this doesn’t mean we should chase money, and I feel the same way.

“Although money might be good for happiness, I found that people who equated money and success were less happy than those who didn’t. I also found that people who earned more money worked longer hours and felt more pressed for time,” Killingsworth explains.

“If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going. Yes, this is a factor that might matter in a way that we didn’t fully realize before, but it’s just one of many that people can control and ultimately, it’s not one I’m terribly concerned people are undervaluing.”

He hopes the findings bring forth more pieces of that ever-elusive puzzle: what exactly makes us happy? Money definitely plays a part, but, according to the findings, only “modestly”, Killingsworth explains.

The paper has been published in the journal PNAS and on the Penn State University’s blog.

Our happiness is more dependent on money today than in the 70s and 80s

With socioeconomic factors being increasingly polarizing in today’s world, the link between wealth and happiness is stronger than ever, researchers find.

Image via Wikimedia.

A new study from the San Diego State University (SDSU) reports that the link between indicators such as income and education and happiness has been growing ever stronger during the last few decades.

According to the findings, the more income someone has, the happier they’re likely to be. Unlike previous findings in this area, however, the authors didn’t find this effect plateauing at a yearly income of about $75,000.

Happy Franklins

“I was surprised that income was so strongly related to happiness and that happiness didn’t plateau at higher levels of income,” said SDSU psychologist Jean Twenge, one of the study’s two authors. “More money seems to equal more happiness, even after basic needs are met.”

The two authors used data on 44,198 U.S. adults age 30 and over in the nationally representative General Social Survey (gathered from 1972 to 2016).

As a rule of thumb, people with higher incomes in the study reported greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction. This trend has been growing stronger since the 1970s and ’80s, the authors report. In other words, money today seems able to buy more happiness than it did in the past.

These trends also lead to a growing happiness divide. White Americans with no college education saw a drop in happiness after the year 2000, while white Americans with a college degree saw steady levels. For black Americans with no college education, happiness levels have remained steady over the same timeframe, while those with a college degree saw higher levels of happiness.

“We’re not exactly sure why there’s a growing divide in happiness, but it might be because of growing income inequality. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Twenge.

Such findings tie into other research which uncovered growing levels of ‘despair‘ among working-class white Americans, Twenge adds. While economic woes could be the root of the issue, another explanation could lie in decreasing rates of marriage. These used to be pretty similar across different socioeconomic groups in the US, but has been steadily dropping among lower-income individuals (and married people tend to report higher levels of happiness on average).

Another take on the matter could be that money buys security, comfort, and quality healthcare, all of which lead to a happier life.

Taken at face value, the findings help showcase just how important economic factors are for our well-being and satisfaction in life. A more concerning implication is that happiness today is increasingly a perk of the rich, which does not bode well for the health of our societies. So stay in school kids and make it rain — it’s the basis of a happy life.

The paper “The expanding class divide in happiness in the United States, 1972–2016” has been published in the journal Emotion.

Experiencing nature seems to make us happier, at least on social media

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) used artificial intelligence to trawl through social media posts in order to gauge the social and cultural value nature brings to humans. Overall, they report that the findings show a positive association between the presence of nature and fond memories described in photographs or events such as vacations and honeymoons.

Image via Pixabay.

Naturally happy

“Integrating social media data and AI opens up a unique opportunity for us to carry out unprecedented large-scale global studies such as this to better understand our interactions with nature in our daily lives,” said Dr Chang, Research Fellow at the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science and first author of the study.

The team began their research in an effort to better map the value that nature brings to our lives. They explain that the economic and ecological impacts of issues such as climate change have been documented, but not so much the social or cultural effects. We know that certain areas attract people — The Great Barrier Reef and the Swiss Alps remain some of the top holiday destinations in the world — but exactly what benefits people draw from visiting them remains poorly understood.

The team, led by Dr Chang and Associate Professor Roman Carrasco from the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science, used automated image recognition technology to analyze over 31,500 photographs across 185 countries from social media platforms.

This step revealed that photographs tagged as #fun, #vacations and #honeymoons are more likely to contain elements of nature such as plants, water, and natural landscape as compared to photographs tagged #daily or #routines — no massive surprises there. The trend, however, was consistent across the globe, which the team says is evidence in favor of the biophilia hypothesis (that humans have an innate desire to experience and connect with nature). The trend, they add, implies a positive association between nature and fond memories in memorable events like honeymoons.

Furthermore, they found that the amount of nature experiences per individual in a country is linked to the overall life satisfaction of its residents. Countries such as Costa Rica or Finland — which have more elements of nature in photographs tagged as #fun — also rank highly on national satisfaction levels as reported on in the World Happiness Report 2019, the team explains.

All in all, the findings do seem to suggest that people derive emotional happiness, relaxation, and life satisfaction from experiencing nature. I would point out that the posts this study looked at involved nature, yes, but they also related to events such as holidays or personal events which involved leisure, which obviously would make people #happy and #relaxed. On the other hand, it seems to me that the #daily # routine posts would obviously involve less exposure to nature (since most people live in urban environments) and less excitement or relaxation, two states which we don’t readily associate with the daily grind.

Still, the study is valuable in highlighting the positive effect nature and exposure to nature can have on our own subjective well-being and emotional states.

“[The findings] further emphasises the importance of preserving our natural environment for the loss of nature may mean more than losing quantifiable economic and ecological benefits; it could also mean losing the background to our fondest memories,” says Assoc Prof Carrasco.

“Our next step is therefore to establish how nature experiences may benefit human well-being such as how it improves our satisfaction in life, hence enabling the development of constructive solutions to better environmental conservation,” he added.

The paper “Social media, nature, and life satisfaction: global evidence of the biophilia hypothesis” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

What is happiness?

For all our efforts, we still don’t have a clear idea of what happiness is, or how it’s best attained.

Dogs seem to be really good at it, tho.
Image via Pixabay.

“Happiness” is used as a shorthand for a constellation of emotional and mental states. At its simplest, it refers to feelings of contentment or joy. The most expansive use of the word touches upon concepts such as subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and affluence.

Some common trends do seem to arise around the subject, and researchers have been putting great effort into understanding them. I feel that the point of life is to enjoy ourselves as much as we can, to be happy, and to help others be as well, so let’s take a look at what we know about happiness and how we may best lure it into our lives.

First off, what is it, actually?

People are complex creatures with unique views on life — only bold statements here on ZME Science — and happiness is a very subjective experience. In that light, we may never know what happiness is, only what it means to a certain individual in a certain situation.

Happiness isn’t an emotion like fear, excitement, or anger, which are short-lived reactions to outside events. It’s also not just an internal state, as happiness is in large part derived from external factors. It flows from the interplay of internal (endogenic) and external (exogenic) factors and can be seen as being an overall appreciation or contentedness with one’s current experiences or life as a whole.

The roots and function of happiness are likely similar for everyone, but what exactly will cause it — and how we experience it — no doubt varies from person to person.

The juices in our brains

Image via Piqsels.

“Existence of significant differences in temperament and happiness of infants is an indicator of biological influences,” explains a paper (Dfarhud, Malmir, Khanahmadi; 2014) published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health.

“Therefore […] it can be said that biological and health factors are critical in underlying happiness and its role in happiness is undeniable,” the authors conclude.

Happiness is complicated, and it’s definitely shaped by more than just biology. But the same way the hardware in your laptop dictates what video games you can play, biology has a great impact on our ability to feel happy. The study above cites previous literature which “indicated an average effectiveness of [genetic factors] of about 35-50% on happiness,” although we’ve yet to pinpoint certain genes that rule happiness. Apart from genetics, the study further distinguishes four sub-groups of biological factors that can be involved in creating feelings of happiness: brain and neurotransmitters, endocrinology and hormones, physical health, morphology and physical attractiveness.

Certain areas of our brains (such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and limbic system) and types of neurotransmitters (for example dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins) modulate emotions and are directly involved in our experience of happiness. This is especially true for the structures and compounds involved in the reward pathways, which generate pleasure, a feeling that’s closely associated with happiness.

According to the paper, “increasing in metabolism of the limbic system leads to depression in individuals,” while levels of dopamine and serotonin mediate our overall mood. Positive moods are associated with increases in dopamine levels in the brain (although not necessarily caused by them), the paper explains, and some of the changes in cognition associated with positive mood are driven by increases in dopamine levels. Serotonin, which is associated with satisfaction, happiness, and optimism obviously has a part to play as well, as does norepinephrine; some modern antidepressants (serotonin reuptake inhibitors and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) artificially raise levels of these neurotransmitters.

Whichever way you cut it, our brains and bodies are the linchpins in our ability to feel happy or unhappy. I think we all have an intuitive understanding of how health, physical attractiveness, and morphology (i.e. the form and structure of your body) factor into our happiness, so we won’t go too much into them. Finally, hormones and the endocrine system underpin our health and help regulate our moods and emotions.

Culturally-correct happiness

Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world drawn with 2017 data.
Image credits World Values Survey.

“When people learn about the psychology of happiness, and also especially of efforts to make people happy — interventions to help improve well-being — one of the skepticisms that people have is that everybody defines happiness in their own way,” William Tov, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Lee Kong Chian Fellow at the Singapore Management University explained for the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

“You can’t have one definition of happiness. I think that’s an assumption that needs to be tested.”

Biology gives us a shared framework for happiness. The next layer that shapes our understanding of this state, however, is a bit more divergent: culture. Different cultural groups can have different concepts of what makes one happy, and these concepts shape our personal access to it.

If biology is the hardware in the laptop of happiness, culture would correspond to the software and apps available for download — it forms the context and avenues through which it can be achieved.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tsai et al., 2006, took a look at how culture and happiness interact. The theory they explored is that our ideal affect — the way we want or are ‘supposed’ to feel — is different from our actual affect, and that culture influences the former much more than the latter. Over two studies in which they controlled for actual affect, the team found European Americans (EA) and Asian Americans (AA) value positive, high-arousal feelings (i.e. excitement) more than Hong Kong Chinese (CH) do. At the same time, AA and CH participants put more value on low-arousal positive feelings (i.e. states of calm) than EA participants.

This already shows how our background can influence our ideal affect (which works as a cultural roadmap towards happiness) both in the context of a single community and between different groups. The study also found that for all participants, regardless of their cultural affiliation, the difference between ideal and actual affects correlates to depression. In other words, when people don’t feel the way the tribe tells them they should feel, they get sad. Which is quite cute. It also highlights the ‘external’ component of happiness.

But, while the weight of tradition and social norms can spoil our fun, culture also goes a long way to show how people conceive of happiness, and how that view changed over time.

“In every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck,” explained Darrin McMahon, the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth University in his 2006 book Happiness: A History.

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, ‘good fortune’ or ‘happiness’. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both ‘happiness’ and ‘chance'”.

It’s quite a fascinating read. For the ancient Greeks, McMahon explains, happiness was synonymous with virtue; Romans, on the other hand, considered those who were prosperous and favored by the gods as being happy. The Christian view of happiness was similar but involved only closeness to God, not wealth. Buddhism sees it as closely related to the concept of piti — meaning deep tranquility or rapture — the mental discipline of separating attachment and desire from happiness.

One of the most interesting shifts in the zeitgeist that McMahon points out is that while humans have always strived to be happy, it was considered a desirable ‘maybe’ and not a requirement for life up until two hundred years or so ago; today, achieving happiness is almost seen as an obligation. I can’t help but wonder whether this shift actually makes happiness more unattainable as we’re ‘supposed’ to be happy today, furthering the distance between our ideal and actual affect.

Before we wrap up on the cultural chapter, let’s take a look at the academic thinking around happiness. At the simplest, most bare-bone level, psychologists lump it in two overarching ‘types’ (both of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, we inherited from Greek philosophers):

Hedonic happiness: an ethical school of thought first embraced by Democritus and Aristippus. In essence, hedonists see happiness (and the ultimate goal of life) as experiencing more pleasure while limiting pain, more positive emotions while limiting negative ones, and drawing as much pleasure from one’s life as possible. The main criticism leveled at hedonists is that this mindset focuses on instant gratification — that it’s short-sighted, selfish, and promotes excess. A hedonist might reply that pleasure is the only true moral good and that humans always act to increase their pleasure and limit pain in all facets of life, no matter what we tell ourselves to sleep better at night.

Eudaimonic happiness: for the ancient Greeks, a ‘daimon’ or demon is a spirit bearing wisdom or inspiration. This school of thought arose with Aristotle and placed itself squarely opposite of hedonism. It holds that true happiness can only be achieved as we try to better ourselves, pursue our life’s purpose, and work towards our potential. Happiness, then, lies in the pursuit of perfection and the fulfillment of our abilities. Critics might point out the sheer dreariness of this process, and that perfection is unattainable. An eudaimonic might retort that hedonistic pleasure is frivolous, hollow, basically a distraction from true happiness, and that pleasure delayed is pleasure increased.

Happiness and the self

The Big Five personality traits.
Image credits Anna Tunikova.

In keeping with the laptop analogy, this would be a programming language. We’re the user, and we want the laptop to produce some happiness. So we take it and tap away like mad trying to get it to do just that. Very few of us are lucky enough to be shown how to code; we each use a different programming language, too, since our personalities are pretty much unique.

So, this is probably the most muddied part of the whole discussion. People are complex, they’re complicated, and they’re constantly changing. Factor in that most of us are very, very bad at understanding and observing ourselves critically, and it becomes almost impossible to talk in absolutes. Like those days when you’re on edge for no reason or those times when you’re hungry but don’t like anything on the menu, what people want often is a mystery. Even to themselves.

But from what we’ve seen so far, we’re happy when our internal chemistry is just right. Fulfilling external expectations also tends to make us happy. A pint of ice-cream or a college degree both hold the promise of bliss and satisfaction. So far, at least, we have some rough guidelines as to what constitutes happiness.

Our self — in the sense of and all those details that make each of us, us, our individual consciousness, personality, world-view, socioeconomic standing — is the secret spice in the pursuit of happiness. Two people may enjoy the same ice-cream equally but draw different levels of happiness from it. Two people may draw the same sense of happiness from the same ice-cream while enjoying it to different extents.

Statistically speaking, certain personality traits seem to go hand-in-hand with happiness. One study (Steel, Schmidt, Schultz, 2008) found that the Big Five personality traits can account for anywhere between 39% to 63% of the variation in well-being and happiness among people. At the same time, a paper by Sun, Kaufman, Smillie in 2016 reported that breaking down each of the Big Five into two separate “aspects”, for example slicing “extraversion” into “assertiveness” and “enthusiasm”, allows for even better prediction of happiness levels when using just one aspect in each pair. In other words, while participants higher on extraversion in both groups reported higher levels of life satisfaction, in the second study only those who scored higher on enthusiasm did the same (higher life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and better relationships). Those high in assertiveness didn’t report significantly different levels of satisfaction than the mean.

Merdin-Uygur et al., 2018, further weighs in with the relationship between self-concept clarity (SCC) and happiness. SCC denotes the “extent to which beliefs about the self are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and stable over time” and in very broad lines it fits what we call being ‘self-confident’.

“High-SCC individuals anticipate and experience more happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with friends and anticipate and experience less happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with strangers and this is because of perceived interpersonal distance,” the paper reads.

“Self-concept clarity is positively related to enactment of meaningful identity choices, whereas it is negatively related to identity crises driven by reconsidering and discarding current commitments,” explain Elisabetta Crocetti and Marloes P.A. Van Dijk in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence. “Self-concept clarity is intertwined with healthy identity development.”

I’ve presented these three together without commenting because I think they help provide context to each other and for the wider discussion we’re having. Which brings us to:

Happiness and myself

Up to now, I’ve written to you as professional-me, the science journalist; now I’d want to join the discussion as just me (so don’t quote me from here on out).

In his 1956 book Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer proposed that music can instill an emotional response in humans by toying with our expectations. His view is a further development of the belief-desire-intention model, which holds that emotions arise from our desires (and a desire can lead to an expectation). Under this model, negative emotions are the result of the inability to satisfy some desire; positive emotions are produced by us successfully getting what we want. Happiness, if you follow that logic, means getting what you want.

If happiness hinges on getting what you want, then it would obviously be the case that personality traits which help you achieve your goals would lead to happiness. But we didn’t see greater life satisfaction (which is a rough indicator for happiness) with the assertive (i.e. the achievers’) group: we saw it in the enthusiasts’ group. In the same study, high compassion was a strong indicator for positive relationships, industriousness tied in with accomplishment, and intellect with personal growth.

Does that invalidate the whole line of thought? I don’t think so; I think it’s simply a matter of how you attack the issue. Statistics look at trends and produce broad truths. Happiness involves individuals and is deeply subjective.

I agree with the premise that certain personality traits are indicative of greater life satisfaction. In broad lines, I even agree with the idea that those personality traits are statistically more conducive to happiness. But for the whole picture, you have to consider the ‘type’ of happiness an individual wants and how well they’re able to derive it from the traits they possess. An absolute hedonist will probably get little happiness from good grades (being industrious in school) because that’s not what makes them tick — but they’ll likely be very happy cooking a 10-course meal (being industrious in the kitchen) and then eating to their heart’s content.

The first step towards being happy is sitting down and deciding what that looks like for you — this gives you the ‘what you want’ part in ‘getting what you want’. Then you do your best to get there. Don’t worry if you don’t have the best tools at your disposal, as personality can be and is shaped by behavior. Culture will try to sway you, and you decide to what extent you let it. Biology is harder to resist, but there are researchers working on that.

In my eyes, happiness is that state you’re in when everything is just right. There are no predators around, dinner is taken care of, the kids aren’t doing anything too stupid, and nobody caught the coronavirus. That’s it. No dreams of being CEO. It sounds simple on paper, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of me to get there, so I’ll get some eudaimonic happiness. And I definitely plan on enjoying some hedonistic happiness on my way, too.

Central Park.

Urban parks make people ‘as happy as Christmas’ — at least on Twitter

A quick walk in the park may just be the emotional pick-me-up you need.

Image credits Maleah Land.

The first study of its kind shows that those who visited an urban park use happier language and express less negativity on Twitter than before the visit. This boost in mood, the paper further reports, can last for up to four hours afterward.

Christmas come early

“We found that, yes, across all the tweets, people are happier in parks,” says Aaron Schwartz, a University of Vermont (UVM) graduate student who led the new research, “but the effect was stronger in large regional parks with extensive tree cover and vegetation.”

The effect is definitely strong — the team found that the increase in happiness people derived from visiting an area of urban nature was equivalent to the mood spikes seen on Christmas day (which they explain is by far the happiest day of the year on Twitter). Given that more and more of us live and work in the city — and given the growing rate of mood disorders we experience — the findings can help inform public health and urban planning strategies.

For the study, the team spent three months analyzing hundreds of tweets daily that were posted from 160 parks in San Francisco. Visitors showed the effects of elevated mood in their posts after visiting any one of these urban nature areas. Smaller neighborhood parks showed a more modest spike in positive mood, while mostly-paved civic plazas and squares showed the least mood elevation.

This suggests that it wasn’t merely going out of work, or being outside, that caused the boost in mood. The team says areas with more vegetation had the most pronounced impact, noting that one of the words that shows the biggest uptick in use in tweets from parks is “flowers.”

“In cities, big green spaces are very important for people’s sense of well-being,” says Schwartz.

“We’re seeing more and more evidence that it’s central to promoting mental health,” says Taylor Ricketts, a co-author on the new study and director of the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM.

The study’s findings are important as they quantify the benefits of natural areas beyond immediate monetary gains (i.e. “how many dollars of flood damage did we avoid by restoring a wetland?”) and look at its direct effects on public health.

Image via Pixabay.

The team used an online instrument called a hedonometer — invented by a team of scientists at UVM and The MITRE Corporation — to gather and analyze the tweets. The instrument uses a body of about 10,000 common words that have been scored by a large pool of volunteers for what the scientists call their “psychological valence,” a kind of measure of each word’s emotional temperature.

The volunteers ranked words they perceived as the happiest near the top of a 1-9 scale, with sad words near the bottom. Each word’s final score was calculated by averaging the volunteers’ responses. “Happy”, for example, ranked 8.30, “hahaha” 7.94, and “parks” 7.14. Neutral words like “and” and “the” scored 5.22 and 4.98. At the bottom were “trapped” 3.08, “crash” 2.60, and “jail” 1.76.

Using these scores, the team combed through the tweets of 4,688 users who publicly identify their location and were geotagged with latitude and longitude in the city of San Francisco (so they could pinpoint exactly which park they were tweeting from).

“Then, working with the U.S. Forest Service, we developed some new techniques for mapping vegetation of urban areas–at a very detailed resolution, about a thousand times more detailed than existing methods,” says study co-author Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, director of UVM’s Spatial Analysis Laboratory in the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a co-author on the new study.

“That’s what really enabled us to get an accurate understanding of how the greenness and vegetation of these urban areas relates to people’s sentiment there.”

Overall, the tweets posted from urban parks in San Francisco were 0.23 points happier on the hedonometer scale over the baseline. The increase is “equivalent to that of Christmas Day for Twitter as a whole in the same year,” the scientists write.

Exactly why parks have this effect on people isn’t fully understood — and wasn’t the object of the present study. Regardless of how it happens, the results suggest that people tend to be happier in nature. That’s a finding “that may help public health officials and governments make plans and investments,” says UVM’s Aaron Schwartz.

The paper “Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter” has been published in the journal People and Nature.

Be kind.

Want to improve your mood quickly? Look at people around you and, genuinely, wish them well

New research from Iowa State University says that the secret to happiness is simple: wish others well.

Be kind.

Image via Pixabay.

We all have bad days, or just bad times. Each of us also has his or her own way to cope with such times and get a shot of feel-good chemicals. However, new research says that we shouldn’t focus on something we can eat, drink, or do to make ourselves feel better — instead, we should focus on wishing others well.

The best gift is giving

“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology.

“It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

Together with co-authors Dawn Sweet, senior lecturer in psychology; and Lanmiao He, a graduate student in psychology, Gentile put three techniques intended to reduce anxiety and increase happiness or well-being to the test. The team worked with a group of college students at Iowa State, who they asked to walk around a building for 12 minutes while practicing one of the following strategies:

  • Loving-kindness: Looking at the people they see and thinking to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy.” Students were encouraged to really mean it as they were thinking it.
  • Interconnectedness: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they are connected to each other. It was suggested that students think about the hopes and feelings they may share or that they might take a similar class.
  • Downward social comparison: Looking at the people they see and thinking about how they may be better off than each of the people they encountered.

The researchers also set aside a number of students who acted as a control group. They were asked to do the same activity as the other three groups, but the activity they were asked to perform consisted of looking at other people and focusing on what they saw on the outside — clothing, the combination of colors, textures, makeup, accessories, that sort of thing.

All students were surveyed before and after the walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy, and connectedness. Each technique was then compared against the control group to gauge how effective it was in reducing anxiety and promoting well-being.

The interconnectedness group reported feeling more empathetic and socially connected to those around them, the team reports. Those in the downward social comparison group didn’t see any improvement in mood or happiness (this group had the worst results among all groups). Those who practiced loving-kindness or wished others well saw an increase in happiness, felt more connected, caring, and empathetic, as well as less anxious — by far the most successful group in the study.

These results go against the grain of previous research which found that downward social comparison can act as a buffer against feelings of personal inadequacy by boosting positive feelings. Students who compared themselves to others in the present study felt less empathetic, caring, and connected than students who extended well wishes to others, which takes a toll on our wellbeing, the team explains.

“At its core, downward social comparison is a competitive strategy,” Sweet said. “That’s not to say it can’t have some benefit, but competitive mindsets have been linked to stress, anxiety, and depression.”

The team also investigated whether different personality archetypes reacted differently to this technique. They expected to see naturally-mindful people reaping the biggest rewards from the loving-kindness strategy, or that some narcissistic personalities would have trouble genuinely wishing others well. They didn’t.

“This simple practice is valuable regardless of your personality type,” Lanmiao He said. “Extending loving-kindness to others worked equally well to reduce anxiety, increase happiness, empathy and feelings of social connection.”

The team says we can all benefit from these findings, especially in a social-media dominated world. It’s easy to start comparing yourself to others in such an environment, they explain. Drawing comparisons isn’t a bad thing in itself, Gentle explains, adding that “as children we learn by watching others and comparing their results to ours.” But in terms of how much it fosters happiness, comparisons can’t hold a candle to loving-kindness.

“It is almost impossible not to make comparisons on social media,” Gentile said. “Our study didn’t test this, but we often feel envy, jealousy, anger or disappointment in response to what we see on social media, and those emotions disrupt our sense of well-being.”

The paper “Caring for Others Cares for the Self: An Experimental Test of Brief Downward Social Comparison, Loving-Kindness, and Interconnectedness Contemplations” has been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies

Statue of Liberty.

Immigrants to the US are happier later in life than natives — despite generally being worse off financially

Immigrants to the US tend, on average, to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction later in life than native-born Americans, new research reveals.

Statue of Liberty.

Image credits Rick Zern.

A research group from the Florida State University (FSU) reports that those who immigrated into the American Dream are happier and more satisfied later in life, on average, than those born in the land of the free. However, this effect was not consistent across different ethnic groups — black immigrants, in particular, showed no difference in happiness and life satisfaction compared to their native counterparts.

Happier, but not better off

“We discovered that people who are foreign-born and living in the United States do have higher levels of life satisfaction,” says FSU Assistant Professor of Sociology Dawn Carr.

“We examined life satisfaction because it is a useful global measure for understanding how people are doing on the whole with regard to how they feel about their life. It’s a good way of capturing their overall well-being.”

For the study, the team used data from 7,348 participants aged 60 and older, who had lived an average of roughly 30 years in the United States. The data was taken from the 2012/2014 waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

All in all, Hispanic immigrants had the highest overall levels of life satisfaction compared to any other racial group, the team reports. This finding meshed well with previous research of its kind, which found something researchers call the “Hispanic Paradox.” It would be an awesome superhero name, but it’s actually the observation that older Hispanic immigrants in the United States tend to have better health outcomes than non-Hispanic whites — despite more limited socioeconomic resources.

The increased happiness and life satisfaction didn’t apply only to Hispanic immigrants — it was roughly consistent across ethnic groups. Foreign-born blacks were the only group that did not report the same increases in overall life satisfaction as compared to other races.

“The older adult immigrants in our sample adjusted to life in the United States, and they’re thriving more than their native-born counterparts. They seem to have developed a life that provides a good old age,” says Carr.

“It was very discouraging to see this outcome for the black sample. Blacks in general have lower levels of life satisfaction than everybody else and foreign-born blacks do not experience any better outcomes.”

As to why Hispanic immigrants do so well, the team believes it comes down to cultural factors that “are quite beneficial in terms of maintaining well-being.” Previous studies into the paradox have found support for this idea that culture plays a role in their greater life satisfaction, but no specific mechanisms that could explain it were pinpointed. Carr says one possibility is that spirituality or the robust sense of community these people report may play a part.

The team also looked at how education levels correlated to people’s overall life satisfaction. For whites, it’s a pretty linear relationship — more education, higher life satisfaction. But for both native and foreign-born blacks, more education actually decreased life satisfaction. Higher levels of education were also associated with lower life satisfaction for native-born Hispanics.

“That was a puzzling discovery,” Carr said. “This means that education does not seem to enhance the lives of minorities like we might expect.”

“We do not know the reasons for these trends, but we might guess that factors like discrimination are involved, detracting from their overall happiness. For instance, someone who has a college degree, who is in a job with similarly educated individuals who are not minority, might be more overtly aware of the discrimination they’re experiencing.”

Further research is needed to determine exactly what causes these differences in happiness levels later in life among different groups of people, Carr admits. Until then, maybe native-born Americans should learn how to view their country through the eyes of those who immigrated from abroad. If nothing else, maybe it will make them enjoy life just that little bit more. Who can say that’s not a goal worth pursuing, eh?

The paper “Expanding the Happiness Paradox: Ethnoracial Disparities in Life Satisfaction Among Older Immigrants in the United States” has been published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

Faces balloons.

Researchers map how our sensitivity to emotions change over time

We tend to become more emotionally-resilient as we age, a new study suggests.

Faces balloons.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

Adults tend to have an overall more positive attitude than adolescents, and it may be because they’re less able to pick up on negative emotions, a new paper reports.

Why the long face?

“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” says first author Lauren Rutter from the McLean Hospital, Massachusetts. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”

The team developed a digital test (using the web platform TestMyBrain.org) to gauge the levels of emotion sensitivity across age and socioeconomic groups. Nearly 10,000 participants aged 10 to 85 completed their survey. The test was designed to measure how easily each person picked up on subtle differences in facial cues for fear, anger, and happiness — and, given the wide and diverse sample group, how this sensitivity fluctuates over time.

Each participant was shown images of different faces, presented in pairs, and was asked to compare and contrast the levels of anger, happiness, and fear they conveyed — through questions such as “Which face is more angry?”, etc. The online platform helped the researchers tap into a “much larger and more diverse sample set” than previous studies, Rutter says, and the novel testing method helped improve the accuracy of the results for decoding facial cues.

All in all, the study revealed that sensitivity to facial cues for anger and fear decreases as people age — but the sensitivity to happiness holds firm. The team says that these findings mirror previous studies and anecdotal evidence that point to declines in the ability of people to decode emotional cues, but that the results pertaining to happiness are novel.

 “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook,” Rutter adds.

“It’s well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general, but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness,” co-author Laura Germine adds. “This is even though the study was designed to be sensitive to differences in happiness sensitivity with age, based on principles from psychometrics and signal detection theory.

The team plans to expand on their findings by examining how emotional sensitivity fluctuates in relation to differences in mental health, such as anxiety disorders. They also want to investigate how sensitivity to anger and happiness cues might be related to the development of poorer mental health after trauma.

The paper “Emotion sensitivity across the lifespan: Mapping clinical risk periods to sensitivity to facial emotion intensity” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Miniature golf.

Setting attainable goals makes us happier, even if we fail

We’re happier with our lives when we see our goal as attainable, a new study from the University of Basel reports.

Miniature golf.

Image via Pixabay.

Each and every one of us has a set of goals that we’re striving towards. Be they professional, personal, social, or other types of goals, we work to reach them through the humdrum of daily life. But the wise should set goals they feel are achievable, a new study shows, as our perception of the goals has a large impact on our life satisfaction later on — whether we achieve said goals or not.

Happiness-oriented goals

The team examined how life goals affect people’s happiness and well-being throughout adulthood. They worked with 973 participants, between the ages of 18 and 92 years old, living in German-speaking parts of Switzerland. Participants were asked to assess the importance and perceived attainability of life goals in ten areas — health, community, personal growth, social relationships, fame, image, wealth, family, responsibility/care for younger generations, and work — using a four-point scale. Half of the participants were surveyed again after two and four years.

One of the key findings of the study is that people who perceive their goals as being attainable overall reported higher cognitive and affective (mental and emotional) well-being in the follow-up surveys. The team notes that actual attainment of the goals wasn’t particularly relevant — it mattered a bit, sure, but how attainable people felt these goals were had the most powerful effect. The authors take this as an indication that it’s the feeling of control over one’s life — which derives from how attainable they feel goals are — that generates these positive feelings.

The link between life goals and subsequent well-being appeared to be largely independent of the participants’ ages.

What flavor of goals we like to set for ourselves has a further impact on quality of life. For example, people whose goals mainly revolved around social relations or health were more satisfied with their social life or health state, respectively.

Our wants, needs, and aspirations also morph over time, so the team also looked into how age impacts the choice of goals. It mainly comes down to the tasks we have to overcome at the particular stage of life we find ourselves in, they report. Younger participants, for example, rated personal growth, social status, social relationships, and professional advancement as important. Older participants rated social engagement and health as being more important. This change in priorities wasn’t sudden — we don’t drop personal growth in favor of health the second we turn 40, for example. It happened gradually. The younger a participant was, the more likely he was to rate those four higher on their priority list; the older the participant, the higher they rated social engagement and health.

“Many of our results confirmed theoretical assumptions from developmental psychology,” says lead author and PhD student Janina Bühler from the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology. One such assumption is that goals are heavily influenced by age.

“If we examine, however, whether these goals contribute to well-being, age appears less relevant.”

So, all in all, it’s important to find which goals work for you — they’re expressions of our characters, and, as such, take on unique nuances for each of us. But always try to keep them attainable, or break down lofty goals into a series of easily-manageable chunks. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll probably be happier later on.

The paper “A Closer Look at Life Goals Across Adulthood: Applying a Developmental Perspective to Content, Dynamics, and Outcomes of Goal Importance and Goal Attainability” has been published in the European Journal of Personality.

Air mask statue.

New research shows air pollution sours our mood and makes us unhappy

Air pollution may take a more personal toll on us than we’d suspected: happiness.

Air mask statue.

Image via Pixabay.

China is notorious for the heavy pollution affecting its cities. It’s a product of the massive uptick in industrialization, coal use, and the number of cars China has seen in the last few decades. While definitely good from an economic point of view — the country can boast an annual economic growth rate of 8% — air pollution has become a major public concern in China, with significant effects on the quality of life in its urban areas.

This pollution may have a much more direct effect on the country’s urbanites than previously believed, according to a paper lead-authored by, Siqi Zheng, associate professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship Faculty Director at MIT Future City Lab. The study found a strong inverse correlation between air pollution levels and locals’ happiness.

Bad air

“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”

“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities.”

Air pollution is a major concern around the world, especially in developing or developed countries. Just last year, the State of Global Air/2018 report — published by the non-profit Health Effects Institute — estimated that roughly 95% of the world’s population lives in areas with unsafe levels of outdoor air pollution (10 µg pollutants/square meter of air, as per the World Health Organization’s guidelines). Around 60% live in areas where air pollution exceeds even the WHO’s least-stringent air quality target of 35 µg/m3.

PM 2.5 levels across the world.
Image credits Health Effects Institute / State of Global Air/2018.

Roughly one-third of the world, the report adds, also has to contend with unsafe levels of indoor air pollution. The main culprits were the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants, and factories (outdoor pollution) or for heating and cooking (indoor), respectively.

The problem is definitely global, but China does stand out in regards to bad air. The clouds of Chinese smog have made headlines again and again over the last few years, due to their striking appearance and cost in human lives. Combined with Prof. Zheng’s background — environmental economics, urban development, and real estate market, with a special focus on China — this made the country a perfect place to study the effect of air pollution on our emotional well-being.

The team used real-time data drawn from social media microblogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter) to track the happiness levels in 144 Chinese cities. Roughly 210 million geotagged tweets posted between March and November of 2014 were processed using a machine-algorithm the team developed to measure which emotions each post conveyed. The team explains that they opted for this method of measuring people’s happiness levels instead of using questionnaires (the more usual approach) because questionnaires tend to reflect individuals’ overall feelings of well-being; what they wanted was snapshots of the happiness people felt on particular days.

This data was pooled to generate a median value per day for each city (which the team calls the “expressed happiness index”, or EHI) ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood and 100 a very positive one.

Bad mood

Deaths SoGA report.

Air pollution (highlighted in yellow) definitely has a health cost, but it also seems to have a happiness cost, according to Prof. Zheng’s team.
Image credits Health Effects Institute / State of Global Air/2018.

“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.

Zheng’s team also looked at daily readings of ultrafine particulate matter — or PM 2.5 — concentrations in urban areas recorded by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary pollutant in China’s cities in recent years, the authors note, with PM 2.5 particles being particularly hazardous to lung health.

Finally, the team put the two datasets together. They found a very solid negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. As a whole, women seemed to be more sensitive to the effects of pollution than men, as were individuals with higher incomes. Interestingly, both people in the most polluted and cleanest of China’s cities were most affected by air pollution, the team writes. Their hypothesis is that people who are particularly concerned about air quality and their own health tend to move to cleaner cities — making the EHI of these urban centers particularly sensitive to pollution levels — while those in very dirty cities are more aware of the damage to their health from long-term exposure to pollutants.

Past research has shown that people are more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret on days with heavy pollution, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng. Air pollution also has a well-documented negative effect on health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes, she adds.

Together with their own findings, Zheng believes such data showcases how important it is for politicians to respond to public demand for cleaner air and take measures to curb air pollution. People may move to cleaner cities, buildings, or green areas, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors, to avoid the effects of air pollution. Prof. Zheng plans to continue researching the impact of pollution on people’s behavior in the future.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has more details on types of air pollution and preventive measures here. There’s a growing body of evidence that houseplants help improve indoor quality by scrubbing various pollutants like allergy-irritating dust and volatile organic compounds.

The paper “Air pollution lowers Chinese urbanites” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.


Happiness exercises could help those recovering from substance abuse

Short, text-based infusions of happiness could help with recovery from substance abuse, a new study reports.


Image via Pixabay.

Brief, text-based, self-administered…it doesn’t sound like a very good fix for substance addiction. But a new study from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Recovery Research Institute says such exercises can help adults recovering from substance use disorders by significantly increasing their in-the-moment happiness.

The study is the first of its kind to test whether positive psychology exercises boost happiness in persons recovering from substance use.

Write it out

“Addiction scientists are increasingly moving beyond the traditional focus on reducing or eliminating substance use by advocating treatment protocols that encompass quality of life,” says lead author Bettina B. Hoeppner, PhD, senior research scientist at the Recovery Research Institute.

“Yet orchestrated positive experiences are rarely incorporated into treatment for those with substance use disorders.”

Using a randomized online survey, the team assigned 500 adults — who had reported current or previous problematic substance abuse —  one of five short, text-based exercises. These took on average four minutes to complete. The exercises were meant to give each participant an injection of happiness and see how it would help them cope.

Participants reported the greatest gains in happiness after completing an exercise called “Reliving Happy Moments,” in which they selected one of their own photos that captured a happy moment and entered text describing what was happening in the picture. Another exercise called “Savoring”, in which participants described two positive experiences they noticed and appreciated during the preceding day was the close second, followed by “Rose, Thorn, Bud,” in which they listed a highlight and a challenge of the preceding day and something pleasurable they anticipated the following day.

One of the exercises, “3 Hard Things” — in which participants were asked to write about challenges they had faced during the preceding day — led to a significant decrease in happiness.

The authors explain that feelings of happiness are a key component of lasting, long-term recovery.

They write that they recommend these positive psychology exercises for substance abuse therapy due to their ease of use and their effectiveness in this study.

“These findings underscore the importance of offsetting the challenges of recovery with positive experiences,” says Hoeppner, an associate professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“Recovery is hard, and for the effort to be sustainable, positive experiences need to be attainable along the way.”

The paper “Do self-administered positive psychology exercises work in persons in recovery from problematic substance use? An online randomized survey” has been published online in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

Americans are happier in states that spend more on public goods like libraries and parks

Even when correcting for income, education, race, and gender, people in states with higher public investment were still happier.

New York Public Library. Image in public domain.

It makes a lot of sense if you think about it: if things like parks or libraries aren’t funded by the state, there’s a very good chance that no one else will fund them — and these are services which can make a massive positive difference for a local community.

“Public goods are things you can’t exclude people from using — and one person using them doesn’t stop another from doing so,” said researcher Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. “They’re typically not profitable to produce in the private market, so if the government doesn’t provide them, they will either be under-provided or not at all.”

The idea that increasing public goods works to raise the standard of living seems very reasonable, particularly in a country like the US, which has a relatively low public spending percentage. What the new paper shows is that, in states which invest more in public goods, people enjoy not only increased livelihood but also increased happiness. Even when corrected for all other important factors like marital status and overall health, the correlation is still strong.

Flavin analyzed data from the 1976-2006 General Social Survey, a representative sample for Americans, gathered and monitored at the University of Chicago. He also analyzed detailed government spending data for states from the U.S. Census Bureau for 1976-2006. Overall, funding from state public goods averaged 22% of the total state revenue over the studied period.

These findings suggest that public goods spending can have important implications for the well-being of Americans and, more broadly, can give valuable suggestions to policymakers — particularly since this doesn’t seem to be a partisan political issue.

“Compared to a lot of the other government spending, public goods tend to be less controversial between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, compared to poverty assistance or unemployment benefits, where there is definite disagreement between political parties,” Flavin said. “I think there is less political conflict over public goods spending simply because if they government doesn’t provide them, they won’t be provided at all.”

However, it should be said that this study only established a correlation between public spending and community happiness — not causation. It could be that happier citizens self-select by moving to states that spend comparatively more on public goods, or that happier citizens tend to vote policymakers that support higher spending on public goods. The cause-effect is unclear, but the association is strong.

A good example is Scandinavian countries, which consistently rank at the top of the happiest countries (Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland were found to be the 4 happiest countries in 2018), and are well known for investing heavily in public goods and services.

The study “State government public goods spending and citizens’ quality of life” was published in Social Science Research.


Giving, not receiving, is the secret to happiness unceasing

‘Tis the season to be jolly, indeed!


Image via Pixabay.

All those gifts you prepared for your loved ones this Christmas likely made you feel really happy, new research reveals. The study, carried out by a duo of US researchers, suggests that giving really makes us happier than getting.

Big red sack’o’goodies

“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new,” says Ed O’Brien, a psychology researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and paper co-author.

“Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it.”

Our brains do this annoying thing called “hedonic adaptation” — basically, we feel less and less happiness for a particular event or activity each time we experience it. That’s why things stop feeling ‘fresh’ after a while, boredom sets in, and we go for the next thrilling thrill. However, giving to others may be exempt from this type of adaptation, the paper reports.

The team, composed of O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management), found that participants who repeatedly gave gifts to others felt consistently happy. Those who repeatedly received the same gifts felt declining levels of happiness, they add.

In the first trial, the team worked with a group of 96 participants, randomly assigned to either of two groups. They would receive $5 every day for 5 days, which they had to spend on the exact same item every time. However, one group was asked to spend the money for themselves, while the other was asked to spend it for someone else (by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity, for example). At the end of each day, participants were asked to reflect on the ‘spending experience’ and how much overall happiness they felt.

Participants started with similar levels of self-reported happiness, the team explains, but the two groups had diverged significantly by the trial’s end. Those who spend the money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness throughout the 5-day period. Those who gave their money to someone else, however, felt no such decline: they got just as much joy out of giving the fifth time as they did the first time.

The team carried out a second trial online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent for everybody. Working with 502 participants, the researchers set up a 10-round word puzzle game. Players won $0.05 per round, which they could either keep or donate to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Here, too, self-reported levels of happiness were more stable for those who donated the winnings instead of keeping it for themselves. One of the explanations the team is considering is that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”

The team writes that when people think in terms of on an outcome (i.e. ‘how much money I made’), they can easily compare with other outcomes — these are quantifiable results. The comparison, however, sours the experience, diminishing an individual’s sensitivity to it. When we focus on the action (such as donating to a charity), however, we’re not as interested in the outcome — because of this, we can focus on the act of giving, treating it as a unique, happiness-inducing event. We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

Still, the results can use some fleshing-out. One particular area of interest for the team is how would the findings hold when dealing with larger amounts of money. They would also be interested to see if giving to friends, rather than strangers, would generate a different experience for the giver. Finally, they would like to expand the research beyond money — prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences, they explain.

“Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time,” O’Brien explains.

The paper “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Old couple.

Humor and acceptance oust conflict and bickering in long-time marriages

Years of marriage puts bickering to rest and fosters humor and acceptance instead, new research reveals.

Old couple.

Image credits Ellen / Pixabay.

You may think all those old couples hang on through the sheer spite they’ve cultivated across decades of marriage, but you’d be very wrong. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that couples in long marriages bicker less, laugh more, and embrace acceptance.

Long-time pair, don’t care

The team worked with 87 middle-aged (and older) couples, who had been married between 15 to 35 years at the date of the study. The participants — mostly in their 70s, 80s, and 90s today — are heterosexual couples from the San Francisco Bay Area. The team started tracking their relationships in 1989 and used videotape recordings of their conversations (taken over the course of 13 years) to analyze the emotional undertone of their conversation. The 15-minute-long snippets of interactions were recorded in a laboratory setting as the spouses discussed shared experiences and areas of conflict. As each couple recorded these on a nearly-early basis so the team could track emotional changes in their interactions over time.

Each spouse’s listening and speaking behavior was coded and rated — this process was based on parameters such as their facial expressions, body language, verbal content and tone of voice. “Coded” essentially means that the team labeled each emotion as an expression of anger, contempt, disgust, domineering behavior, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, whining, interest, affection, humor, enthusiasm, or validation.

As the couples aged, the team reports, they showed more humor and tenderness towards one another. The team also reports an increase in positive behaviors — such as humor and affection — and a decrease in negative ones — such as defensiveness and criticism.

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” said study senior author Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor. “Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health.”

The team also found that wives are generally more emotionally expressive than their husbands and tended toward more domineering behavior and less affection. However, across all the study’s age and gender cohorts, negative behaviors decreased with age. The study is consistent with previous findings at Levenson’s Berkeley Psychophysiology lab, the team adds.

“Given the links between positive emotion and health, these findings underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage,” said co-lead author Alice Verstaen, who conducted the study as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

Researchers further found that both middle-aged and older couples, regardless of their satisfaction with their relationship, experienced increases in overall positive emotional behaviors with age, while experiencing a decrease in overall negative emotional behaviors. I find these results quite uplifting. Instead of the slow erosion of emotion most people expect to see in a long-term marriage, the findings point to things getting better and better instead. in Verstaen’s words,

“These results provide behavioral evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives.”

The paper “Age-related changes in emotional behavior: Evidence from a 13-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples,” has been published in the journal Emotion.


How happy you are may depend on the type of personality


Credit: Pixabay.


Happiness, it’s been said, is the goal of all human endeavour. Why else do we strive to improve medicine, strengthen economies, raise literacy, lower poverty, or fight prejudice? It all boils down to improving human well-being.

Psychologists have conducted hundreds of studies of the correlates of well-being. You might think well-being is determined by your circumstances — such as the size of your social circle or your pay cheque. These factors are important, but it turns out a far stronger role is played by your personality.

Extraversion linked to happiness

All aspects of our personality have links with different aspects of our well-being, but one personality trait that seems particularly important is extraversion. Extraversion describes the degree to which one behaves in a bold, assertive, gregarious, and outgoing way. Several studies have shown people who are more extraverted enjoy higher levels of well-being.

Some years ago, personality psychologists working in this area came across a powerful idea: what if we could harness the happiness of extraverts simply by acting more like they do? A wave of studies investigating this idea seemed to support it.

For example, lab experiments showed when people were instructed to act extraverted during an interactive task, they felt happier. Surprisingly, even introverts enjoyed acting extraverted in these studies.

Researchers have also used mobile devices to track people’s levels of extraverted behaviour and well-being in the real world. This, too, showed people feel happier when acting more extraverted. Again, even people who described themselves as highly introverted felt happiest when acting more like an extravert.

These findings appeared to suggest engaging in extraverted behaviour could be an effective tool for boosting well-being, and potentially form the basis of well-being programs and interventions.

But there were critical limitations to this research. Findings from the lab experiments — based on short, contrived interactions among strangers — might not necessarily apply in the real world. And the field studies that tracked people’s behaviour and well-being in the real world were correlational. This means they could not tell us whether acting extraverted during everyday life caused increases in well-being.

To resolve these uncertainties, we conducted the first randomised controlled trial of extraverted behaviour as a well-being intervention, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

What did we find?

We randomly assigned participants in our study to act extraverted, or to a control condition comprising non-extraverted behaviours, for one week of their lives. An additional control group did not receive any acting instructions. We tracked multiple indicators of well-being throughout the week, and assessed well-being again at the end of the intervention.

On average, people in the “act extraverted” intervention reaped many well-being benefits — but these positive effects also hinged on personality. Specifically, more naturally extraverted people benefited the most, but those who were relatively introverted did not appear to benefit at all, and may have even suffered some well-being costs.

Although our findings are at odds with previous studies on acting extraverted, they support the cautions offered both by psychologists and self-help writers: there are costs to acting out of character.

Our personalities can and do change.

Working with your personality

The fact our well-being critically depends on our personality sounds like bad news. We like to think we are masters of our destiny, and anyone can be whoever and however they want. But what if our destiny is constrained by our personality?

Our personality shapes our lives, but it also changes, and we can potentially affect these changes ourselves. Personal change may not be easy, but we now know personality is not “fixed”.

Also, the findings of our study don’t suggest you need to be extraverted to be happy. Rather, they show one specific well-being intervention is effective for extraverts but less so for introverts. What we now need is more research to help us better understand how well-being interventions can best take personality into account.

This is not a new idea. Similar insights underlie personalised medicine, and marketing researchers know advertising is more effective when tailored to the traits of the consumer. Similarly, researchers in positive psychology have often argued well-being interventions will be more effective if they’re matched to an individual’s personality.

There’s no silver bullet for happiness. If we want to build our well-being, we have to learn how to build it around our personalities.

Luke Smillie, Senior Lecturer in Personality Psychology, University of Melbourne; Jessie Sun, PhD Student, University of California, Davis, and Rowan Jacques-Hamilton, Research Assistant, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Life satisfaction hinges not on what you do — but who you do it with

If it’s happiness you’re after, you’ll need a team.


Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Leipzig, Germany, suggests that well-being strategies involving other people are more satisfying than nonsocial pursuits. So if you want to boost your life satisfaction, get yourself some people to share it with.

Group effort

“Our research showed that people who came up with ‘well-being’ strategies that involved other people were more satisfied with their lives one year later — even after taking into account that they were marginally happier to begin with,” says lead author and psychological scientist Julia Rohrer.

“In contrast, people who came up with strategies that did not explicitly involve others remained, on average, as satisfied as they were.”

The team examined a subset of data recorded during 2014 for the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, which is considered to be a nationally-representative survey of adults in Germany. The participants in this sample reported how satisfied they felt with their lives on a scale from 0 (completely dissatisfied) to 10 (completely satisfied). They also reported how satisfied they thought they’d be in 5-years’ time and described the strategies they could employ to maintain life satisfaction in the future.

One year later, the participants again rated their current level of life satisfaction.

Out of the 1,178 participants in the sample, 596 made a general statement such as “there is not much I could change” or one that didn’t require individual action, such as “a political shift would improve my life.” The rest, 582 participants, reported a specific strategy. There were no substantial differences in the life satisfaction of these two groups over time, the team notes.

The researchers further broke down this last group by the focus of the strategies they described: 184 people mentioned an approach centered around some form of social engagement and interaction — “helping others,” “spend more time with family,” “spend more time with friends”, and so on — while 398 described a nonsocial strategy — such as “stop smoking” or “pick up sports”.

Based on the answers each participant provided in the follow-up poll, the team says that those who engaged in a social strategy showed increased life satisfaction — while those who embarked on nonsocial strategies showed a relatively constant level of life satisfaction. Data reflecting how much time each participant invested in various activities that involved socializing with friends, family, or neighbors helps explain this boost in life satisfaction, the team adds.

Overall, the research suggests that spending more time with others, especially others we care about, could be an important avenue to increased well-being. Rohrer says that she plans to follow-up on the findings with experimental and longitudinal studies over long durations to determine exactly why socially-focused strategies seem to improve satisfaction — while nonsocial ones do not.

“Many people are interested in becoming happier, but there is a lack of evidence regarding the long term effects of pursuing happiness through various types of activities,” she says. “After all, there’s no guarantee that trying to become happier doesn’t make you more miserable in the end.”

“I think our study partly fills that gap in the literature, although more research with a longitudinal perspective is certainly needed.”

The paper “Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.


French scientists looked at what makes dolphins happy — and they’re very much like us

Much like us, dolphinkind draws happiness from the relationships they foster — including those with humans.


“Want to hang out by the pond and chew some pufferfish, finless pink mammal?”
Image credits Claudia Beer.

A team of French researchers tried to gauge what dolphins in captivity look forward to most. The study — which they say is the first of its kind — focused on animals from a marine park near Paris and found that they just can’t get enough playtime with a familiar human.

The study came as part of a three-year project meant to measure dolphin welfare in captivity. It’s the first effort to understand the subject from “the animals’ perspective”, the team writes, and shows they’re surprisingly similar to us: the results show that “better human-animal bonds equals better welfare”.

The team worked with the dolphins at Parc Astérix, a theme park with one of France’s largest dolphinariums. With help from her colleagues at the University of Paris’ Animal Behavior Lab, lead author Dr. Isabella Clegg designed several experiments to see how the dolphins felt about certain situations. These were primarily based on interpreting their body postures, activity levels, and other types of behavior. The end goal, she adds, was to “find out what activities in captivity they like most.”

The experiments included three settings. One was the control, in which the dolphins were left alone to do what they wanted. The second involved adding toys to the pool but leaving the dolphins alone. The third one involved a human trainer who came in and played around with the animals.

“We found a really interesting result – all dolphins look forward most to interacting with a familiar human,” Dr. Clegg told the BBC.

The team explains that the dolphins showed their enthusiasm through actions such as “spy-hopping”, in which they would peer above the surface to look in the direction that trainers usually approached from. They were also more active, swimming around the pool in anticipation, and spent more time around the pool’s edge.

“We’ve seen this same thing in other zoo animals and in farm animals,” said Dr. Clegg, adding: “Better human-animal bonds equals better welfare.”

The findings do raise some interesting points. Relationships seem to be the cornerstone of happiness, overall mental well-being, and health of humans. This similarity may come down to the fact that dolphins are also social animals and quite intelligent ones at that. It may be, then, that we could form similar bonds with other species that espouse such traits — helping us learn more about them in the process.

Still a tough subject

However, the study can’t say if the dolphins are actually happier in captivity than they would be in the wild — it can only tell us that dolphins in captivity really get a kick out of interacting with people.

That final point sticks out like an especially sore thumb. According to the Change for Animals Foundation, there are over 2,300 captive cetaceans in 50 countries around the world. However, there are certainly more out there but not officially registered. The study at hand shows that we can make these animals enjoy themselves in our presence — but that doesn’t clear the murky moral question of their captivity in the first place.

All this considered, it is undeniable that the whales and dolphins brought into aquariums from the wild have been invaluable to our efforts to understand these species. There’s also an economic and public incentive to maintain this situation — people are curious to see these charming species, and aquariums are happy to charge them for it — so it’s not going to change very soon. While not pleased with the situation, Dr. Clegg believes we should strive to make their lives as happy and enjoyable as we possibly can while they’re here.

“I think the question of whether they should be in captivity is really important and we should be asking it at the moment,” she says. “And it has two elements: are the animals in good welfare? And what is their purpose? And we have to look deeper into the animals’ behaviour to understand how they’re feeling.”

“But even if they are in good welfare, we need more research to ensure that their presence is really engaging people with conservation. If they’re just here for our entertainment, that can’t be justified.”

I agree with her on both points.

The full paper “Looking forward to interacting with their caretakers: dolphins’ anticipatory behaviour indicates motivation to participate in specific events” has been published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Piece of cake.

You can’t chase your happiness and have it too — you must let it come to you

Happiness — while it’s something we all want, new research shows that it shouldn’t be something we pursue.

Piece of cake.

For once, these lame-o feely-goody snaps actually have a point.
Image credits Antonio Quagliata.

The actual pursuit of happiness might be what’s keeping you from it, a new paper reports. People who make a conscious effort to attain happiness often feel like they don’t have enough free time during the day, which, paradoxically, ends up making them feel unhappy. The findings are based on four studies which probed into how the pursuit of happiness and the state of happiness influence people’s perception of time.

Time to be happy

Some of the participants in these studies were asked to list things that would make them happier; the others, to try and make themselves feel happy while watching a (rather dull) video about bridge-building. Later, all participants reported on how much free time they felt they had throughout the day.

The two were meant to illustrate the differences between thinking of happiness as something already achieved, or as a goal to be pursued. For example, the first group got to watch something they liked, not a boring old movie about bridges; they also got to look at a list of items showing them that they already have a lot to be happy about. Group two were told they have to work to feel happy, which naturally implies that they’re not right now.

The results were quite interesting. The team reports that an individual’s pursuit of happiness — which the team cheerily refers to as  “unattainable” — can influence their perceived time scarcity; in other words, those running towards happiness end up feeling like they’re only running out of time. This feeling was lessened, however, for participants who considered that they have achieved happiness to some degree.

“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” the researchers explain. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”

They add that this suggests happiness can become a drain on our emotional state, but that it doesn’t have to. If you stop and appreciate the happiness you have achieved — and I think all of us find happiness, large or small, in something — you’ll use your time to appreciate it, rather than endlessly run towards new ‘sources’. The paper also underscores that people have different concepts about what happiness is, and that this will further influence how they perceive time scarcity.

Own less, appreciate more

The researchers also say there’s a more insidious aspect regarding this perceived time scarcity. The worse it gets, the more people start to move away from the things that actually give them happiness, and towards possessions that give the illusion of happiness — forming a vicious cycle.

“Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences,” they explain.

Feeling pressed for time, they add, makes us less likely to help others or to volunteer — and it’s immaterial things like generosity, selflessness, experiences, or simply being part of a community, that make us sustainably happy.

“By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness.”

Still, while the results show that happiness is fleeting when pursued and that it dramatically alters our perception of time, the research doesn’t offer much in the way of why this happens. Considering that our perception of time availability is such a big factor in our day-to-day decisions and quality of life, the team thinks it essential for further research to uncover when, why, and how people budget their time in pursuit of happiness and other goals.

To me, it shows the importance of tempering the need for more, the drive to improve, our natural desire for higher status and a better life, with an appreciation of what we have achieved or have been given, of those we love, of the beauty in things as mundane as a wisp of wind. Happiness, then, won’t lie beyond the next hill — it will be right here with us, making the climb easier.

The paper “Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness” has been published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Put your phone away if you want to enjoy your night out, study suggests

Smartphones and dinners don’t mix, researchers say.

Dining table.

Image credits Helena Lopes.

Hello, girlfriends past. I know we have debated this during the times we enjoyed together. I also know that we decided, alas, that I found myself on the wrong side of the Snapchat barricade at the time. Yet I come bearing dire news: pulling out a smartphone at dinner might help you stay connected (or depressed), but according to new research from the University of British Columbia, it will make your face-to-face interactions less enjoyable.


“As useful as smartphones can be, our findings confirm what many of us likely already suspected,” said Ryan Dwyer, the study’s lead author and PhD student in the department of psychology. “When we use our phones while we are spending time with people we care about — apart from offending them — we enjoy the experience less than we would if we put our devices away.”

For the study, the team asked some 300 people to go to dinner with friends or family at a restaurant, with a caveat: some participants were randomly assigned to use their devices while out, others to stow their devices away. Afterwards, the team asked them several questions, including how much they enjoyed their time. The questions were designed in such a way as to hide the study’s focus on smartphones.

Online, but disconnected

The participants’ answers suggest that when phones were present, they felt more distracted, which reduced their enjoyment of the dinner by about half a point on a seven-point scale. They also reported feeling slightly more bored during the meal when the devices were present — a find which the researchers call surprising.


“We had predicted that people would be less bored when they had access to their smartphones, because they could entertain themselves if there was a lull in the conversation,” said Dwyer.

Next, the team wanted to see if the results hold true in other settings — so they expanded their study to day-to-day life. For this second step, they recruited more than 100 participants and sent a survey to their smartphones five times a day for a whole week. The questionnaire asked about their mood and what activities they’ve engaged during the past 15 minutes.

The team says the same pattern emerged: participants reported enjoying their in-person social interactions less if they had been using their phones. Elizabeth Dunn, the senior author of the study and professor in the department of psychology, said the findings expand on the ongoing debate around the effects of smartphones on public health.

“An important finding of happiness research is that face-to-face interactions are incredibly important for our day-to-day wellbeing. This study tells us that, if you really need your phone, it’s not going to kill you to use it,” she said, adding:

“But there is a real and detectable benefit from putting your phone away when you’re spending time with friends and family.”

I know that disconnecting isn’t only daunting in this day and age, it’s rapidly becoming impossible. But I also feel that we should all take that half hour a day to enjoy those close to us, in the flesh, without a bunch of pixels mediating our interaction — it’s those times that we’ll remember later on, not the thumbs up we sent in the group chat. Social media will still be there to shower you in emojis when you return.

The paper “Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.