Introductory essay

From the curator of Understanding Happiness, a brief look at the key facts, the tough questions and the big ideas in his field. Begin this TED Studies subject with a fascinating read that gives context and clarity to the material.

An introduction to happiness

A few years ago I stumbled upon a question I found both shocking and exhilarating: Suppose our natural instincts about what we needed to make us happy were dead wrong? That was what the latest scientific research on happiness seemed to suggest: that most of the things we spent our time striving for made almost zero difference to how happy we were.

With these words, Chris Anderson opened TED’s 2004 conference, "The Pursuit of Happiness," aimed at exploring how our understanding of happiness shapes our individual and collective well-being. TED speakers since that time have continued this quest, probing how happiness plays out in personal relationships, business management, economics, international relations and other arenas.

The reason for this sustained attention to human happiness? Says Anderson, "The exhilarating part was this...maybe, just maybe, we could discover a deeper, longer-lasting, more profound form of happiness. Maybe we could even do this before we ended up mangling our personal relationships and destroying our planet."

We're currently working through a period with a real sense of change. Priorities are being reviewed in light of the global financial and environmental challenges and there is a growing demand for a 'new economic paradigm' with a focus on well-being and sustainability. Endless growth as the measure of our success appears increasingly inadequate, not to mention unrealistic given the available resources. Instead there's a desire to focus on leading enriched, fulfilled lives. At the same time we also need to dispel the myth that happiness and high performance are mutually exclusive.

Interest in happiness at a personal level is ever present, but now we're seeing it on a national and international level too. Countries including, for example, the UK, France and Costa Rica have been taking steps to understand the well-being of their nations in order to inform policy. Bhutan began exploring this area back in the 1970s. On the international scale happiness and well-being is now high on the UN agenda, as the Secretary General said at a recent event "We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness." This operates in line with a growing recognition that GDP is not sufficient for measuring success and progress.

Although momentum around this has certainly been gathering more recently, the idea is obviously not a new one, as evidenced by Senator Robert Kennedy's sentiment in 1968:

Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and...the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play…the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

What we mean by happiness (and well-being)

Even as happiness works its way up the list of goals, defining the term is still not always easy. Happiness is obviously individual and subjective, which can cloud understanding of how to measure and to increase it. To really get to grips with the topic we need to recognize that happy does not only mean smiley; and contrary to the belief of most children (and probably too many adults), getting everything you want is not the key to true happiness! This is illustrated well by the distinction between hedonic and eudemonic happiness. The former relates to pleasurable experiences, but these alone are not enough — even paradise would become boring after a while! Eudemonic happiness comes from achieving something that we feel is worthwhile, and requires a sense of purpose and drive. Happiness can be also be defined or influenced by a number of life factors — relationships, money, work, health; altruism is also closely linked to 'real' happiness.

Happiness can perhaps be more usefully considered using the term well-being. Although less recognizable than happiness, well-being is often preferable in discussions of collective happiness as it is more objective and can therefore be more readily measured and inform policies for improvement. It is also worth noting the meaning of familiar words such as mood, emotion and personality need to be understood in their more technical definitions.

Brief history of happiness science

Traditionally psychology was preoccupied with curing our ills. More recently, as TED speaker Martin Seligman tells us, much progress has been made towards this goal (although the impact of the rise in medication comes with its own warnings). More recently, the focus has broadened to include making improvements even when there are no problems — the opposite of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it!'. The concept is known as positive psychological well-being, and as a field it is increasing our understanding of how we can generate happiness. The following quotation gives an insight into the earlier perception of happiness:

An important and incontrovertible phenomenon in the psychological study of happiness is known as adaptation: the joy or sadness resulting from a good or bad event tends to fade after a long time. Two early psychologists studying happiness, Brickman and Campbell (1971), posited something stronger: that adaptation is complete and unavoidable. Hence, nothing can have a permanent effect on one's happiness, and trying to make oneself happier is hopeless. With appropriate pessimism, the authors described this idea as follows: 'The nature of [adaptation] condemns men to live on a hedonic treadmill, to seek new levels of stimulation merely to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure, to never achieve any kind of permanent happiness or satisfaction.' (Brickman and Campbell, 1971, p289). Since that article, the term 'hedonic treadmill' has come to stand for the hypothesis that trying to improve one’s happiness is futile, and that happiness is instead determined entirely by a combination of genes and random effects.
Byrnes, 2005

We now have a much better understanding of where our individual happiness comes from, and most importantly that these factors can be influenced. In her TEDTalk, Nancy Etcoff notes that 50% is genetic and personality based — and therefore relatively difficult to change. But 40% comes from our activities and relationships and the final 10% from income and environment, meaning there is in fact considerable scope to improve how happy we are.

We also understand that happiness is not, as was once thought, a spectrum. Less misery does not necessarily mean more happiness. This realization is actually quite instinctive but until relatively recently has been ignored by those exploring happiness science but has a fundamental impact on how we approach the issue.

It's important to note the scientific nature of the study of psychological well-being, which includes understanding of the structure of the brain, the chemical reactions involved and how various systems are interconnected. Happiness at this level really has become a science, with assertions made based on evidence from sound methodologies. This is not to say there isn't still some way to go, but this should no longer be perceived as a 'soft' subject. Unfortunately, positive psychology is often mistaken for positive thinking movement, which lacks scientific evidence for its claims but is a more familiar concept for many. Hopefully as scientific progress continues to be made and broadly understood, this trend will reverse.

Crucially, the knowledge and evidence we have been acquiring means we are now equipped to take positive action. We can, in effect, create happiness by arming others with this knowledge and with the skills required to live enriching lives, in an environment that supports them to do so.

Increasing happiness

So can we actually 'grow' happiness? Well, the jury has been out on this, but yes, it's now generally accepted that steps can be taken to increase individual and collective happiness; several of the TEDTalks included in this course identify research-based strategies for doing so. Also, it's worth noting that for all this talk of GDP not being a satisfactory measure, we're not suggesting that economics and personal finances will not affect our happiness. If nothing else they will influence the 'situational' 10% that is mentioned above. Individuals do seem to get 'happier' as money increases, but not indefinitely. After a certain point it stops having an impact. Beyond the point where needs are satisfied, it seems that happiness and materialistic society are increasingly incompatible, as the pursuit of money and material goods can come at the expense of the more fundamental pleasures in life that bring us happiness.

There are some more pessimistic theories about our ability to develop happiness. Psychotherapist Robert Rowland Smith argues that "the pursuit of happiness is a form of wanting, just like anything else. So the problem with wanting happiness is as much the wanting as the happiness. Deep inside us, wanting creates a hole, a lack, a lacuna. Wanting happiness equals wanting for happiness, and feeling empty." In addition 'set point' theory suggests that we revert back to a particular level of happiness after being influenced by a positive or negative effect. This is used to explain why lottery winners and those who have suffered serious illness can appear equally 'happy' a certain amount of time after either has occurred. But it's also been suggested that over time, this set point can be fundamentally shifted. The endless treadmill can be unraveled! And of course, even if our 'end point' is a relatively fixed level of happiness, that doesn't diminish the significance of fluctuations that occur on the journey.

Measuring happiness

In order to know if we're increasing happiness, we need to find a way to measure it. Measuring both individual and national levels of happiness can be difficult, particularly when people self report. Life satisfaction measures have long been used but while they are relatively simple and easy for international benchmarking, they rarely get under the skin of either the causes or consequences of happiness.

When carrying out measurements we also need to be aware of the distinction between causality and correlation. We have no shortage of data which shows an 'association' between all sorts of activity and levels of happiness or satisfaction. For example, belonging to a club or society is associated with higher life satisfaction scores. But whether membership led to happiness or vice versa is obviously an important distinction to make.

At a national level, happiness or satisfaction scores have been recorded for up to 70 years in some countries but throughout this time they have remained fairly static, even when other variables are changing. For example, in countries where income has risen happiness remains steady. But inter-country comparisons show different levels, which suggests that wholesale change is possible.

The general consensus is that measuring well-being requires a dashboard of measures rather than just a single figure. These will differ between nations, but as an example the UK has recently constructed an index of 11 dimensions based on national consultation.

Happiness frameworks

If the goal is to increase happiness it's also necessary to explore who has responsibility for doing so. While individuals can be equipped to increase their own happiness, the institutions that surround them also have a role to play in creating an environment that fosters happiness. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, governments and international bodies are increasingly taking into account the affect of their policies on the well-being of their citizens. The compatibility of happiness and well-being with economics, politics and religious freedoms needs to become a part of national discussion.

Dictating exactly how people need to live is not the route to happiness, instead we need to provide the tools to facilitate happiness and freedom to pursue it (although as you'll see in the TEDTalks by Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz, too much choice often comes with its own difficulties!). The ability of individuals to manage their own happiness also raises broader questions; do we need to 'teach' people how to be happy? The response to this has implications for our education systems and life-long learning opportunities.

There is also a sustainability aspect to this discussion as short term gain for some should not mean suffering for others — making this an international issue growing in line with globalization.

Happiness and work

Organizational responsibility for the happiness and well-being of its employees has several facets. Work is an important part of living a good life, as long as it's 'good work'. This means it provides challenges that build a sense of purpose and allow employees to experience the joy of mastery. Simultaneously employers have an obligation to allow their employees enough time to pursue other activities and nurture the relationships that are so important for happiness. The collective support of business can also be a powerful tool for influencing national policies and governments should work with employers to allow the benefits of 'good' work to be realized.

This Teaching and Learning Guide

There is still a lot of room for debate around this topic with further evidence required in some areas and discussion about what we can do with our extended knowledge base. We hope that by the end of this module learners will understand some of the complexities of the 'science of happiness' but also appreciate the implications of our understanding and how it may shape our futures.

Let's begin this guide's examination of happiness with a TEDTalk from Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff who explores whether and why we're hard-wired for happiness.