Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Trying to find happiness

The quest for true happiness in one’s life has become “en vogue”. Also on the cut-e scienceblog, we frequently discuss what we can do in order to improve our happiness and well-being. But what if this search for happiness does not make us happier at all? And by the way: what IS happiness?

Jennifer Aaker from Stanford University gives an outline of two studies she conducted on exactly these two questions. She found that what drives our happiness is often not what we think drives our happiness.


In their first study, she and her colleagues asked two groups of people to do two different things within the next 24 hours: one group was told to create happiness, the other to create meaning. The next day, both groups were asked how happy they were and it turned out that those who had created happiness were less happy than those who had created meaning. The latter group felt more connected to this world and the people around them. The researchers conclude that it is this feeling of connectedness that makes us happy, not so much the search for happiness itself.

In their second study, they asked individuals to define happiness. People at younger ages agree more with the statement “Happiness = Excitement”, whereas individuals older than 40 years of age agree with the statement “Happiness = Peacefulness”. However, for younger adults, this attitude can be changed by making them breathe deeply and stay in the moment for a while. After this exercise, they agree much more with the statement that happiness means peacefulness.

Professor Aaker concludes that the meaning of happiness shifts over the life course, but it can shift even in five minutes.

The second study reflects what we know on many studies conducted on mindfulness: we are happiest when we are in the moment. Moreover, the first study reminds us of Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework in which meaning plays a crucial role for happiness and life satisfaction (with the other factors, as we might recall, being Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, and Achievement). Thus, when looking for happiness, it makes sense to work on one of these factors (or several of them). And we need to be aware that happiness does not necessarily always mean the same. It changes, like nothing in life is ever going to be permanent!

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