• Ciaran Burks

Happiness Misconception 2: All I need is ...

Living in the future is hard to resist, I admit. But it appears that hoping for some future happiness spring to fill your happiness well just ain’t gonna cut it. For example, great jobs don’t make people happy either. Perhaps you were thinking that the great job, which (besides from a good salary) will give you the pleasure of reaching the pinnacle of a career, earn you the respect of your community and transform your life into a perpetual bliss? Well, apparently even a good job isn’t enough for us. We are really rather needy, aren’t we? Gilbert et al. (1998) conducted a study to assess the impact of receiving tenure for professors in the United States. Receiving tenure for university professors in the United States is considered the golden ticket in many respects and the goal of many academics. The position provides security and prestige. In the study, Gilbert at al. (1998) found that receiving this coveted job had a small positive effect on happiness, far lower than the expected effect.

“Alright, alright” I can hear you thinking, “maybe money and things won’t make me happy, but I am sure that true love will.” I can here some others thinking “Pssht, yeah right. This guy’s crazy. All I need is a six pack, a couple of killer biceps and I’ll be set for life”. Still others are procrastinating for exams and thinking “I swear, if I get an A on my exam, I’m going to explode with happiness. They’ll be able to scan my brain and finally agree on the definition of the term.” Unfortunately, as it turns out, even true love, a perfect body and amazing academic acumen won’t complete you (think Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire). Don’t worry, though, I don’t blame us for our perceptions of happiness. In fact, according to Dan Gilbert (2018), mothers around the world generally prescribe three things for happiness. They advise their children to get married, make enough money and have children. We know that having money only bolsters happiness to a point, but what about the other advice? Will we be happy when we:

· Become beautiful?

· Get married?

· Have children?

While I encourage everyone reading to exercise, eat well and present themselves as best as they can, I have some bad news for anyone betting on a great bod to make them happy. One study (Ul-Haq, et al., 2014) of over 150,000 UK residents found no statistically significant relationship between obesity and unhappiness, after controlling for health. In other words, being healthier makes one happier, but merely losing weight does not. I am assuming that not being obese is considered – in general, and I am not making a comment on my personal views – more attractive than not being obese. If that were the case, we might expect to find that lighter (less obese or not obese) people should be happier, even after accounting for health issues. This is not the case, possibly implying that losing weight is not sufficient for happiness.

Jackson et al. (2014) followed almost 2,000 people in a diet programme over 4 years to see how happiness and weight loss are related. The authors found a counterintuitive result. In their study, losing weight had “no psychological benefit, even when changes in health and life stresses were accounted for.”

Another study (von Soest, et al., 2012) examined the effects of cosmetic surgery on psychological well-being and found alarming results. The study examined Norwegian females who underwent cosmetic surgery over 4 years. The patients in the study rated their physical appearance worse overall (even if they were happy with the surgery itself), had higher rates of suicidal ideation, increased their alcohol use and had more conduct problems after surgery. In the words of the authors “a series of mental health symptoms predict cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery does not in turn seem to alleviate such mental health problems.” That is to say that there is a higher chance that someone who gets cosmetic surgery (not all, though) will have psychological weaknesses to begin with, but surgery seems to make these worse, not better.

I want to be thorough, so it is important to note that some studies (Hamermesh & Abrevaya, 2013) do find a relationship between happiness and beauty, although this effect is small. Some of the effect is indirect, because beauty can lead to better outcomes (like a happier marriage or higher income). However, some of the – again, relatively small – effect, is attributable to beauty itself, at least across the USA, Canada, the U.K. and Germany. However, we see from the other academic literature, that this may be immutable. In fact, Hamermesh & Abrevaya (2013) state that “Substantial evidence…makes it clear that even radical measures to alter one’s looks have fairly small effects.” This indicates that, although beauty may contribute to happiness in a small way, the things you can do to influence this are limited. In other words, forget about beauty and focus on what really matters. Don’t worry, I promise we’ll get there in following chapters.

I’m newly married, and I am happier than I have ever been (*pops champagne*). Still, research (Lucas et al. 2003, Diener & Biswas-Diener 2008, Gilbert 2018) shows that marriage is not the secret ingredient to happiness! Lucas et al. (2003) and Lucas & Clark (2005) used a 15-year longitudinal study to assess how individuals were affected by marriage. When asked in front of their wives, all participants indicated that they were 10,000 times happier, but surprisingly, they changed their tune when their responses were collected anonymously. In seriousness, though, the authors found that individuals experienced a short term (2-year or so) boost in happiness from marriage, compared with their baselines. Other studies (see Gilbert 2018) indicate that this “marriage boost” lasts longer, around 15 years. In addition, happier people appear to get married, probably because happier people do better in the marriage market. Although this is interesting, it doesn’t indicate that marriage will necessarily make you happy. In summary, then, marriage does appear to make you happy, but not forever, and possibly only for a couple years. It certainly is not the secret sauce to a perfectly happy life hot dog (forgive me, I just went with the metaphor). There is a caveat to this finding. People in unhappy marriages experience a spike in happiness after divorce, indicating that the quality of a given marriage is central to its impact on happiness (Munsey, 2010).

Having children, it seems, is also not a sure-fire way to secure lifelong happiness. Shields & Wooden (2003, and yes those are the authors’ actual surnames, so cool I know!) found that “Life satisfaction declines with the number of dependent children living at home but rises with the number of adult children who have left home.” Pedersen & Schmidt (2014) and Gilbert (2018) corroborate this finding, indicating that children have a slightly negative impact on happiness. This, however, is an average and there are many people who are happier because of their children. It really depends on your individual circumstances. Do you like children? Can you afford them? Are you willing to sacrifice some job prospects for children? Are you willing to diminish your individual freedom for them without resentment?

Children can, therefore, improve your happiness, but – especially if you have a lower-income or are a single parent – they are likely not to. From a common-sense point of view, this is not so surprising. Children can, after all, imbue a life with meaning, fill it with warmth and tint our outlook with rose colours. However, for struggling parents (especially single moms), it seems that the burden of child-rearing, its significant cost and associated stress outweigh these benefits.

In Gilbert’s (2006) book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan mentions that the belief that children bring happiness is a “super replicator”. People who love children tend to have more of them. They also tend to pass this belief on to their children. My parents used to tell me frequently (and I was lucky to hear it) that my brother and I were the best things that ever happened to them. Clearly, they have passed on the belief that children are powerful sources of meaning and joy to me.

The bottom line is that happiness really isn’t a place. Neither is happiness a permanent state, caused by the obtainment of a thing of the achievement of an act. Happiness arises from the everyday experiences we have, and sometimes create. It is the summation of all the small, sometimes mundane, moments that we call ‘life’. We will learn more about how to make these moments happier in the next chapters. For now, though, Smile and take a deep breath. You are living in one of life’s happy moments, let that be enough, because it is.

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© 2020 by Ciaran Burks