Like many others, I can’t resist academic studies on happiness. They often come up with persuasive reasons some seem to be happier than others. I’m always on the lookout for pointers.
That said, there’s no happymometer to push under someone’s tongue to measure contentment with scientific confidence. So some skepticism is warranted.
Of course, the researchers are assessing what they call “subjective well-being.” That’s how individuals regard their happiness level, not what the rest of the world thinks it should be.
We all know people who are happiest when they are complaining. And of course, sense of happiness is culturally influenced. One study was titled “Are Scandinavians Happier than Asians?”
Most of us believe, at least at times, that money by itself does not buy happiness. We’ve seen America’s most elite shopping streets — from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to Worth Avenue in Palm Beach to Madison Avenue in New York — populated by dissatisfied mugs, fancy shopping bags in tow.
Anyhow, a new study finds Americans in their 30s or older less likely to say they’re happy than their parents did at the same age. Teens and younger adults, meanwhile, report being happier than older Americans said they were years back.
What could be behind this?
“Our current culture of pervasive technology, attention-seeking and fleeting relationships is exciting and stimulating for teens and young adults but may not provide the stability and sense of community that mature adults require,” explains Jean Twenge, the San Diego State University psychologist who led the study.
A parenting and educational focus on raising children’s selfesteem with praise, ribbons and trophies may have also created an unrealistic expectation of big things to come. When the less glamorous truth begins to dawn at maturity, the house of rosy assumptions may start coming down.
As Tim Bono, a 32-year-old psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Associated Press, “My generation has been bathed in messages of how great we are and how anything is possible for us.”
Discovering our limitations can be depressing. For those who make peace with it, though, it can be liberating.
Money does play a role in perceptions of happiness, but mainly in its role as a means of comparison. It’s been often observed that poor people “moving up” economically tend to be happier than far richer people seeing themselves on the down escalator.
Rising income inequality — and the media explosion waving it in the faces of not only the struggling middle class but the “merely affluent” — is often cited in current happiness studies. As someone once said, inadequacy is the birthright of every American.
And our fanatically competitive culture demands constant comparisons with others. Several prominent writers have quipped that it is not enough to succeed; one’s friends must fail.
Many assume that crime rises during economic downturns, but that’s not necessarily the case. In 2008, right after the great economic meltdown, the New York police noticed that crime rates, already on a downward slope, were continuing to decline. How could that be happening at a time of double-digit unemployment?
The answer is that much crime is committed not out of economic desperation but out of the sense that one has been unfairly denied the opportunity to succeed. In tough economic times, the unemployed and the bankrupt have lots of company.
Having company — “community” is the better word — is key to well-being at every income level. So is getting over one’s sense of entitlement, in other words, being content with what we have.
It may be ultimately pointless to ask, “Will we ever find happiness?” We just have to learn to be happy without it.