What makes people happy or unhappy — the empirical evidence

Massimo Pigliucci
Feb 3 · 5 min read

This semester I’m teaching an experimental course at the City College of New York: the philosophy and science of happiness. Fun, but not at all straightforward, since the very word, “happiness” has a number of meanings, and much confusion arises by not distinguishing among them. Sounds like a job for a philosopher. Then again, surely we can’t just sit down and decide on the basis of a priori considerations what does or does not make people happy. Sounds like a job for a scientist.

Which is why I have adopted two complementary textbooks for the task: How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy, which I co-edited with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, and Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between at least two meanings of happiness, although surely they influence each other. On the one hand, happiness is an in-the-moment feeling generated by a pleasurable or meaningful experience. For example, at this moment I’m actually pretty happy of being sitting at my desk, looking over at the Manhattan skyline, engaged in one of my favorite activities: writing.

On the other hand, happiness is a state of contentment or satisfaction with the overall trajectory of one’s life. For instance, I’m happy that my life includes a significant component devoted to writing essays and books, because I find such an activity not just pleasurable while I am engaged in it, but meaningful in the long run. The words I write make other people reflect on things, and occasionally even improve their lives.

As the two examples clearly show, the two meanings of happiness are logically distinct, and yet feed into each other: my in-the-moment pleasure is what fuels my long term satisfaction; conversely, the latter helps me whenever I find myself stuck with a piece of writing, which would otherwise risk turning pleasure into pain or irritation.

Back to my course. I promised my students that we won’t just indulge in interesting conversations for their own sake, but that we will seek practical applications: philosophy and science aiming at actually improving our lives. So here is the first example, from chapter 2 of Layard’s book. He summarizes in two tables an interesting study conducted on 900 women living in Texas. (Which means, of course, that we cannot automatically assume that the results hold across genders or cultures, though similar research has been done using different populations.)

The first table lists a number of activities, in decreasing order of degree of in-the-moment happiness they bring about, followed by an estimate of the amount of time devoted to each activity during a given day:

As you can see, sex is at the very top, and far above the second entry in the list. Then comes a tight cluster that includes socializing, relaxing, praying (or worshipping, or meditating), eating, and exercising. At the bottom of the list we find (from worst to less so) commuting, working, being on the computer to check email or surf the web, and taking care of one’s own children. Activities that fall in the middle are watching television, shopping, preparing food, and talking on the phone. (An important additional caveat here is that Layard’s table does not include confidence intervals around the reported numbers, so we don’t know whether the difference between a happiness level of 4.0 and 4.7 is actually statistically significant. I’m willing to bet that differences of one or two tenths of a point are not.)

Some of these results are not surprising. People like sex and dislike commuting. Others are intriguing: web surfing doesn’t make people happy, though apparently it’s no worse (or better) than taking care of children (one’w own, interestingly). Somewhat surprisingly, most of the women in the sample felt that their job was next to the bottom of the list in terms of bringing happiness. This is at odds with the frequent assumption that one’s job is an important and meaningful aspect of one’s life. But of course that’s true only if you are lucky enough to have a job you find meaningful, and my guess is that many of the people sampled by the study were stuck in unfulfilling jobs, the kind that one does only in order to be able to pay the bills.

The table — if one is willing to generalize the results — contains some actionable information. Go through it, and see which happiness-inducing activities you can spend more time on, and which happiness-decreasing ones you can reduce or do without. Perhaps even better, you can use the study as an inspiration to draw your own list of preferred and dispreferred activities, in this way: during a given week, write down every day how much time you spend doing whatever it is that you normally do, and make a note of the activity. At the end of the week, organize your data in categories similar to those of the table above, and rank them by how happy/unhappy you are while performing each activity. Then see if you can tweak your typical week in order to lengthen the happiness-inducing entries and shorten the other ones.

Back to the study: the researchers noted that relationships are a major source of happiness, so they asked the subjects to be more precise. Which kinds of relationship have a positive or negative impact? The results are summarized in this second table:

Time spent with friends tops the list, above time spent with relatives, spouse, or children. At the bottom we find time spent with one’s boss, which is even worse than being alone. The way to turn this into action is the same as above: either follow this list or create your own, then try to put more effort, say, in seeing your friends, and less in interacting with your boss (if you can).

This is, of course, only a partial and narrow window on the full picture of what makes people happy, and I may return on the theme later on in the semester, whenever I get to discuss more intriguing empirical findings with my students. Meanwhile, check out my somewhat parallel series on different philosophies of life and their take on happiness. (The entry on Stoicism and Buddhism is here. More to come.)

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