The Science of Happiness

Nicholas Martinez
Apr 18, 2019 · 8 min read

It would not be farfetched to say that we desire happiness perhaps more than anything else. Whatever we do there is the expectation of some sort of positive payoff that rewards us in some way. Obviously, happiness is a subjective thing, I can’t stand watching baseball, but for some, this brings them great joy. I don’t see the value in knitting but I am sure someone sees the activity as an escape from the hardships that are inevitable in everyday life. Examples like these can be found everywhere. Some people find happiness through sports, others through music, some people enjoy reading, whatever you can think of there is probably someone that finds happiness in it. While this may just seem like a regurgitation of the obvious it’s important to realize the motivations for the things that make us happy, not simply whether they do or not. A lot of different factors are at play when it comes to being happy and what drives this good feeling is often what separates a good life from a miserable one.

Despite this natural inclination to want to be happy there has often not been enough scientific research to analyze what makes us happy. This is where the work of Psychology Professor Tim Kasser comes into play. Kasser has been studying happiness for decades and has used his research on the concept of materialism in our lives to dictate what it is that gives us a happy life. In other words, what values are apparent in the happiest of individuals? The research demonstrates that there are certain trends that intertwine with materialist consumption that leads us to live either happier or more depressed lives.

Essentially there are two motivations for doing anything: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivation is the kind of reasoning to do something that comes from inside of us. Extrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation that is the opposite, it originates in external factors. To better explain this, imagine that you enjoy singing. You sing every day because you love to do it. You sing in the shower, you sing on the way to work, it is just something that makes you feel good. It brings you joy and is a sort of therapy that truly brings out a positive feeling in you. It simply makes you feel good. This sort of natural pleasure derived from singing would be intrinsic motivation.

Now imagine that you sing not because you like to do it, but because you work at a bar you hate and it is your job to sing to entertain the patrons. Perhaps your parents envisioned you becoming a singer and have forced you all your life to sing and take lessons because it is their idea of how you should live your life. Maybe there is a woman you want to impress and the reason you sing is more about impressing her than the actual joy of singing. Regardless, all of these are examples of extrinsic motivation. You are singing not because there is some natural joy to be found within yourself in this activity, but because there is something you want to gain down the line whether it be money, parental acceptance, or a woman’s attention. You are not however singing because that is what you actually enjoy to do, but rather the motivation derives from an externalization of expectation.

Now, it is important to understand we are a mixture of both. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation mutually come together all the time to form our reasoning behind any pursuit we choose. Yet what makes Professor Kasser’s research so interesting is the outcomes of both of these different types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation, that is the motivation that comes from gaining something down the line, seems to be related to dissatisfaction as well as depression. The more we are driven by these sort of external factors the less happy we generally are. On the contrary, research shows that the more our decisions are motivated by intrinsic motivation, the sort of motivation to do something simply because it makes us happy, the happier we generally seem to be. While this may seem trivial it bears noting just how increasingly difficult it has become to not only have those intrinsic motivations but to not have extrinsic motivations overrun them.

According to The World Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest country on Earth. Finland is followed by other European and Nordic countries such as Denmark, Netherlands, and Norway respectively. The Sustainable Governance Indicators Organization ranks Finland very near the top as far as social safety nets are concerned. People are entitled to four weeks paid vacation and childcare is free to families with children who are 7 years old or younger. The United States, which ranked outside the top 10 in The World Happiness Report’s findings has no set rule for paid vacation. Childcare is often very expensive and a burden especially with the stagnation of wages over the years. In many instances in these other countries, there is less pressure economically to provide these things which would also include things such as education or healthcare. The idea of work isn’t seen so much as a necessary evil to survival but rather an intrinsic good feeling of contributing to the betterment of society.

The purpose of these statistics isn’t to simply throw shade on the United States, but to reexamine the cultural values that perpetuate the intrinsic or extrinsic motivations for doing something, which in turn has a profound influence on the satisfaction and happiness we feel in our lives. It seems that in our culture too much of our motivations seem to be extrinsic in nature. We work only to gain something out of it. We work not out of any intrinsic motivation but because economically we need to pay and worry about so many other factors that the things we do simply for the joy of it no longer occur at a respectable rate. This may seem like a childish complaint, after all, nobody works for nothing, but the problem lies that there isn’t enough reinforcement of these intrinsically based motivational factors. This isn’t just an economic or government issue, culturally there is something that has happened that has driven us to pursue these seemingly empty extrinsic motivations.

Take social media as an example of this sort of pursuit of happiness through extrinsic means. Instagram and Snapchat are perhaps the best examples of this idea of extrinsic motivations causing unhappiness. Probably the best explanation would be the people who excessively Snapchat entire concerts. There are hundreds if not thousands of better quality videos that capture the moment much clearer than your shitty phone quality and angle. So then why do we so often do things like this? It can’t be because of some intrinsic motivation, I don’t know of anyone who genuinely feels joy by just recording things on their phone. They aren’t even watching the performer with their eyes but rather through the lenses of their camera. They aren’t experiencing the moment at all. In fact, often times once we post some compilation of concert videos to social media we never watch them again. In my view posting things like that on social media isn’t motivated by intrinsic values, but extrinsic values that according to studies lead to less happiness. We don’t post because it makes us feel good, we do it to gain some sort of envy. It seems that we no longer do things that make us have a good time, but do them because it shows other people that we are having a good time. This sort of prioritization of extrinsic over intrinsic seems to be at the heart of our unhappiness.

This fetish for envy isn’t just personally destructive but obviously has a profound affect on others. Not only are you not living in the moment, experiencing the experience, but you essentially are perpetuating envy, you create an environment where you go: “Hey look at my life it’s amazing! What are you doing with yours?” Not only does this give a false image of yourself, since science is showing that things like this don’t lead to actual happiness, but you add to a culture that prioritizes the envy of an experience rather than the intrinsic joy felt while experiencing that particular experience.

It doesn’t only have to be about social media, materialist ideas that are driven by our radical consumer culture deliver these seemingly unhappy results as well. Think of materialistic things we fetishize in our society. We look at clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. often to bring us joy. Yet when we purchase these things outside of a necessity state of mind we do so with this extrinsic motivational factor. We buy these excessively expensive things not because they intrinsically bring us joy the way someone may find singing or drawing to bring them joy, but because there is this external factors at play, such as our continuous obsession with the envy of others. In other words, our happiness isn’t being derived by any internal or intrinsic ideals, it is being driven and therefore dependent on, the acceptance and envy of others.

What has to happen then is a reevaluation of economic policies, personal choices, and consumer culture. With rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide increasing it seems that reexamining our motivations, be it intrinsic or extrinsic would aid us a great deal. It isn’t about never purchasing something expensive or brand name, or never posting on social media, it is about redistributing the ratio between our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to a more balanced equilibrium. The purpose is to find intrinsic motivation and to build upon it. Find what brings you joy without considering external factors. For me it is playing soccer, it is something I love to do regardless of whether or not there is something external down the line. I just enjoy being in the moment and playing soccer. It makes me happy to just juggle the ball in my front yard and experiencing this intrinsically felt sense of peace when I play.

A big part of the solution comes in the priorities we set. Think about someone lying on their deathbed, I highly doubt they will think about the sports car they bought or the amount of attention they got on social media when they posted about a trip they went on. What they will be concerned about is if they enjoyed these experiences intrinsically. Did they have these intrinsic passions for things and how often did they do them. Did they create the sort of connections with their family and friends that they wanted. Everything else will either not be even thought of, or at the very least be at the bottom of what is important. If all of those things are important when we die, should they not be important while we can still do them?

We all have these things we enjoy doing in the moment. Now, obviously the economic systems we live in need to change to help these decisions come about more easily, but it does start with asking ourselves: What would make me happy if money was of no concern? What is it about a certain thing that when you do it just brings out good vibrations within you? Do that. Do it at least once a day if you can. Don’t be so consumed with the opinions of others, and most of all trust yourself, somehow you already know deep down what you want to do. Happiness like any other human emotion is something we work for, but as the Chinese philosopher, Confucius once said: Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.

Sources/references:

http://www.sgi-network.org/2017/Finland/Social_Policies

https://truecostmovie.com/tim-kasser-interview/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167213484586

https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/#read

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Nicholas Martinez

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I write about philosophy, society, and psychedelics, sometimes all at the same time. Follow me on Twitter: @_nickmartinez__

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