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Five Propositions About Happiness

Ed Diener

By Mary Timmins

It is a hilarious irony that Ed Diener, the man who holds the position of Joseph R. Smiley Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, has studied nothing less than – happiness.

For nothing less than 30 years.

Down those decades, Diener has pursued the – bluebird? butterfly? phantasm? – that is his chosen research area. He has questioned innumerable subjects and written up reams of research. He has maneuvered and advanced and defended his work into increasing acceptance as a bona fide psychological and economic phenomenon, pounding home to skeptical colleagues a simple truth that most everyone else – including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it into the Declaration of Independence – just knows.

Happiness counts.

In the process, Diener has established the importance of well-being as a counterpoint to such affects as anxiety and depression, which have been far more scrutinized and celebrated by clinical psychology than a condition seemingly banal as happiness. (Diener himself started out to be a clinical psychologist but found he liked working with data far more than he liked working with patients.)

Amid the scholarly tumult, he’s managed to suss out a lot about happiness itself – including why it is so critical and, perhaps more importantly, how to find it.

What follow, with apologies to the UI Smiley Professor of Psychology, are five propositions about happiness that have been extracted from his work, stupendously oversimplified and presented for the pleasure of readers of Illinois Alumni.

The first:

Proposition No. 1: Maybe money can buy happiness.

One of the first big questions to leap out of Diener’s work is: How does one go about measuring happiness, anyway? That seems to have been, at least in part, the issue that roiled Diener’s instructor back when Diener was an undergraduate at California State University at Fresno and wanted to study the happiness of migrant workers on his parents’ farm in the San Joachim Valley. The prof nixed the idea as impractical and, frankly, a little crazy. So the young man turned in a paper on conformity instead – another hilarious irony, doubtless lost on the instructor. But living well, as the Spanish proverb goes, is the best revenge. Diener went on to forge a gleaming kit of tools that measure how people feel about their lives.

These instruments include peer reports (what others say about the happiness of their friends and family members), experience sampling (beeping, paging and texting people to ask them about their state of mind right now), measuring hormone levels (cortisol indicates stress) and taking brain scans (which find happiness in the left pre-frontal lobe firing – strange to report – up close and personal alongside anger). The most reliable measure, though, remains the self-report – i.e., how people rate their own happiness.

“People can lie,” Diener observes. “People can lie to themselves. But it probably, of all methods, is the best we have so far.”

Which brings us to the proposition about the money.

It’s not that people say they’re happy because they have money. A lot of times they do. Occasionally they don’t. But the proposition is much bigger than that. Global data aggregated over almost 30 years shows that self-reported life satisfaction levels do, in fact, rise with income. Citizens of the well-off  nations of North America, northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand tend to be happier than inhabitants of emerging countries in Latin America and southern Europe, who in turn are wont to wake up more often on the right side of bed than those living in such cash-challenged realms as the former Soviet bloc states, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

“When I started, there was so much skepticism and opposition to this field,” Diener recalled, “including in psychology and economics. People said, ‘This is bull. You can’t study happiness. It’s flaky.’” But that, as sages say, was then, and this is now. Diener has tipped off the United Nations Development Program and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (which researches worldwide economic data) to the relationship between prosperity and happiness. He has convinced statisticians at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to include life satisfaction and emotional well-being as categories in health surveys.

And now, topping the huge pile of his published work – 300 papers and 10 books, not to mention the scholarly journals he’s edited – are two new volumes. One is titled “Well-Being for Public Policy.” It’s for statesmen, economists and politicians. The other is called “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.” It’s for everybody else.

Which brings matters to:

Proposition No. 2: Maybe money can’t buy happiness.

In those lucky nations endowed with a decent standard of living, happiness is, for sure, related to income – but strongly related only to a point. In the U.S., the point is around $40,000. That is to say, when the median household income in this country reached $40,000, the rising happiness curve started to flatten.

Not that the realm beyond $40K doesn’t offer plenty more comforts to seek and stuff to grab with the charge card. It’s just that, as Diener explained, once basic economic needs are met, there are different constellations of satisfaction and fulfillment.

“Happiness isn’t one thing,” he observed.

It’s three. Diener’s work identifies the dimensions of “life satisfaction,” “positive emotions” and “absence of negative affect.” The first refers to the sense of well-being that goes with having such life necessities as food, clothing, shelter and health. The second covers, in Diener’s words, “the psychosocial things” – such things including love, friendship, respect, satisfying work and learning. The third means not going around in a bad mood – at least not all the time.

These factors tumble around as in an imaginary lab blender whizzing with data and observations, in a kind of recipe-quest for the margarita of human happiness, that most elusive of cocktails. For as people acquire more and more material goods – and, hence, life satisfaction – the goal seems to morph from comfort to comparison. Recall the fabled fisherman’s wife. Granted her heart’s desire by a magical flounder, she started out asking for a nicer house and ended up wanting the powers of a god. Far-fetched? Consider next the gi-normous compensations of Wall Street, commanded by those whom author Tom Wolfe once dubbed (and not in a complimentary way) “masters of the universe.”

Destabilized by over-the-top need, the positive emotions that emanate from personal relationships can get squandered on more in-your-face rewards, such as the executive who acquires a fancy house in the suburbs, only to find she’s traded family time for a long commute.

And on the truly wild side, at the far opposite end of the economic spectrum, Diener reported of a visit to the slums of Calcutta: “Some people there are kind of reasonably happy. …They have families. They have jobs. …They have religion. They have celebrations. … So don’t define them in terms of their poverty.”

Whereupon there emerges:

Proposition No. 3: Happiness is not a goal.

Robert Biswas-Diener is Ed Diener’s son as well as his collaborator, the two having co-authored the new “Happiness” book. His work has spun off from his father’s, flinging him into places remote, exotic and flat-out strange. Biswas-Diener has studied happiness among small cultures ranging from the Amish of Illinois to the Inuit of Greenland. The Maasai of Kenya branded him with a hot stick – to which he, as a brave field researcher, acquiesced, winning the honorific of “the Indiana Jones of positive psychology” from an admiring colleague.

Happiness levels among the Maasai are very high, and Biswas-Diener thinks that’s because their social norms are straightforward. People are expected to look and dress a certain way, and they all do. People are expected to marry, and they mostly do. There are group standards and a group life and some choices but not all that many. The Maasai drape themselves in beautiful fabrics and sport elaborately beaded jewelry and carry spears and live in dung huts and raise cattle, and they are proud as well as happy.

“They know who they are,” observed Diener père, for whom the implications are obvious. The Maasai may not have money, but they have an abundance of resources. They illustrate one of Diener’s most joyous and potent ideas – that happiness is a matter more of wealth than of money, wealth meaning those things that make life better both materially and emotionally. For Diener, “the homeless in Fresno are worse off than the homeless in Calcutta,” because the latter remain part of an accepted social network, while many of the former have suffered abandonment by their families.

Curiously, some people seem to wallow in an embarrassment of happiness (or what they mistake for happiness). “If you want to be on the honeymoon all the time, that’s going to require drugs or excitement-seeking. You get in trouble,” Diener said. “You don’t have to be super-happy, elated all the time. In general, being mildly, moderately happy is probably a good thing. And that also doesn’t mean that you don’t feel negative emotions. Feeling sad at your mother’s funeral is a good thing.”

So attitudes make a big difference. Leading to:

Proposition No. 4: Some are born happy, and some achieve happiness.

First, a side note, and that’s that, alas for Shakespeare’s original insight, not a lot of folks seem to get happiness “thrust upon ’em” – not even lottery winners, another group Diener has studied.

More to the point, though, there are people who just seem happier than other people. These are the people who go around whistling and volunteering to build houses for the impoverished. They adore their kids, their spouses, maybe even their mothers-in-law. They’re high on energy, low on anxiety. What’s even worse for the depressed and curmudgeonly onlooker is that, according to Diener’s research, happy people are in line for intrinsic payoffs. They tend to be more successful in their careers, have better marriages, earn more money and even enjoy better health.

“Happiness strengthens your immune system,” he said. “It’s good for the cardiovascular system.”

There’s a temptation to curse this as a kind of Calvinism, the work of a smirking, evil universe that hands some individuals the proverbial rose-colored spectacles and dooms others to the dour gestalt of comedian and film director Woody Allen, who once complained: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”

Naturally, Diener doesn’t see the dichotomy as all that drastic, which is nice, because he could be right. People do seem to have certain individual set points for happiness – a default mood on a scale of moods, probably decided by DNA, that’s sunnier in some than in others. (And, by the way, isn’t there something rather romantic in the darkly brooding right-brained lovers and thinkers and artists, the Heathcliffs and Hamlets of our imaginations?) But that default can be moved.  It’s possible (though it may require falling in love or taking up with a therapist) to wield a spiritual wrench and ratchet up one’s happiness, at least by a notch or two. “Obviously, there’s a temperament thing,” Diener said. “But we do think that you can do things to move your life satisfaction up or down. And we are learning some more of those things.” This speaks to a process model –
to taking on life as it is, rather than some idea of life as it’s supposed to be. It means working on relationships. It means attitude adjustment – getting that half-empty glass to reverse like an Escher illusion into a half-full one. Above all, it means finding “spiritual emotions” that connect one to a reality beyond
individual need and struggle.

“Love would be a spiritual emotion,” Diener explained. “So would gratitude. Awe. Transcendence. Forgiveness.”

And, hence, in the end:

Proposition 5: Happiness is seeking fulfillment.

This is where Ed Diener teaches through his life as well as his work. Michael Frisch, one of many scholars Diener has mentored over the years, describes the professor as endlessly young, a child who never quite grew out of the precocious wonder of driving a tractor around his parents’ farm (he got behind the wheel at age 10) and figuring out probability using dice (a project undertaken when he was bedridden with a childhood illness). That four members of his immediate family are also psychologists (not only his son, but his wife, Carol, AM ’77 LAS, PHD ’79 LAS, JD ’97 LAW, and his twin daughters, Mary Beth and Marissa, PHD ’96 LAS) is eloquent testimony to the enthusiasm that saturates his work and life.

“Ed is not only one of the greatest psychologists of the past century, he is a great man as well,” Frisch, now a therapist and faculty member at Baylor University, wrote in an e-mail to Illinois Alumni. “His brilliance is coupled with great compassion and a love of helping and nurturing people. … He approaches life like a kid in a candy store, always ready to play and explore new ideas in the laboratory or with other people.”

Frisch believes that Diener’s work comes out of Diener’s own happiness, creating a gentle paradigm whereby that – bluebird? butterfly? phantasm? – is chased rather than captured. To quote, as Frisch does, the poet W.H. Auden: “You owe it to us all to get on with what you’re good at.”

Which led to, among other things, that hilarious yet oh-so-perfect title: the Smiley Professor at Illinois.

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