We are all in search of it, and while some have it, many don’t. The pursuit of it was even written into the American Declaration of Independence. We’re talking about happiness, surely an ancient and universal human desire, a desire that arose in our brains when we arose on the Ethiopian savanna. But what is it? And more importantly, how do we get it?
Happiness is many things to many people. Psychologists and sociologists have spent plenty of time studying happiness, and have come up with all sorts of theories.
Surely money must help us achieve happiness — or what are we all doing working so hard? But many surveys agree that despite our total immersion in the culture of materialism (and the pleasure that retail therapy can bring) more money doesn’t make you happier.
Judging by the amount of money spent on cosmetic surgery though, it might be thought that being good looking or (for half the population, at least) having pneumatic breasts would increase happiness. This is unlikely: A recent study in the British Medical Journal showed that women who undergo breast augmentation surgery are more likely than women from the general population to commit suicide.
One study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2001, found that rather than money or good looks, or even popularity, the list of factors that appear to bring happiness was topped by autonomy, the feeling that your activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed.
Following that, the survey of U.S. college students listed the most important factors influencing happiness to be competence (the feeling that you are effective in your activities), relatedness (feeling a sense of closeness with others) and self-esteem.
These findings are important, said Kennon Sheldon, of the University of Missouri-Columbia, and coauthors, because once identified, “psychological needs can be targeted to enhance personal thriving, in the same way that the organic needs of plants, once identified, can be targeted to maximize thriving in the plant.”
But what are the means by which we can thrive and be happy?
Religion? Claims that religious activity provides health benefits have virtually no grounding in medical literature, according to an article in Annals of Behavioral Medicine last year. The conclusion challenges assertions that religious people enjoy better physical and mental health.
Food? No less a scientist than James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, claimed in 2000 that overweight people are happier than thin people. But his statement, giving support to the “fat people are jolly” stereotype, was contradicted by a study last year, also in Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Robert Roberts of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston looked at data from 1,739 people, and concluded: “In no case did we observe better mental health among the obese. In sum, the obese were not more jolly.”
So (you can almost hear the marketing people despairing) is there anything said to increase happiness that can be bottled and sold?
According to a controversial study published last year, there is. Though it is one that will probably not be on sale soon, even in the United States.
The product is semen. The study compared women whose partners wear condoms with those whose partners don’t. The happiness of the 293 women was assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory, a standard questionnaire for assessing mood. People who score over 17 on the Beck scale are considered moderately depressed.
Gordon Gallup, the psychologist at the State University of New York who led the research, divided the women into groups depending on how often their partners wore condoms. The team found that women whose partners never used condoms scored 8 on average, those who sometimes used them scored 10.5, those who usually used them scored 15 and those who always used them scored 11.3. Women who weren’t having sex at all scored 13.5.
Gallup and coworkers conclude that the women who were directly exposed to semen were less depressed. The researchers think this is because mood-altering hormones in the ejaculate are absorbed through the vagina.
The theory is plausible. Human ejaculate contains several mood-altering hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, prolactin and several different prostaglandins. Some of these have been detected in women’s blood within hours of exposure to semen.
“I want to make it clear that we are not advocating that people abstain from using condoms,” emphasized Gallup. “Clearly an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease would more than offset any advantageous psychological effects of semen.”
Finally, a paper published this week suggests there is another factor that leads to an increase in happiness, albeit a slight one. A 15-year study of more than 24,000 individuals living in Germany showed that people get a boost in life satisfaction from marriage. The happiness boost is very small, however, and is probably due to favorable initial reactions to marriage, which are then followed by a return to prior levels of happiness.
This is what matters: your base-line level of happiness. The study found that people who have won huge amounts of money or who have experienced debilitating injuries appear not to greatly differ in life satisfaction from the average person.
The study, led by Richard Lucas of Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlights how people may initially react strongly to life events, good or bad, but then gradually return to their normal levels of happiness.
Aristotle had it right more than 2,000 years ago. “The good of man,” he wrote, “is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue — this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”
There’s more on this subject that I couldn’t fit into the column, but interested, affluent readers can contact me for the rest. Have your credit cards ready.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.