A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou.
These were the ingredients that the 12th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam famously prescribed for happiness. It’s a timeless recipe, but that hasn’t stopped people from tinkering with it, scrapping the book of verses and updating the rest.
An Internet search discloses many up-to-the-minute versions: “Some Diet Pepsi, a loaf of protein bread — and thou”; “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and a dossier on thou”; “A jug of beer, a Harley and nine guys with tattoos.”
Now comes a scientific study suggesting yet another twist on the classic prescription. Investigating what made a group of 909 Texas working women happiest in their everyday lives, a team of American psychologists and economists uncovered a pattern best summed up as “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and a television.” Oh, and a good night’s sleep. As a contribution to the age-old debate about the things that make us grumpy or happy, this is simultaneously surprising, interesting and believable.
The report, published in this month’s issue of Science, was no pop-science project. Its conclusions emerged from answers to a new and rigorously thoughtful questionnaire, designed to elicit a more realistic picture than old-style surveys that simply asked people to describe what they thought made them happy.
Following the new approach, which the scientists called the “Day Reconstruction Method,” subjects kept a diary of everything they did on an ordinary day: hitting the off button on the alarm in the morning, commuting, eating lunch, dealing with coworkers, falling asleep at night and all activities in between. The next day they reviewed their entries and rated each activity according to a 12-point scale of emotions, from hassled to happy.
Socrates once said the unexamined life is not worth living; he would have loved the Day Reconstruction Method. Having read about the experiment, it is almost impossible to go through a day without making mental notes and spotting patterns: This made me feel good; that made me nervous; this bored me; that was fun; hmm, we’re beginning to see what to avoid here.
But the results might be surprising. They certainly were in the Texas study. In contrast to traditional inquiries into the roots of happiness, these women did not identify taking care of their children, shopping or talking to friends on the phone as the kinds of things that made them happy.
Other than sex, the activities they felt most warmly about in retrospect were solitary and simple ones, especially watching TV, getting an uninterrupted night’s sleep and meeting deadlines on time. Moreover, these results held true for all income groups: The rich proved no more and no less happy than their poorer sisters. In fact, sleep quality appeared to trump every other single factor in determining whether a person would have a happy day or not.
The results could be different for men, but one suspects not. Men have never made any bones about wanting to watch TV and sleep, preferably at the same time. Now that we know women are hard-wired to appreciate the same opportunity to relax or vegetate or dream or putter, perhaps we can begin to recognize it as an essential human need. What we really need is to learn how to do it without feeling guilty.
It is appropriate that the study was published in December, because it also sheds light on why so few people seem to feel happier as the festive seasons of Christmas and New Year’s approach, despite the quality of relentless cheer associated with them. It turns out that what these holidays require of us may actively undermine what we really need to be happy: peace, quiet, privacy, calm and time — time to do our work and time to get enough sleep.
It is hardly a shock that nobody in the study recorded gift-giving, large family gatherings and complex food preparation in their diaries as occasions of great happiness.
As for television, let’s face it, it’s today’s substitute for the book: the most convenient guarantee of getting some of that precious private space that reading actually delivers even more efficiently. No wonder people see it as a refuge.
What would “old Khayyam” have made of all this theorizing? Probably not much, since he was celebrated as much for his cynicism as for his hedonism and put no stock in the opinions of “Doctor and Saint,” his era’s equivalents of the Princeton professor who designed the happiness study.
But somehow one can feel a spark of sympathy flash across the centuries from the old Persian bard to these harried Texas ladies. We shouldn’t be too quick to ditch his book of verses in our search for modern happiness.
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