Saturday, February 02, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: The happiness con

So, you're extremely happy. Don't be so smug. You'd be better off if you had more edge.

Economists who were once obsessed with money are now obsessed with happiness. It's become the new money - to be maximized using equations, the goal to which we are all meant to aspire.

Fortunately for economists it's as easy to measure. Ask people “all things considered, how satisfied would you say you are with your life these days on, a scale of one to ten?” and you get answers that line up with other measures such as facial expressions, the likelihood of suicide and where brains light up when placed under a scanner.

But whereas happiness is nice, just as money is nice; just as with money after a certain point more of it can actually harm us...

While most studies find that happier people live longer lives, a new paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science points to some that find that beyond a certain level, extra happiness can actually shorten lives.

Children who rated themselves at 7.5 or above on the happiness scale were found to be 21% more likely to die in any future year than those who rated themselves at 2.5 or below.

As they grew up they were more likely to drink, smoke and to take risks.

Shigehiro Oishi and his colleagues wonder about a 77-year-old California woman who went out bike riding during a deadly heat wave even though her family begged her not to. She died of heat stroke.

They wonder about extremely happy people who don't feel the urge to move from jobs that don't fulfil their potential.

And the American academics use data from an Australian study that examined the happiness of those of us born in 1961 at the age of 18, and then our success in a number of fields in later life.

The happier those people had been as teens, the more they earned, but only up to a certain point (point 8 on a 10 point scale). Beyond that their earnings fell.

It was the same with education. Moderately happy people studied more than did people who had been very happy.

Only in relationships was extreme happiness found to be a clear asset. The happiest children went on to have the longest lasting intimate relationships.

Their point is that it's a mixed scorecard. Happiness is only one of things that matter in life. If you're missing some, you're likely to get ahead.

Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener, Richard E. Lucas, The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (4) December 2007, 346–360

Don't worry, be (moderately) happy, research suggests. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release, January 24,2008

Dave Munger, If short-term happiness isn't always best, what about long-term? Cognative Daily, December 27, 2007