20 Mar 2018 19:52 IST

The surprising science of happiness

Our happiness lies in the happiness of others

We search for happiness everywhere — at work, with colleagues, friends and family, during vacations, and among inanimate objects — but it seems to elude many of us. With increasing incomes, our ability to fulfil our desires — of owning a new car or investing in a nice house — becomes possible; our dreams become reality. However, once these wishes come true we find this happiness does not last long, nor is it as intense as it promised to be.

Psychologists Philips Brickman and Donald Campbell call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’. It is the tendency to drift back to our original state of “baseline” happinessdespite experiencing major positive or negative events. In a study of lottery winners, it was established that despite the initial euphoria, the winners were no happier than the non-winners after just 18 months. One reason for this is that the aspiration level shifts towards new targets. Another is that we get used to the “new things” so they do not provide happiness any longer.

Screen-free life

In an interesting study of over 1 million US teenagers, Prof Jean Twenge and his colleague looked at how youngsters spend their free time and which activities were correlated with happiness and which were not. They found that teens who spent more time seeing their friends in person, exercising, playing sports and reading were happier, while those who spent more time on the internet, playing computer games, on social media, texting, using video chat or watching television, were less happy. In other words, every activity that did not involve a screen was linked to increasing happiness, and vice-versa.

In another study, people who were randomly assigned to give up Facebook for a week felt happier during that period, less lonely and less depressed than those who continued to use the social networking site. Several longitudinal studies show that increased amounts of screen time leads to unhappiness without exception.

Finding a balance

But the solution is not to give up technology. It is, in a familiar adage, everything in moderation.

Money contributes to one’s happiness but only to a certain point. As a rule, experiences contribute more towards achieving happiness than material goods. Beyond the point where our basic needs are met and a certain degree of financial security is achieved, we will get a higher emotional return for our money by travelling with people we like than buying a luxury item or even looking at a fatter bank balance.

Many of us realise, a bit too late, that a major contributing factor to happiness is keeping good health. Our body has performance requirements — food, exercise and rest — and those need to be met.

According to Dr George Vaillant, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the only thing that really matters in life is your relationships with other people.

Looking out for others

A short story will help drive this message.

Once, a group of 50 people was attending a seminar. The facilitator stopped the discussions and gave everyone a balloon. The participants were asked to write their name on it using a marker. Then all the balloons were collected and kept in another room. The facilitator, letting the participants in that room, asked them to find their balloon within five minutes.

Everyone, frantically searching for their name, pushed and collided with one another. Soon enough there was complete chaos. At the end of five minutes, most of them could not find their balloon.

Then, the facilitator changed the rule of the game. He asked everyone to just pick one balloon and give it to the person whose name was written on it. Within a few minutes, everyone had their own balloon.

This game applies to all our lives — everyone is searching for happiness all around; if we learn that our happiness lies in the happiness of others, we will be much happier. Wishing you all the best on the International Day of Happiness!