If nothing else, the happiness train is well funded. By one estimate, those buying tickets spend about a billion dollars a year on self-help books alone, comprising roughly 6% of the overall book market. And if we look at the book bestseller lists in the weekend newspaper, we’re sure to see at least one book there promising a bulletproof prescription for happiness and fulfillment. If money can’t buy happiness, the selling of happiness formulas is certainly enriching a lot of people.
Except that happiness does in fact correlate with money, to a certain level at least. There’s an ongoing debate underway, but it seems clear that there’s a distinct law of diminishing returns at work with increased money and happiness: beyond a certain quantity of money, the payoff in more happiness begins to drop off. What seems more important in ensuring the happiness dividend is to spend the extra cash on experiences, not stuff, and to give some of it away.
These findings come as part of a whole slew of research that began back in 1999, when a small, select group of academics, led by Martin Seligman (here he is in a TED Talk), met in Akumal, Mexico, and gave birth to what is now called Positive Psychology. They defined their new field in a “manifesto” as “the scientific study of optimal human functioning;” this as opposed to the traditional psychological study of mental illness.
Some of their recent findings are fascinating. One of the most interesting to me is that older people are generally happier than younger people, although it isn’t clear why. It seems to me that this is likely the case because, as we age, we are steadily relieved of “the burden of the future.” That burden has to do of course with expectations and aspirations around work and personal relationships, and as we reach a certain age we are obliged to choose between accepting life as it is, or continuing to grieve for what isn’t, and won’t be. If we can choose acceptance, rather than frustration, the payoff in contentment is real.
Another happiness research discovery that I find intriguing is that people with children are not generally any happier than those without. This does not surprise me; any parent knows that having children involves a whole lot of work, expense and sacrifice. Two parents today with two jobs and two small children endure an abundance of stress. Even more so perhaps for the single parent.
The payoff with children is not in happiness, not for a long time at least, but in meaning. If you ask the two no-more-happy parents described above if they regret having children, I suspect the answer will be almost uniformly no, and that’s because the raising of children engages them in an experience that is profound. It locks them into a course where, if they can succeed at all, they can feel they’ve done something consistent with the most important values they hold; those having to do with love. In the end, family will come first, and we would do well to remember that when caught up in the blur that is life with a career and small children.
At the risk of sounding rather formulaic myself, I think it’s critical to understand that the happiness train isn’t going anywhere. As the adage would remind us, happiness is not a destination but a manner of travelling. Those who have climbed onboard must engage in the present, and refrain from regretting the past, or machinating on the future. As the great American songwriter James Taylor has espoused, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” If you’re onboard the happiness train—and we all are—you shouldn’t worry about whether you’ll arrive on time, or what you’ll do when you get there. It shouldn’t matter which terrain the train is travelling through, island retreat or urban jungle. Neither should you be concerned with where you are in the journey, whether that be the aspirational beginning, the hardworking middle, or the hopefully more contented end. (Luck will play a significant part in the circumstances you’ll find yourself in, come the end, but you can’t do much about that either, other than to be prepared.) Just try to enjoy the ride.