Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What makes us happy?

Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Princeton professor of psychology and public affairs and the only psychologist ever to win the Nobel Prize in economics, thinks he might have a clue. His study involved 909 working women living in Texas and used the "Day Reconstruction Method" questionnaire. Subjects kept a diary of everything they did during the day and the next day, consulting the diary, they relived each activity and, using 12 scales, rated how they felt at the time.

The Good:
sex, socializing with friends and relaxing

The Bad:
commuting, housework, and facing a boss
poor night's sleep and tight work deadlines

The Surprising:
TV-watching high on the list, ahead of shopping and talking on the phone
Taking care of children low on the list, below cooking and not far above housework

How little difference money made: As long as people were not battling poverty, they tended to rate their own happiness in the range of 6 or 7 or higher, on a 10-point scale. After controlling for other factors, Dr. Kahneman and his colleagues found that even differences in household income of more than $60,000 had little effect on daily moods. Job security, too, had little influence.

Divorcees slightly more cheerful than married women

Compare to this study results of a TIME poll on happiness: "What one thing in life has brought you the greatest happiness?" 35% said it was their children or grandchildren or both, religion a runner-up at 17%, and spouse was far behind at just 9%

The discrepancy with the Texas study illustrate one of the key debates in happiness research: Which kind of information is more meaningful—global reports of well-being ("My life is happy, and my children are my greatest joy") or more specific data on day-to-day experiences ("What a night! The kids were such a pain!")? The two are very different, and studies show they do not correlate well.

Kahneman likes to distinguish between the experiencing self and the remembering self. His studies show that what you remember of an experience is particularly influenced by the emotional high and low points and by how it ends.

The power of endings has been demonstrated in some remarkable experiments by Kahneman. One such study involved people undergoing a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable procedure in which a flexible scope is moved through the colon. While a control group had the standard procedure, half the subjects endured an extra 60 seconds during which the scope was held stationary; movement of the scope is typically the source of the discomfort. It turned out that members of the group that had the somewhat longer procedure with a benign ending found it less unpleasant than the control group, and they were more willing to have a repeat colonoscopy.

Asking people how happy they are, Kahneman contends, "is very much like asking them about the colonoscopy after it's over. There's a lot that escapes them." Kahneman therefore believes that social scientists studying happiness should pay careful attention to people's actual experiences rather than just survey their reflections. That, he feels, is especially relevant if research is to inform quality-of-life policies like how much money our society should devote to parks and recreation or how much should be invested in improving workers' commutes.

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