One of the timeless questions of the human condition is how to achieve happiness. All manner of religions, philosophies, and lifestyles have offered their own recipe for psychological well-being, but recent years have seen the development of an academic cottage industry in “happiness studies.”
Two recent studies have been published on this topic. The first, “Subjective Well-Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers presents evidence that there is no limit to the connection between gaining money and increasing happiness. The second, conducted by Carsten Grimm of the University of Canterbury, presents the unsurprising finding that sex and drinking/partying are among the most enjoyable activities in life — even more so than raising children.
The first study is especially important because it rejects the existing wisdom that, generally speaking, increases in wealth accompany or even (partly) cause increases in happiness, but only to a point. Stevenson and Wolfers compared happiness levels between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor people within countries, and found that the relationship between increases in money and happiness is linear and does not appear to diminish.
Wolfers suggested that it isn’t the money itself that brings happiness, but rather the opportunities and choices more money allows.
The second study found that sex and alcohol make people happier than raising children. Using text-message conversations as their data set, researchers analyzed various activities through three aspects commonly thought to comprise happiness: pleasure, meaning, and engagement. The two highest-ranking activities in terms of pleasure were sex and drinking alcohol/partying; sex ranked first in all three categories. Following partying on the pleasure scale are volunteering, meditating/religion, and in fifth place, caring for children. Top-ranked negative activities include recovering from illness, and, ironically, texting.
Grimm sums up the general findings as follows: “Those who tend to be high on all three orientations to happiness not only score high on life satisfaction, they also tend to have higher experiences of pleasure, meaning, engagement and happiness in their daily lives. This means that being able to seek happiness in different ways may enrich your everyday experience and increase your overall well-being.”
Both studies should be taken with a grain of salt. One area of caution with the “Money-Happiness” study is the way the researchers measured happiness. They used information from the Gallup World Survey which asks people to rate their happiness in terms of “life satisfaction” on a ten-rung “ladder” scale and in a ten-point scale, one focusing on a general lifetime perception and the other on a more immediate sense of happiness. While this may be a convenient measure, there is the risk of cultural differences complicating the results.
As for the “sex and alcohol study,” the main problem is that the sample is likely biased toward representing the attitudes of young people. Younger people are more likely to text than older people, and insofar as differently aged people have differing priorities and values, this could skew the results. The study does do right by breaking down happiness into three distinct aspects, though it isn’t clear exactly how Grimm interpreted the messages’ contents.
Finally, we should be cautious when approaching all happiness research, for the simple fact that humans are incredibly complex creatures, and as such we should expect the key to happiness to be complex. Indeed, there is no better happiness researcher than each one of us, for we have the means to know what will make us happy better than anyone.