The Source of Happiness

When, after twenty years of marriage, Laura Munson’s husband told her “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.“, she chose to not believe him. Not because it didn’t hurt or that she wasn’t taking it personally, but because this wasn’t about her — it was about unmet expectations.

In yet another touching Modern Love column (is there any other type?), Munson tells an enthralling story of marital and familial disquiet, but also manages to cut to the core of happiness: that the source is not to be found through external validation.

I’d finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I’d seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.

My husband hadn’t yet come to this understanding with himself. He had enjoyed many years of hard work, and its rewards had supported our family of four all along. But his new endeavor hadn’t been going so well, and his ability to be the breadwinner was in rapid decline. He’d been miserable about this, felt useless, was losing himself emotionally and letting himself go physically. And now he wanted out of our marriage; to be done with our family. […]

I saw what had been missing: pride. He’d lost pride in himself. Maybe that’s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we’re not as young and golden anymore.

When life’s knocked us around. And our childhood myths reveal themselves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal.

My husband had become lost in the myth.

The Advantage of Busywork: Happiness

“We are happier when busy but our instinct is for idleness”, says Christopher Hsee, a researcher at the University of Chicago who has been studying the link between busyness and happiness.

What this means is that work conducted merely to keep us busy (so-called busywork) can actually increase our happiness, despite what conventional wisdom suggests (Hsee’s study: Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness).

This ‘futile busyness’ is defined by Hsee as “busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness” and is displayed perfectly in a study Hsee discovered showing this in action: at a Houston airport inundated with complaints, managers successfully improved passengers’ well-being by employing a clever bit of reengineering:

A closer analysis of the problem […] revealed that the waiting time until luggage delivery consisted of two components: a 1-minute walking time from the aircraft to the luggage carousel and a 7-minute waiting time at the carousel […] As passengers disembarked from the aircraft and approached the carousel area, a certain fraction of them (those with hand luggage) proceeded directly to the taxi stand, boarded a taxi, and commenced their working day; those waiting at the carousel were afforded the opportunity for seven minutes of watching passengers who disembarked after them start their business day before them […]

The solution to this problem was to deliberately reinsert delays in the system. The aircraft disembarking location was moved outward from the main terminal, and the most distant carousel was selected for delivery of luggage, so the total walk time was increased from one to six minutes. After this insertion of delay was successfully completed and the system was perceived to be more socially just, passenger complaints dropped to nearly zero.

via The Browser

The Argument for Parenthood

It is often suggested that having children has a negative net effect on the happiness of the parents. Economist Bryan Caplan disagrees, suggesting that studies have missed the evidence suggesting that parents sacrifice more than they need to and overestimate the long-term effects of parenting on a wide range of child outcomes (including education, morality, obesity, and general demeanour).

Caplan’s next book is the intriguingly titled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids and in this essay for The Wall Street Journal he outlines his core argument for why we should have children:

While the popular and the academic cases against kids have a kernel of truth, both lack perspective. By historical standards, modern parents get a remarkably good deal. […]

It’s also true that modern parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. But happiness researchers rarely emphasize how small the happiness gap is.[…]

If […] you’re interested in kids, but scared of the sacrifices, research has two big lessons. First, parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and childless and single is far inferior to married with children. Second, parents’ sacrifice is much larger than it has to be. Twin and adoption research shows that you don’t have to go the extra mile to prepare your kids for the future. Instead of trying to mold your children into perfect adults, you can safely kick back, relax and enjoy your journey together—and seriously consider adding another passenger.

Complexity and Autonomy Key to Workplace Satisfaction

Work complexity and autonomy are the two largest factors in deciding workplace satisfaction, suggested findings reported in a 1985 article in The New York Times.

The findings came from research by Dr. Jeylan T. Mortimer and Dr. Melvin L. Kohn and seems to agree with a more recent discussion on the three keys to programmer workplace satisfaction (autonomy, mastery, purpose).

The most important determinant of job satisfaction is ‘work autonomy,’ or the degree to which employees feel they can make their own decisions and influence what happens on the job.

[The researcher] also found, in sharp contrast to most previous research, that income had no significant independent effect on job satisfaction. People earning high incomes typically enjoy the most autonomy on the job […] which tends to make them happy. But if one looks at individuals who have equally autonomous jobs […] then they appear equally happy with those jobs, regardless of any income disparities among them.

Another interesting finding discussed in this article is how “the social position and job conditions” of your job influence the value systems of your children:

If the parents have jobs that allow self-direction […] then they and their children are likely to value such traits as dependabilty, curiosity and responsibility. But if the parents have a job that requires conformity to supervision, he added, then they and their children tend to value such traits as obedience, neatness and cleanliness.

Update: The current (01 July 2010) most highlighted passage on the Amazon Kindle is this, from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:

Three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

Happy Citizens are Good Citizens

By fostering happiness in our cities, towns and villages we are simultaneously cultivating inhabitants that will give more blood, donate more to charity, and generally be better citizens.

That’s the conclusion from a study looking at how happy people become better citizens as a result of being happy.

Happier people trust others more, and importantly, help create more social capital. Specifically, they have a higher desire to vote, perform more volunteer work, and more frequently participate in public activities [i.e. community activities, religious events, cultural events and social gatherings]. They also have a higher respect for law and order, hold more association memberships, are more attached to their neighborhood, and extend more help to others.

No doubt, there’s a positive feedback loop here (e.g. happiness increases participation in social gatherings, social gatherings vastly increase one’s happiness).

The researchers go to great lengths to show causality from happiness to social capital and trust but I’m still not completely won over. Check the paper and see what you think.

via Barking Up the Wrong Tree