That happiness is an inalienable right and something we should aspire to have is deeply ingrained in us as Americans. It's also tightly bound to the idea of the American Dream - that with hard work comes reward, success and prosperity, all things we believe will make us happy. But in the past couple of decades, something has shifted in our relationship to happiness; we know this intuitively. Happiness as a life goal is something commonly seen in the Western world. Happiness as a right on par with life and liberty is more distinctly American, and recently seems to have become a distinct obsession. In 2000, there were 50 books published on the topic of happiness; in 2008, that number skyrocketed to 4,000. A quick Amazon search reveals that there have been 668 books published on happiness in just the self-help category in the past 90 days.
Two inputs have gone into our contemporary perceptions of happiness: an explosion in personal income since WWII and a new interest in the science of happiness, or what has become known as the study of positive psychology. To fully understand how we got to our modern definition of happiness, it's helpful to know its history.
Professor Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History, found that in every single Indo-European language dating all the way back to Greek, the word happiness derives from the same root as the word luck. This suggests that for centuries, happiness was something left entirely to fate, chance, the gods; it was not something we could obtain by our own effort.
The Classical Greek and Roman philosophers did think that happiness could be earned, but it wasn't happiness as we know it. To them, happiness was defined as living good, noble lives in accordance with virtue, and this often involved sacrifice for others and suffering. In this view, happiness was about the sum of a total life, not an emotion in a moment. Most ancient philosophers agreed that very few would earn happiness because doing so required a level of commitment and discipline that most lacked. Aristotle referred to the happy as the "happy few."
Later came the Christian notion of happiness, which held that happiness could not be achieved in this life. It was found in the lost Golden Age, before Adam and Eve ruined that for everyone, and upon death and entry into heaven.
In the late 1600s, John Locke declared that "the business of man is to be happy," a clear deviation from the Christian belief that happiness was not man's natural state. To Locke and his contemporaries, this meant there was no shame in working to improve our standards of living or partaking in the pleasures of the world. In a way, the rest is history. In the 1700s and 1800s, people of all classes, and eventually both genders and all races, began to think of happiness as something they were entitled to, wanted and could obtain. Pursuing pleasure was no longer sinful, and suffering was ever more seen as something to be minimized. It was during this happiness revolution that Thomas Jefferson wrote those fateful words in the Declaration of Independence.
That said, it's hard to imagine that when Jefferson wrote "the pursuit of happiness," he envisioned a culture obsessed with consumerism and often sedated by anti-depressants to numb a perceived failing pursuit of happiness. So what did he mean?
Interestingly, the original wording was "life, liberty and property," an idea borrowed from John Locke. Why Jefferson decided for the last-minute switch can only be guessed. The writers of the Declaration of Independence were said to be students of Francis Hutcheson, an Irish reverend and philosopher. In his 1725 treatise, Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas on Beauty and Virtue, Hutcheson wrote, "that Action is best which accomplishes the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions Misery." This linked the notion of happiness to serving one's community, or civic responsibility. Perhaps Jefferson meant that Americans were free to pursue their civic duty, a value that was held in the highest esteem at the time. Or perhaps Jefferson simply had the prescient thought that an inability to separate a man from his property could get messy. Maybe happiness was just the trendy, feel good word of the day.
Jefferson penned those famous words at a moment when the meaning of happiness was in flux; it held connotations both about civic duty and enjoying pleasurable things. Things got a bit more confusing with the Industrial Revolution, which created enormous first-time wealth. Cue the advent of the consumer culture. For the first time, people could buy stuff that had nothing to do with meeting basic needs. Happiness became associated with the fleeting thrill of consumption, and this association only grew more pervasive during the post-WWII boom - a boom of both economics and technology. It's possible that consumer culture is what caused the evolution of happiness to get tripped up and off course. The relentless quest to fulfill desires would give way to the term "hedonic treadmill," the idea that we repeatedly adapt to new circumstances and return to a relative neutrality. We buy something shiny and new, we feel happy. Owning it becomes the new normal, we crave a new something shiny and new.
This materialistic view of happiness holds today, however it has been imbued with a layer of confusion since the 1990s, when the study of happiness became a popular field. Up to that point, emotional psychology focused mostly on unhappiness and pathology, and the study of happiness was thought to be flaky. A lot has been learned - and written - about positive psychology since the 1990s. But it mostly complicates the issue more.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, known to many as the father of behavioral economics, has done enormous research into happiness. He has found three cognitive traps that make it difficult to think clearly about happiness, which he expands upon in his TED Talk:
1) A reluctance to admit complexity. Contributing to the inherent complexity of the study of happiness is that we apply the word to too many things and it has, thus, become relatively meaningless.
2) The confusion between experience and memory. Kahneman differentiates between being happy in your life (how you feel this week, this month) and with your life (how you feel about your life in general). These are two very different concepts, both are important to how we feel, but both get lumped into the definition of happiness.
3) The focusing illusion. We can't think about any circumstance that affects wellbeing without distorting its importance. In other words, we're not great at predicting what will or won't make us happy.
The second point is perhaps the most significant. Kahneman explains that how we feel at any given moment can be far different from how we feel about our lives at large, yet both get described as happiness. What Kahneman has learned is that how an experience ends has an enormous impact on our memories of it. We could have an experience where we had mostly happy moments in it, but something at the end felt overwhelmingly negative. In our memories, we would reflect on this experience as bad. On the flip, we could endure a painful experience, but learn something incredibly valuable from it and reflect on the experience as ultimately positive.
What this means is that our remembering selves are in charge; the experiencing self has very little say in our decisions. No wonder our relationship with happiness is so fraught; happiness is typically something we feel in moments, but our ultimate memories of events dictate our decisions. In other words, we often unwittingly pursue things that don't provide overwhelming happiness in the moment or avoid things that could. When we cannot think about happiness clearly, we cannot find a clear strategy to pursue it. The worse we feel we are at achieving happiness, the more we feel we need it and the less we can tolerate any absence of it. Our relationship to pain then gets out of whack and we find quick fixes to fill the void or self-medicate in some way.
Perhaps it's time to simplify thinking about happiness by extricating this reflective, remembering notion of our lives at large from the notion of happiness. And instead call it meaning, leaving happiness to be something that sometimes happens in moments. Doing so can help us slow down and realize that happiness does not have to be something we must feel in every single second of our lives. It also creates space for and acceptance of life's harder experiences (that are going to happen no matter how many articles or books we read on finally achieving happiness), which create meaning in our lives. Life's struggles are what give way to growth and then, with each fully realized hardship, a higher plane for experiencing happiness.
Happiness and meaning play off each other, yet are distinct and must be pursued separately and differently and neither needs to be pursued constantly. Both are worthy goals, but it must be recognized that one focuses on a feeling in a given moment, and the other on the sum of a life. Which is more worth your time, resources and effort - happiness or meaning?
Read on in this month's section on rethinking happiness - in a way that hopefully can liberate us from the happiness hamster wheel that itself can make us exhaustingly unhappy.
"Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity."
Given recent stock market volatility, could we be at an economic inflection point? Europe is teetering on recession, with calls for massive monetary expansion to "fix" their economy. China has slowed measurably, with some data hawks suggesting their GDP has fallen more than the numbers report. Brazil is in a political and economic tizzy. Argentina is lost on a deserted island. Lower oil prices certainly aren't good for natural resource-based economies like Russia, Norway or Canada. Nor is it good for the luxury consumers of the Middle East. Japanese companies are looking "healthier," but only because their yen bashing monetary policy provides them a new cost advantage, to the detriment of Europeans. Through all this, the US looks to be gaining economic momentum. Or has the effect of spreading global economic malaise just not yet reached us?
Falling oil prices will certainly put a damper on the boom in US oil and gas shale regions. But at the same time, they will lead to cheaper transportation and power costs for both consumers and producers. Will any reduction in capital expenditures for oil and gas be cushioned by an increase in consumer spending? Or an increase in industrial activity brought on by cheaper transportation, power and raw material?
There is no question that hundreds of billions of dollars still must be invested in energy infrastructure. All that growing oil and gas production needs to be transported from where it comes out of the ground to where it will be processed. Expanding production requires us to expand processing capabilities. Capital has to be invested in pipelines, storage, rail lines, trucking, refining, petrochemicals, LNG and all manner of other processing. This extensive capital investment will take several years to play out.
With additional and significant capital investment slated for our energy infrastructure, and with falling oil and gas prices providing stimulus to both our consumer and industrial markets, the US could soon find itself in a Goldilocks economic period. But alas, the US is still strongly tethered to the global economy. If the global economy catches a fever, the US could still catch a cold. Disease spreads fast in close quarters, which is what our global economy is thanks to technology and the spread of market-based economies.
Those who look beyond the headlines know that we have grown employment measurably since the last recession, but the quality of that employment has been subpar. We have created a higher percentage of lower paying jobs in this recovery than any other in the past. Given the data we report below from the Dallas Fed, it is obvious that we are seeing a continuation of the trend away from an industrial to a service based economy.
This shift in our employment make-up is well known, but we must also recognize that average industrial wages have historically been higher than service wages. The person building or making something is arguably more valuable than the person maintaining the things being produced.
Service, "the work that one performs to serve" (according to Webster), suggests there must be an ultimate customer, a client, someone that is going to pay that invoice. But can service serving service serving service create a sustainable economy? At the end of the chain, must there not ultimately be a producer?
This presents the conundrum of our growing service economy. How is an economy sustainable in the long-term if there are not enough producers for service to serve?
Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. And maybe with enough experience, one might be able to gather a bit of wisdom.
Given this month's TLV theme on happiness and its contrast with meaning, it seems that true meaning only comes after a fair amount of hard knocks, skinned knees, bad investments and poor employer or employee choices. If it takes experience to acquire wisdom, then along the way there are going to be a fair amount of unhappy times. Putting one foot in front of the other, day after day after day and reflecting on whatever measure of wisdom we've acquired may be much more important than glorifying our "wins" along the way. Balance may truly be the key to both meaning and happiness.
In a recent installment of their "Spotlight on Statistics" data, the BLS issued a report that looked at income and expenditures before, after and during the Great Recession. Click here or on the images to view the full report. Select data follow.
Average income vs. reported happiness in the U.S.: 1957 - 2002
The following chart is one way to depict the Easterlin Paradox, a fixture of the economics of happiness. Named for economist Richard Easterlin, who articulated the point in a 1974 book, the paradox explains that high incomes correlate with happiness, but increased income doesn't correlate with increased happiness. It also states that unhappiness is not about income in absolute terms, but relative terms. In other words, if someone makes only $10,000 per year, it is not the $10,000 annual income that decreases a person's happiness, it's that it puts this person at the very bottom of the income totem pole that diminishes happiness.
This chart, which adjusts for inflation and charts income in 1995 dollars, shows that there is no clear correlation between income and happiness. Average U.S. income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, but the percentage of people who reported themselves as happy remained the same.
Various organizations and people have tried to understand the Easterlin Paradox. Dr. Kahneman, mentioned in the intro and later in the happiness section below, might have made some sense of it by realizing the distinction between happiness in life and happiness with life. By not distinguishing between happiness in a moment and overall life satisfaction in surveys about happiness, the topic may have gotten confused, creating the paradox. Both Gallup and Dr. Kahneman have found that after a certain income threshold, people no longer report increased happiness. But they do report increased life satisfaction as income ticks up. For more insight into this paradox and the data on that happiness-flattening income threshold, read below in the special section on happiness.
"Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation and freedom in all just pursuits."
With his signature wit, political writer and satirist P.J. O'Rourke muses on what Thomas Jefferson could have possibly meant when he wrote, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Or in O'Rourke's assessment, "life, liberty and WTF."
Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna, was taken, along with his pregnant wife and parents, to a concentration camp 1942. When he was released three years later, most of his family had died. In just nine days, he wrote Man's Search for Meaning, which would go onto be a bestseller. The book recounts his experience in the camps and his conclusion that the differentiating factor between those who survived the camps and those who died was one thing: meaning. To this point comes one of Frankl's most repeated quotes:
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Frankl, who worked as a therapist in the camps, encouraged the destitute to find meaning and expansion in their suffering and focus on the responsibility to something greater than the self. Frankl found meaning to be the source of resilience and of far greater significance to a life than happiness. He has said of happiness:
"...it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"
Meaning is a precursor to true happiness. And hardship is an integral and necessary component of meaning.
In this golden age of positive psychology, there's enormous pressure to be happy. Worse, if we're not, we can suffer all sorts of things: poor sleep, thwarted creativity, weakened and stressed relationships, lower likability. Scientists have recently begun to study what all this pressure to be happy does to us, and they are finding: it makes us very unhappy. One study asked people how important happiness - left undefined - was to their lives. Those who reported the greatest emphasis on being happy showed 50% less frequent positive emotions, 35% less life satisfaction and 75% more depressive symptoms than those who ranked other priorities as more important.
If the hedonic treadmill can trap us in a cycle of consumerism and pleasure seeking, then what of the pursuit of prosperity on a personal and national level? In 2009, Gallup released a widely cited study that found that 30% of Americans earning less than $24,000 annually had received a depression diagnosis. For Americans making $60,000 or more, this number was flat at 13%. Creating economic value that helps lift more people out of poverty, then, does have an impact on overall happiness, to a point. The following chart shows the percentage of depression diagnoses per different citizen segments.
In a similar, but separate study on happiness and income, Nobel prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman and his research partner, economist Angus Deaton, found the magic income number to be $75,000. Dr. Deaton and Dr. Kahneman, whose TED Talk appears in the intro section, differentiates between emotional wellbeing (that happiness, or lack of, in the moment) and total life evaluation (the remembering, reflective self). Those with an annual income of or above $75,000 reported effectively the same happiness level. Interestingly, as income goes up, total life evaluation goes up, as well. Those who make less than $75,000 annually report lower happiness and life evaluation. The two researchers found that emotional wellbeing is best achieved through friendships, relationships and connection with others.
Comedian Louis C.K. relates an experience he had of resisting the urge to distract himself from painful feelings the moment they crept in, only to find joyous feelings once he let himself move through the sad ones. In his characteristic poignant, but still funny way, C.K. reminds us that negative emotions are part of the experience of positive ones. Or, as he says it, our body sends "happiness antibodies" when we move through sadness wholly. Oh, and this is all to explain why he's not getting his kid a cell phone. He believes cell phones are destroying our ability to just sit with ourselves and experience any and all emotions that come our way and are inhibiting kids' development of empathy.
Harvard psychologist, and author or bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert found from a study of over 1,000 Americans, 57% reported finding greater happiness from experiential purchases; 34% said material purchases provided them more happiness. Gilbert explains that how we relate to objects and experiences changes our long-term relationship with them. We quickly adapt to things, which causes them to lose their meaning. However, we remember experiences, which can elicit positive feelings every time we recall them. Experiences are also far more likely to affect change in our lives and ourselves, which can lead to meaning.
"To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering."
The BLS just released data showing that an average of just over 10% of all private sector jobs have been in nonprofit organizations from 2007 to 2012. Follow the link or click the map to be taken to an interactive map that shows nonprofit employment by state. Interestingly, the highest quotient of nonprofit employment clusters in the North.
Success today, with a glut of competition and a world that moves at a head-spinning pace, is not about out-maneuvering the competition, it's about out-thinking them. To keep the mind sharp and tracking the pace of change, one has to be an insatiable learner. Leadership development moves in line with how much we remain open to new experiences, ideas and people. The insatiably curious leader can pass this curiosity onto the entire team; curiosity is the antidote to boredom and stalled thinking, which is an enemy of innovation and success.
For those of you who conduct business overseas, this handy infographic shares useful insights into accepted and unaccepted business etiquette in several countries all over the world. For example, while doing business in China, a bow, not any form of physical touch, is the common greeting. In France, never apologize for an inability to speak French and be aware of the volume of your voice.
In the throes of the amnesty debate, USA Today took a look at how diversity is changing the landscape of our country. The first "great wave" of immigration happened from the 1880s to the 1920s, after Ellis Island opened and amid social transformation in America. We are living in the second great wave, which dates back to 1970. On average, immigrants in this wave are more likely to be middle-class and, thus, more mobile. Where immigrants in the first wave clustered around a few gateway cities - New York, Chicago, San Francisco - today they are moving all over the country, to towns large and small. The following chart shows the odds, across time, that any two people taken from a state would be of different races. Follow the link for USA Today's analysis and profile of the second great wave of immigration.
Any good Houstonian doesn't need to be told why Houston is an appealing city. But it's still interesting to know that between 2000 and 2012, Houston saw a stunning 49% increase in its share of college graduates ages 25 to 34. It's no wonder, considering that Houston is the #1 job creator in the country. Housing is also affordable; Houston's average rent is $1,311. On an MSN list of the best cities for recent college grads, which put Houston in the one spot, Boston came in second, Seattle fourth, and D.C. fifth. Their respective average rents are $1,819, $1,417 and $1,813. (Austin ranked second, with an average rent of $968). Read on for more positive Houston accolades.
Markets are made at the margin, where small events can have a disproportionate impact. Could the US economy have in its grasp an at-the-margin opportunity that could increase overall prosperity? And what would it take to make this happen?