We Americans may have, as Thomas Jefferson declared (and the Continental Congress confirmed on July 4, 1776), an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but are we happy?
And what exactly makes us happy, anyway? Does money do it for us?
Well, yes and no, according to a Gallup poll published Thursday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. That survey, which questioned more than 136,000 people from the United States and 131 other countries, found that as our incomes rise, we appear to be more satisfied with our situation in life. We believe, in other words, that our lives are going well.
But that doesn’t mean we’re happy — enjoying ourselves as we go about our day-to-day activities. The survey did find some correlation between income and personal enjoyment, but such feelings were more strongly associated with other factors, especially having fulfilling work, autonomy, social support and the respect of others.
(FYI: The poll was taken in 2005 and 2006, before the current worldwide economic and job meltdown.)
America: Land of the joyless lottery winners?
In an essay on happiness research that ran in the book section of the New Yorker last March, writer Elizabeth Kolbert noted that Americans are no more happy today than they were in the 1950s:
Several theories have been offered to explain why the United States is, in effect, a nation of joyless lottery winners. One, the so-called “hedonic treadmill” hypothesis, holds that people rapidly adjust to improved situations; thus, as soon as they acquire some new delight — a second house, a third car, a fourth-generation iPhone — their expectations ramp upward and they are left no happier than before. Another is that people are relativists; they are interested not so much in having more stuff as in having more than those around them. Hence, if Jack and Joe both blow their year-end bonuses on Maseratis, nothing has really changed and neither is any more satisfied.
People misjudge their own satisfactions, Kobert added:
They tend to think that they’ll be happier with more variety, when, in fact, they get more pleasure from being offered the same thing over and over again. They are willing to pay a premium to preserve their options, but they’re more contented when they commit themselves to a particular choice. They anticipate being overjoyed by events that, when they actually occur, leave them unmoved.
Last year, researchers at San Francisco State University reported (albeit in an unpublished study) that spending money on experiences — a meal out with friends, a night at the theater — leads to greater personal happiness than spending the same amount of money on things.
“Purchased experiences provide memory capital,” one of the authors of that research said in a press release. “We don’t tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object.”
Something, perhaps, to ponder as you plan your activities — and pursue your own happiness — this Fourth of July holiday weekend.