In a nutshell, Powdthavee’s pursuit is an attempt to quantify what we call happiness. But what we call happiness has occupied thinkers, philosophers and psychologists since at least a while before Aristotle. Happiness is a game all of its own—and a highly complex one at that. But Powdthavee argues that, since we’re relying on reports from research participants all over the world to define happiness, whether we’ve got a firm handle on a precise definition of happiness is really not that important. Rather than comparing happiness between participants, he’s interested in what changes subjective happiness for individuals, regardless of whether they agree with others on what happiness really is.
His findings are both intriguing and mildly disturbing. Its common knowledge that, for the most part, money can’t buy you happiness for more than a fleeting period of time. But when you enjoy a higher relative income and you live in a relatively affluent first-world setting, your happiness will rise if your status rises at the same time as your income. In other words, outdoing the Joneses appears to enhance happiness.
Aside from the exploration of a range of happiness-impacting variables, Powdthavee elucidates the battle between psychologists and economists for the truths behind happiness in an engaging blow-by-blow on the history of the field. One example is the set-point theory, proposed by Philip Brickman, in terms of which Brickman argued that happiness and its opposite are transitory reactions to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. According to Brickman, humans adapt and their happiness returns to a baseline level that changes very little over the course of their lives. Paraplegics are far less happy on becoming paraplegics, but soon revert to the same level of happiness they enjoyed before their disability. But economists don’t like the idea of human adaptation to life events. To back it up, they quote studies showing that unemployed people never really return to the same level of happiness they enjoyed while employed. And so the scientific squabbles proceed in the happiness debates, showing, for example, that people tend to recover quickly from the death of a loved one but almost never get used to long commutes to work.
And when the psychonomists weigh in with their numbers, they can tell you that the happiness enjoyed following the birth of a child is worth about $3,750 in the first year for the average Briton. And, while a marriage is worth about $5,250 in happiness, a divorce will cause unhappiness equivalent to a cash loss of about $12,000 in the first year. The unhappiness arising from serious disability is similar—in cash terms—to losing about $106,000 in the first year following the disability, say the psychonomists. And the loss of happiness from the death of a partner is equivalent to around $468,000.
Are you getting that nagging feeling you’re part of game inside a bigger game that you can’t quite spot?
If you are, Powdthavee has the decency to let you in on it, but only in the last few pages of the last chapter of his book. He recounts how, on a visit to his 90-year-old grandmother, he described the work he was doing.
“I told her that money makes people happy, but often not as much as we think. I told her that people habituate to good things, but also adapt to adverse events in their lives. I even told her one of the most advanced findings to date in the happiness literature: that we tend to exaggerate the importance of anything while we’re thinking about it.
“My grandmother—a devout Buddhist, an ex-farmer with no formal education, 90 years of age, who looks like Yoda from Star Wars every time she smiles—leaned closer and whispered to me: ‘Tell me something I don’t already know.’”
I found Powdthavee’s book to be a fascinating elucidation of what we therapists unconsciously think of as our stock in trade—happiness. But his book reaffirmed for me the ineffable nuances implicit in the pursuit of happiness and the relatively sophisticated and charming stories psychology has developed to makes sense of the process.
In the long, meandering and often confusing story of life that we tell ourselves, happiness and unhappiness might be thought of as the punctuation points. But like the words of the sentences they puntuate, they are just individual constituents that are essential to telling a cohesive story that has the kind of happiness quality that therapists tend to call meaning.