Is happiness a con?

You've got the dream job, the big house, the perfect partner - life is sweet. Here's something to wipe the smile off your face, says Mairi MacLeod

Look through the self-help section of any bookshop, and you'll find hundreds of titles along the lines of 101 Ways to Happiness. Life coaches, advertising and some therapies all capitalise on our obsession with the pursuit of happiness. But do we truly want happiness itself that much? As George Bernard Shaw once said: "A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth." Why, then, do we constantly strive for some sort of utopia? What is happiness for?

Look through the self-help section of any bookshop, and you'll find hundreds of titles along the lines of 101 Ways to Happiness. Life coaches, advertising and some therapies all capitalise on our obsession with the pursuit of happiness. But do we truly want happiness itself that much? As George Bernard Shaw once said: "A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth." Why, then, do we constantly strive for some sort of utopia? What is happiness for?

For the evolutionary psychologist Daniel Nettle, of the University of Newcastle, the relevant question is about how the pursuit of happiness can help us to be successful at survival and reproduction. In his new book, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Nettle suggests that although people believe they will be more happy in the future, they in fact seldom are; that societies don't get happier as they get richer; and that people are consistently wrong about the impact of future life-events on their happiness.

"If you ask people what they want from life and what they like, you get two entirely different sets of answers," Nettle says. "People may like to take a walk in the park, or play with their kids and so on, but what they want might be to get a promotion, earn more money and buy a bigger house."

The trouble is that when we attain the things we're aiming for, we don't get happier, we just want more - a fact that has been demonstrated by the Los Angeles economist Richard Easterlin in a survey of young Americans. He asked participants to list the items they thought they would need for a good life. Their responses tended to include a house, a car and so on, but what they actually possessed usually fell short by a couple of items.

The study was then repeated on the same people 16 years later. Unsurprisingly, their lists of ingredients for a happy life now included a couple more items than had appeared on the originals. But the gap between reality and true happiness or satisfaction stayed fairly constant, regardless of how many items people obtained.

"We have an implicit theory of happiness," Nettle says. "If only I had X, Y and Z, then I would be happy." He says that evolution dangles happiness like a carrot in front of us, so that we forever strive for things that are likely to increase our fitness, such as money, status and access to high-quality partners.

There are other forms of what we call happiness. We are all familiar with the joy we feel when we fall in love. This type of happiness often makes it difficult to concentrate on the more mundane things in life. But the effects of these pleasurable interludes soon wear off. Even lottery winners return to baseline levels of happiness within a matter of a few months in a process known as adaptation. This makes sense: we should not have evolved to stay completely happy for too long, as if we sit around wallowing in contentment, we might miss out on things that are even better for us.

But what makes some people more predisposed to happiness than others? Some people always seem to have a sunny disposition, while others appear gloomy. "Although people adapt surprisingly quickly to both good news and bad," say researchers David Lykken and Auke Tellegen of the University of Minnesota, "the set-point around which happiness varies from time to time apparently differs from one person to another."

In their studies of several thousand sets of twins, Lykken and Tellegen found that our genes have a major impact on our intrinsic happiness: "The reported well-being of one's identical twin, either now or 10 years earlier, is a far better predictor of one's self-rated happiness than is one's own educational achievement, income or status."

The personalities we are born with may predispose us to interpret the world in either a positive or a negative light. "If one small thing goes wrong in the lives of worriers or pessimists, these people can become sensitised to all negativity, and everything looks bad," Nettle says. "And the fear of bad things happening can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Extroverts tend to be happier, and Nettle thinks that this is because they spend more time doing things they enjoy. "At any given point in time, your extrovert is more likely to be married, more likely to have been to a party, more likely to have been playing sports, more likely to have talked to friends, and has had sex more recently, than your introvert," he says.

Another way of looking at this comes from Professor Jim King of the University of Arizona. His study of chimpanzees suggests that the reason happiness and personality traits are so intertwined is because they are affected by the same genes. "Personality traits such as confidence, sociability, and independence, are ones that produce benefits in terms of numbers of offspring," King says, "and they are genetically linked to a quality that everyone can see: happiness."

This discovery, along with findings that people are very good at detecting whether or not others are really happy, led King and his colleagues to speculate that happiness could be an honest sexually-selected indicator of fitness. In other words, we should be particularly attracted to happy people as mates, since they are likely to have good genes that can be passed on to our children.

The idea that a cheery disposition indicates good genes is consistent with several studies that have linked happiness to health. Andrew Steptoe and his colleagues at University College London published research this year that uncovered key mechanisms for the effect of happiness on health. They found in a study of 200 middle-aged Londoners that those who reported higher levels of happiness had fewer physical indicators of future diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular problems.

The genetic basis for happiness, and the fact that perfection is kept just out of reach, may make things seem hopeless, but that's not necessarily the case. Nettle suggests, for instance, that we devote more time to doing the things we like, as opposed to working all hours for the things we want. Another way to feel better is to forget about pursuing happiness, and focus on broader ambitions. "People with faith, or a broad range of interests, often achieve a kind of satisfaction," Nettle says, "because there is a wider set of goals that puts their immediate suffering into context."

And concentrating on something else could mean that happiness might just turn up when we are not looking.

'Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile' by Daniel Nettle is published by OUP (£11.99)

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