Posted Sep 4, 2012


By Hasan Zillur Rahim

Everyone wants to be happy but few attain it. One reason is that many of us mistake success for happiness. The relationship between success and happiness is murky. There may be a correlation but no causation. One does not “cause” the other, although statistics show that success is more likely to occur at the expense of happiness instead of the other way round. Success is measured mostly in worldly terms – wealth, power, fame, knowledge – while happiness is more elusive, a state of grace sustained by contentment, moderation and purpose.

Given its universal desirability, psychologists, economists and neuroscientists are bringing analytical rigor to the study of happiness. (One of the hottest fields in developmental economics now is happiness research in which economists have introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to at least supplement, if not replace, GNP as a gauge of national progress.) They are testing our beliefs and intuitions about “subjective” happiness with objective tools to gain fresh insight into what makes us happy and what does not.

One of the first insights has to do with the old cliché that money does not buy happiness. True, but how does one quantify it? Based on data collected from almost half a million U.S. citizens, researchers at Princeton found that happiness rises with yearly income until about $75,000, after which it tapers off. (In some areas, the figure is as high as $120,000). In other words, more money beyond a certain threshold does not translate into more happiness. As income rises, so do aspirations. Social scientists have found that as people get rich, they tend to move to richer areas where they don’t feel as rich, and so are driven to become richer still. Success reveals latent wants whose upkeep demands more success that brings more wants to the fore. The victim in this endless cycle of rising expectations is happiness.

The late novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were once in a party hosted by a billionaire hedge fund manager. Vonnegut told Heller that their host made more money in one day than Heller ever made from his classic novel Catch-22. Responded Heller: “True, but I have something he will never have: enough!”

Of course, everyone has a different idea of what is enough. That’s where the $75,000 (or $120,000) threshold comes in. (The number is to be understood in an American context but there is a monetary threshold for people in every nation.) After you have reached a certain income bracket, more happiness alights on you only if the additional money is spent on helping others, on friendship and so on – and not in the mindless pursuit of more money and more things. A lack of money for the essentials brings unhappiness, to be sure, but an overabundance of it does not bring more happiness either.

What psychologists have also found is that buying experiences rather than things makes us happier. Traveling is a perfect example, as is spending time in the outdoors. The experience of a new place lasts far longer than acquiring the latest gadget, the fancy car or even the biggest house on the block. One doesn’t have to travel to exotic places for a rich experience. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” wrote Thoreau. A walk in the woods or a trip to the shore near where one lives can leave an indelible impression on the soul. It can make us happier and more creative. On the other hand, empirical evidence shows that a new iPhone, a shiny Mercedes or even an imposing mansion can make us happier but rarely for more than 2-3 months. Once the novelty wears off, it’s on to the next fad, the next “must-have” objects of desire.

What this shows is that we often make mistakes in our expectation of what will make us happy and so end up making mistakes in our choices. “What I want, I want mistakenly,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore, “what I get, I don’t want.”

Although researchers differ in some of the particulars of what constitutes happiness (after all, we find happiness in different ways), they agree on the bigger picture. Control over what we are doing (entrepreneurs, take note!), for instance, makes us happy. So is being connected to others, not in the superficial social network sense but in connections forged through affection and gratitude. An unfailing source of happiness is to be a part of something that transcends us, something bigger than ourselves, be it a charity, a cause or belief in the unseen.

Those fortunate to find their aim in life - the only fortune worth finding, as Robert Louis Stevenson observed - find happiness more easily that those who latch onto whatever comes their way. This implies that a purpose-driven life begets more happiness than one that drifts. If we love what we do and if our life reflects our values, we don’t need to pursue happiness; happiness will find us. However, happiness does not mean a tranquil life. Life is unpredictable, a rollercoaster ride with inevitable ups and downs. What researchers have found, though, is that in spite of its unpredictability and its inherent tragic nature, life rewards those with bliss whose inner compass keeps them moving steadily in the direction of their dreams and values.

It does not have to be only the sweeping changes we need in our lives to be happy. Researchers have found that small, everyday habits and actions can profoundly affect happiness. Saying at least one positive thing a day to a loved one, instead of always whining and complaining, can lead to enduring happiness. Making something as simple as coffee or tea for your spouse once or twice a week can boost happiness (This is more for husbands than for wives, since wives are used to doing it anyway!)  Being able to walk to work rather than commute for an hour or longer significantly raises the level of happiness. In fact, a study shows that the daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.

The most persistent impediment to happiness remains consumerism, a way of life in which we find meaning and acceptance (we think) by what we consume. It traps us in a work-spend treadmill from which we can rarely break free. In addition to buying experiences, another antidote to consumerism is to under-indulge and to buy more for others than for oneself. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who became enormously wealthy found happiness after renouncing materialism. He offers this perspective: You can make enough money not to need things, or you can just not need things.

The Prophet (saws) taught that the source of happiness is a contented heart. “Be content, and you will be happy,” however, is a hard advice to live by, given our flawed nature and the endless temptations of “stuff” surrounding us. We are rarely satisfied with what we have, forever pining for more and yet more. “And violent is man in his love of wealth,” says the Quran (100:8) The Prophet (saws) also said: “If the son of Adam had a mountain of gold, he would ask for another, and nothing will fill him up in his desire for wealth except the dust of his grave.”

So, to be happy requires some conscious choices. Resisting the lure of material things and living a life of moderation and purpose can make the heart content. That, in turn, can bring happiness within anyone’s reach.