The other day I was reading a report on the results of a psychological survey.  I can’t say that the results shocked me, but they were interesting.  Controlling for all other controllable factors, those people who are the happiest are married, religious, conservative extremists.  The next most happy are married, religious, liberal extremists, but there are a whole lot fewer of them, because very few extreme liberals are also religious.  And needless to say, according to the study, the most unhappy are unmarried, non-religious moderates.

The study didn’t attempt to analyze the reasons behind those findings, but from what I’ve seen, people tend to be the happiest when their lives are the most stable.  Being married, especially for a long time, makes for stability.  So does a philosophical mindset that remains stable and undisturbed by facts contrary to that mindset, and extremists almost never consider that which might upset their beliefs.  Likewise, for the religious, religion provides great stability and comfort.

Now… it’s no secret that the American political process has become polarized, and each of the major parties has come to embrace platforms and issues tending toward the extreme.  Yet, as each election in recent years has come around, there’s been an apparent groundswell of voters saying that the parties don’t represent them, that they’re more middle of the road. I’m beginning to wonder about that.

And there’s another factor involved.  When I was a much younger man, in high school and in college, when young people were asked what they wanted to be, most had fairly concrete ideas, not that many didn’t change their minds.  They wanted to be pilots, doctors, electricians, even plumbers, and some even wanted to be President. Today, when I or my wife asks college students what they want to be, the single largest response, dwarfing all others, is:  “I want to be happy.”

So does anyone who is sane, I think.  Who really would want to be unhappy [although I’ve known a few people in that category]?  But the problem with that response is twofold.  First, in practical terms, happiness isn’t really a goal;  it’s a mindset and response to what else you’re doing in life.  Second, if happiness does become a goal, what makes it most possible?  Apparently, a mindset that, over time, is incompatible with a representative democratic republic comprised of a population with a growing economic and ethnic diversity.

Just a few thoughts….


12 thoughts on “Happiness”

  1. Mage says:

    I assume that the happiness survey data is US centric and the college student anecdotal evidence is, also, US centric. Aside from that caveat I don’t think that the two items will correlate.

    If you accept Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model, then I would posit that the student responses are based on their perception that they are at or near the top of Maslow’s pyramid.

    On the other issue I think that you must look at the level of change that has occurred in the US over the last 100 years. That level of change in many other places and times has produced revolutions, but not here. Change by its nature will make people unhappy. Consequently people will need copying mechanisms to deal with those changes. One mechanism is to retreat into extreme religious or political (or both) positions to insulate against the changes.

  2. Mikor says:

    Hm, interesting. A little surprising about the extremist factor. My understanding (based on PewResearchCenter stats) is that Republicans are happier, on average, than Democrats or Independents, regardless of ideology within the party. In other words conservative Republicans are about as happy as moderate and “liberal” Republicans, and Conservative/Moderate Democrats are about as likely to score themselves “very happy” as liberal Democrats.

    Also (based on the same source), it wasn’t so much religion as going to church at least weekly vs. monthly vs. less often. Which could, of course, be correlated with intensity of religious beliefs, but may also be related to social interaction.

  3. Brian says:

    Am I being facetious when I comment that we now have definitive proof that ‘ignorance is bliss’?

  4. Ryan Jackson says:

    While I’m sure a large portion of those stating “I want to be happy” are not thinking things through, I do have to offer that some in that category are serious, a bit tongue in cheek, and by no means thinking of Happiness itself as a goal.

    That’s similar to the answer I give in most job interviews when asked “What are you looking for in this possition?” I’m not being generic, or deliberately vague, but I like what I do for a living and the majority of my logic and wishes regarding any type of promotion or shift in the company is usually two fold. I want more money and I want more freedom to act on situations as I see fit.

    The money answer is usually considered a bad choice to admit, true as it is for all of us. The freedom choice, if laid out simply like that, tends to cause its own disturbance.

    So I’ve moved to a point where I tend to say “I’m looking to be happy. I want to ensure security for my family and I want to do the best I can for this company.” It’s a near worthless answer, but it’s one I’ve found people like and if needed I can happily spin some more on that second part with specifics to the job.

  5. Joe says:

    Few people can hope to have a single career over their lifespans. After seeing their parents lose their jobs as airline pilots, secretaries, manufacturing workers, and so on, your students probably know a lifetime career is a pipe dream.

    Economic instability causes stress, which reduces people’s tolerance (see Germany in the 1940’s). Climate change will also increase stress (consider Somalia, or that we’ve just lost 40% of the US corn crop due to drought). Expect less democracy. I think the government knows this (TSA, Homeland Security, militarization of the police, etc).

  6. JoBird says:

    There’s no doubt that it’s a non-answer. Being happy is a presumed goal. It’s similar to saying that you want to be alive. Sure, survival is a reasonable objective, but the flaky response gives no sense of how you intend to achieve the result.

    This is a John Lennon answer. Quote: “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

    There’s a certain cockiness to it, an assurance — albeit false in my humble opinion — that the fellow answering knows more than the fellow questioning. It’s arrogant under the guise of wisdom, but ultimately naive.

    I believe the ‘happiness’ response denotes a rather rebellious mind. The students know what the question is, but they feel put upon, judged. So, they say happy, no matter what else I’m doing, I want to be happy. Look at how open minded I am, I don’t judge folks. We are defined by more than our clothes and our jobs. Am I not clever like Lennon? How can you judge someone who wants to be happy?

    Stability is the foundation of happiness, I agree. Stability allows you to pick and choose those people you spend time with. Stability gives you the opportunity to read, to learn, to grow, and to prosper.

    It is best found through personal responsibility, perseverance, and integrity. These things lead you to knowledge of yourself. Knowing yourself often means that you aren’t afraid of picking sides, after all, you’re not wishy-washy. You’re aware of what you believe, and you’re capable of voicing your opinion. It stands to reason that such folks would be extremists.

  7. Mayhem says:

    I could definitely see the people of a religious bent being ‘happier’ than others. Especially from what I know of the more active american based religions we see outside the US, like the Baptists.
    Due to the nature of their community, you are regularly getting positive reinforcement, a sense of belonging to something productive, and recognition by your peers.
    That sort of psychological influence is almost certain to make people happier more often, which would be reflected in the study. On the other hand, is it actually true?
    As Brian somewhat tongue in cheek said, is ignorance of things outside your social group, deliberate or not, really benefitting you as an individual, and the group as a whole?

    As for the college students – today’s children are expected to be more capable of anything than their parents, and especially their grandparents. Where they eventually end up could be totally different from the dreams of youth, so simply wanting to be happy in their lot is quite an understandable desire. Compare the young apprentice of the 1700s with the middle class of the 1900s with the children of today – Today’s child gets a much much broader education, and is allowed to be a child for far longer. It means that decisions on where to go are frequently delayed till the mid 20s, also partly explaining away the “lack of decision in today’s youth”.

  8. The majority of children in the United States are allowed to be without responsibility longer, but not necessarily “children.” They mature far earlier physically, and there’s tremendous cultural and peer pressure to become socially and sexually active earlier [despite all the abstinence movements].

    1. Mayhem says:

      I agree with that, but balance it with the idea that western children have a tendency towards delayed mental maturation. The majority of first year students at my university (18-19yr old) tended to be very vague and immature, exposure to university life would then rapidly complete their mental development … for better or worse.

      Compare with say your average Japanese student – they generally know exactly where they are going by junior high school (12-15). Senior High School (15-18) is then about furnishing them with the exact requirements they will need to enter their desired career path, whether vocational or academic. It seems to be driven by both cultural and parental imperatives, as I saw similar behaviour from second generation Japanese families in much more laid back NZ. They just have this real motivation to achieve that most of the rest of us lacked, a drive to become a ‘responsible adult’ as quickly as possible.

  9. Tim says:

    Some paragraphs on the above posts in no particular order…

    If you really want childen to mature earlier and gain leadership skills etc well ahead of their age peers, you send them to private boarding schools. The downside is that they become very independent earlier.
    I doubt any pupils at Eton would ever respond to the stated questions with ‘I want to be happy’. That would be considered to be a very poor and immature response, if not crass.

    In a job interview, I have never experienced a candidate who said that they wanted to be happy. If they did, I would think they were not quite right in the head. I believe the acceptable responses nowadays need to include words like fulfilment, achieving one’s objectives, job satisfaction, getting just rewards and the like. The trouble is that I end up ticking off these rehearsed rote responses in my head. You have to dig really hard to break through all this hyperbole to find out what makes the person tick.

    I agree with Mikor in that it is the social aspect of attending church which makes some people more contented, because people appear to care about you and their views, something increasingly missing in the corporate world, and which has been missing in academia for far longer I gather.

  10. Wine Guy says:

    Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is like Truth with a capital ‘T.’ Perhaps it exists, but only in the abstract because it is entirely subjective. What makes me happy would not be right for the next person… and when what makes me happy clearly infringes on the rights/expectations of the next person, where does the line get drawn? With Truth, it seems to be where ever the politicos of the day can manage it – just look at any hot button topic in the US (reproductive rights, immigration). If they get it into their heads that happiness (Happiness) needs to be the same way, then our civilization is truly doomed.

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