Can we manufacture happiness?

Can we manufacture happiness?

In these troubled times, everyone is looking for happiness.

What is happiness? And more importantly what will make us happy?

Will I be happier in my next job, than I am in my present job?

Does happiness come from getting what we want? Does it come from our relationships?

Do we need adversity to be happy? Does happiness come from being virtuous?

If I am a little wealthier will I be happier? Should I be more forgiving to be happy?

My attempt here is not to prepare a quick fix happiness potion and recommend it to everyone.  I want to present some of the startling findings from the world of psychology which will give an entirely new dimension to our understanding of happiness.

I will write about the works of two psychologist- Jon Haidt and Dan Gilbert. One of my friends posted a talk by Dan Gilbert on Facebook. That’s how I got interested in his works. Again when I was listening to a TV show in which Deepak Chopra was the guest, I heard of the term happiness set point. I ended up reading about the topic and that’s how I got to know of Haidt’s work.

Haidt and his happiness formula

Jon Haidt presented the idea of a happiness formula. Happiness = S + C + V, where

H =Happiness Set point or the capacity for happiness that is set by our genetics and history

C=Conditions of our life, and

V=Voluntary or discretionary activities, that is the choices we make and the things we choose to do

Happiness set point

This is something which is set by our genes. It refers to the fact that some of us are naturally more morose, and others bubblier.

In fact for a long time, Psychologists have generally believed that human happiness is largely independent of our life circumstances. This explains why the wealthy aren’t much happier than the middle class, married people aren’t much happier than single people; healthy people aren’t much happier than sick people, and so on.

Let me give two examples to illustrate this point: 1.) Able-bodied people who suddenly become paraplegic; 2.) Lottery winners who become wealthy overnight. People, in both examples, in spite of their changed circumstances, one on a wheel chair and the other with millions in the bank, return to their previous level of happiness (or unhappiness) within a year. Isn’t that fascinating? Human beings are not slaves to their circumstances, after all!

In 1978, a team of psychologists from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts published Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study (Vol. 35, No. 8, pages 917–927) that found lottery winners were not significantly happier than control-group participants and that patients with spinal-cord injuries “did not appear nearly as unhappy as might be expected.” Ever since then, many in psychological and social science circles have taken for granted that people return to a relatively stable “happiness set point,” even after seemingly life-changing events.

It would follow then that changes in life circumstances do not have long-term effects on our happiness. In fact this belief has been the dominant model of subjective well-being: People adapt to major life events, both positive and negative, and our happiness pretty much stays constant through our lives, even if it is occasionally perturbed.

This theory predicts that winning the lottery, for example, won’t make you happier in the long run. While a divorce or even a major illness will throw your life into upheaval, over the long-run your happiness level will eventually return to where it was at before. It is called the “set-point” theory and employs a term borrowed from the set-point theory of body-weight which states that weight-loss will almost always be temporary.

(Association for Psychological Science)

Conditions of Life

The second part of the equation refers to the conditions of our life — conditions that we can change and those that we cannot. Obviously, we cannot change our age or race. But we can change such conditions as our level of wealth or marital status for the better or the worse for that matter. External conditions matter too. For example, by reducing irritating noise levels, reducing commuting time, taking more control of your life, improving our appearance, and strengthening your family and social network, we can increase your happiness, at least temporarily.

As per Haidt “the conditions of life relevant to happiness are relatively difficult (and in some cases impossible) to change, and include things like our race, sexual orientation, and the nature of our family and community. For example, a person born into a stable family in a stable democracy with adequate opportunities for education, health care and meaningful employment has a much higher probability of living a satisfied life than an orphan in an impoverished, war-torn country. The gargantuan effort necessary to leave abusive relationships, escape from unstable communities or drag oneself out of poverty pay massive dividends from a happiness point of view.

On the other hand, the massive effort required to drag oneself from the middle class into the super wealthy category or achieve other significant social status markers, appears to pay negligible happiness dividends unless the process by which these symbols are obtained is itself enjoyable. That is, happiness is about the journey. Those who endure the journey in hope that the destination will pay off are almost invariably frustrated.”( Source

Voluntary Activities

The third part of the equation refers to the things that we choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new language, or taking a vacation. They too can increase our level of happiness. For example I may choose to exercise at least 30 minutes six days a week and that may really makes me very happy, both in the moment and afterward.

Our voluntary or discretionary activities have a much greater effect on happiness than we tend to appreciate. We can choose, for example, to spend more time cultivating our most meaningful relationships instead of accumulating status symbols; we can identify our strengths and choose to spend more of our time using them; we can identify the causes for which we feel passion and spend more energy there; we can choose to spend more of our time in environments that are more predictable or over which we have more control; the jack of all trades can choose to master something at a level she has not previously experienced; the expert may push himself out of his comfort zone into a period of chaotic personal and professional growth; etc. Taking action of this kind tends to improve our happiness. However, most of us consistently choose not to do these things. (Source

Now we come to another important question. If all of us are aware, at least theoretically, what can possibly contribute to happiness, why are so few of us able to act in a way which will make them happier?

The Divided Mind

Jon Haidt in his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis ‘beautifully explains the role of the conscious and the unconscious mind and how much of the un-happiness is the result of the tension between the two. A bit of context setting is useful here.

The mind is divided into two parts-the recently evolved conscious and the much older unconscious, which Haidt calls the “rider” and the “elephant” respectively.

Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the recently evolved conscious part of the mind has limited control over what the elephant does, and the elephant’s tendencies (our instincts) were for the most part developed in an environment that differs radically from the one we must navigate today. For example, the elephant pursues the security and status that will help it win the evolutionary contest to pass as many of its genes as possible on to the next generation. Even today, many contests go to the most confident and loudest self-promoter instead of the most talented.

So given this, how does our conscious mind behave?

An important part of the rider’s job is to justify whatever the elephant happens to do, and the rider does this while believing that it is an accurate perceiver in pursuit of truth and justice. To perform its function, the rider must be unaware of much of what is going on, like sales people who are most effective while unaware of their product’s shortcomings.

The rider’s tendency toward inaccurate perception and overconfidence explains a lot of human behaviour that seems irrational. This is why most people believe that they are above average and that their perceptions are accurate and objective while other people are strongly influenced by emotions and biases. It also explains the ease with which most people can pick out flaws in other people’s belief systems while being unable to do so with regard to their own.

In fact out conscious mind makes a lot of judgement errors.

For example:

• We tend to seek confirmation for our beliefs and to avoid or suppress the perception of evidence that questions them. That is, we are not truth seekers, we are confirmation and affirmation seekers. The more people around us share our beliefs, the stronger this bias is. Our memories, perceptions and judgments all bend to this and the other forces noted below. This has to do with our need for security.

• We underestimate the importance of the natural probability of events and so tend to see meaning where there is none. This likely also has to do with our need for security.

• Reality is often more complex than our ability to comprehend it. Since we don’t deal well with the fact that we are often wrong, we unjustifiably simplify what we observe so that we can believe that we understand it. The culprit here is, again, our need for security.

• We are more persuaded by stories, metaphor and analogy than data. We are narrative animals. This is part of our tendency to simplify, and so is also related to our security needs.

• We tend to trust people perceived to be experts more than can be justified. For example, a man dressed in a business suit will tend to be believed, and obeyed, more than the same man dressed casually. Again, this has to do with our need for security.I have likely made the security point by now and so won’t tie the rest of the points into it.

• Vague, distant sources of authority tend to sway us more than present sources.

Much unhappiness is the result of frustrated expectations. So, if we are consistently wrong about reality we will tend to be unhappy. An understanding of how cognitive biases work helps us to establish more realistic expectations and to get more of what we want from life. As mentioned most of the tension is because of the conflict between the conscious and the subconscious.

For example, current research suggests that most people would be happier if they lived closer to work, spent less time commuting, worked less, spent more time engaged in activities related to their most important relationships and causes, and spent their discretionary income more on experiences and less on objects. This would require, however, that we give up the type of status symbol the elephant instinctively pursues, such as higher incomes, larger houses and other visible status social artefacts. As noted, the elephants win most contests of this type, and as a result we tend not to find the happiness we seek.

Another very interesting point is the negativity bias.

Because the unconscious mind is trained for survival instincts anything that is likely to improve prospects for survival or reproduction will feel good and attract the elephant (the nice smell of food cooking; the sight of an attractive potential mate). Anything that might prove threatening will repel the elephant (the bitter taste of toxins or a sound in the bushes that might be a predator). And because it’s much more serious to miss a threat than an opportunity for a meal or sex, the elephant has a negative bias. That is, if you don’t notice a ripe piece of fruit, you’ve missed a tasty treat, but if you do not react quickly enough when you hear the sound of a potential predator, you might be dead. So, our brains are wired to react much more quickly and dramatically to potential threats than opportunities for food, sex, etc.

For example, our negativity bias explains why the mind at rest tends toward depression. By day three of a long weekend or vacation of planned “down-time”, most people feel somewhat depressed unless they’ve kept themselves busy, which would mean they did not have downtime. Watching a lot of television does not create enough mental activity to short-circuit the negativity bias, and accordingly the more television a person watches, the more likely it is that she will be depressed.

The concepts advanced by negativity bias theory are not exactly new. Theory on negativity bias tends to agree that people are much more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than on their desire to get positive things.

If you think about your life, you might note some ways in which you exhibit negativity bias. For instance, try to remember a compliment you received in junior high and then try to remember an insult. Many people will much more easily remember the insults than they will the compliments, though this can vary. Negative occurrences tend to resonate and be more memorable than positive or neutral occurrences. Bad truly seems stronger than good.

The theories of negativity bias tend to explain why negative and smear campaigning, and the politics of fear, uncertainty and doubt are so effective in elections. People may vote based not so much on their admiration of a particular candidate, but for the candidate who seems to have the least chance of bringing negative or bad things into their lives. A campaign that exploits negativity bias paints the opposite candidate as someone to be feared, and often makes false claims that leadership by another candidate would result in numerous bad things: more taxes, less security and the like.

Parents should also understand negativity bias because it can influence and shape parenting. Every day parents may provide children with many positive and neutral experiences. However, the day mom or dad loses it and screams at the kids is the day that kids, even as adults, will probably remember. Knowing that a negative act toward a child is likely to become much more prominent in a child’s memory may help us to remember how important it is to try to keep our tempers. It also turns out that for positive experiences to resonate, they have to occur with much greater frequency.

So what do we do during those long weekends so that we don’t feel depressed?

People tend to fluctuate throughout the average day between eight different states: apathy, boredom, worry, relaxation, anxiety, control, arousal, and flow. Which state you are in depends on the challenges you are facing currently and the skills you possess to deal with those challenges. Depressingly most people’s daily experience is in apathy (the highest contributor being watching television).

One of the most convincing studies on happiness has been done by the Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi interviewed hundreds of successful people ranging from athletes, painters, writers, business people, scientists and religious leaders, and found that they all shared a similar experience when describing the time they were most happy and productive. He calls that experience ‘Flow’; most athletes would call it ‘being in the zone’. It is the period when time seems to disappear and your actions just flow with little or no effort. With it comes the feeling of being at one with your surroundings, almost a state of bliss.


One of the best ways to overcome the negativity bias is to spend many hours a day in a “flow” state. This is the mental state that accompanies being engaged in a challenging activity that you regard as meaningful. If the challenge is too great, you will become frustrated and feel stress. If the challenge is not great enough, you will be bored and eventually depressed. Ironically, both adults and children tend to believe that they will be happier if they have more leisure. The data indicates the opposite. Children who are permitted to do what they want to do (spend more time watching television, playing video games and hanging out at the mall with their friends) tend to be significantly more depressed than their peers who spend more time doing homework and engaged in active hobbies such as learning to play a musical instrument or participating in competitive athletics. Adults who take early-retirement without finding significant challenges, and hence flow, outside the workplace similarly report increased levels of depression and health problems, and tend to die sooner than their more engaged peers.

Meditation, whether combined with yogic practices, deep relaxation techniques, and cognitive therapy or otherwise, correlates powerfully with reduced levels of depression and increased happiness. It seems to loosen up our mental systems so that they are better able to identify, and adapt to, reality. In fact, a combination of meditation and cognitive therapy has been shown to be as effective as pharmaceutical antidepressants with regard to a wide range of mental illnesses, while providing many other benefits and avoiding the side-effects that often accompany the use of anti-depressants.

So I am the only one unhappy?

To answer this question we look into the works of Dan Gilbert. Quote –

For the last decade I’ve been obsessed with one problem: How well can the human brain predict the sources of its own future satisfaction? If the answer were “Very well, thank you,” then I’d be out of a job. Research suggests that I will be employed for a long time to come.

We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future for two reasons. First, we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: Genes and culture. Both genes and cultures are self-perpetuating entities that need us to do things for them so that they can survive. Because we are interested in our own happiness and not theirs, both entities fool us into believing that’s what is good for them is also good for us. We believe that having children will make us happy, that consuming goods and services will make us happy. But the data show that money has minor and rapidly diminishing effects on happiness, and that parents are generally happier watching TV or doing housework than interacting with their children.

So what happens if we try to disregard the genetic and cultural imperatives and just figure it all out for ourselves? What happens if we just close our eyes, imagine different possible futures, and try to decide which one would make us happiest?

Research shows that when people try to simulate future events — and to simulate their emotional reactions to those events — they make systematic errors. Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that this is one of our species’ most recently acquired abilities — no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to simulate the future is one of nature’s newest inventions, so it isn’t surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. The main error, of course, is that we vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate. We overestimate how bad we will feel if our children get hurt, hence we go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. This “impact bias” has proved quite robust in both field and laboratory settings.

Oddly, we don’t seem to learn all that much from our own experience. To learn from experience requires that we be able to remember it, and research shows that people are about as bad at remembering their past emotions as they are predicting their future emotions. That’s why we make the same errors again and again.

Is there Hope?

The answer lies in that Dan Gilbert calls -The emotional immune system.

According to the Harvard psychologist there are two types of happiness, the kind we have when we get what we want, and the kind when we don’t get what we want. The first kind is fairly obvious, but it is surprising that people could be happy about failure. Dr. Gilbert’s findings are that people are often very wrong when predicting what will bring them happiness in the future, and that people have a powerful “emotional immune-system” for creating their own happiness when they don’t get what they want. His findings also indicate that this kind of synthesized happiness is just as real as the normal kind.

To find out more on Dr. Gilbert’s research you can read his award winning book:“Stumbling on Happiness”.

In conclusion

This has been a long article and also a difficult one. Most of the concepts have been drawn from the works of two outstanding researchers-Haidt (his book- The Happiness Hypothesis) and Dan Gilbert (his book -Stumbling on Happiness).

There are quite a few concepts discussed.

The gist is this-the conscious mind is not as evolved as the unconscious and hence there is a conflict between what is really important for us (conscious mind) and our instincts about survival (unconscious mind). Combined to this is the fact that we have a negativity bias that is, we tend to remember and prepare for negative experiences more. Hence we overestimate a loss more than it’s really worth for. Also we feel that we won’t be happy if we don’t get what we want. Well nature has a fall back mechanism. Our emotional immune system ensures that we readjust even in case of failure. Hence it comes to one thing –voluntary actions. We can make choices in our life which will make us happier and not worry about the failures for all you know you have overestimated your loss.

So what say? At the end of this long article, it’s all very simple.

Prithwish Mukherjee

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2 Responses to Can we manufacture happiness?

  1. Nick says:

    Hi Prithwish,

    Very interesting post, thank you.

    By asking “what is happiness?” you ask a very interesting question. I recently had my own shot at defining happiness, which aims to be more “scientific” and “objective” despite being a subjective feeling: What is happiness?

    I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Thank you, Nick

    • lateralviews says:

      Hey Mike.
      It’s quite a unique effort on your effort to measure happiness. I will give you some pointers on my understanding of the topic. Rest is unto you to construe.
      Happiness is one of the many emotions we feel. Hence the first step to experience happiness is to open yourself to other emotions. Sometimes we are so closed about loss/ failure / disappointment that we end up literally throwing out all emotions except apathy and indifference from our lives. We have to feel other emotions also to feel happy.
      Scientifically speaking happiness is chemically induced. Hormones like the Oxytocin or the attachment hormone have a lot to do with our feeling of happiness, contentment.
      I will continue with story I am trying to weave. So firstly happiness is an emotion induced by chemicals. It is the period when time seems to disappear and your actions just flow with little or no effort. With it comes the feeling of being at one with your surroundings, almost a state of bliss.
      Secondly I believe in the quote – you don’t deserve to be happy. You decide to be happy. Let me build on this from the scientific point of view. If you go through my article ( ), I have written about Haidt’s work on the Happiness formula. What is interesting to note is that voluntary activities or the conscious choices you make have a larger impact on your happiness than the conditions of living or winning a lottery. From your point of view of measuring happiness, there are cognitive tools of measuring happiness or dissatisfaction. May be you can do more search on this. What I wanted to tell you is that there are tools available for the same which helps an individual to increase his happiness reference point.
      This gets me to the third point, if we know what is right, why are we not doing that. I think partly the problem is that we are not good at being able to judge accurately what will make us happy. You should read Gilbert’s work on this. The basic hypothesis ( Haidt and Gilbert ) is that the conscious mind is not so evolved as the unconscious mind and hence the conflict between the two lead to lots of confusion and tension. In fact this is for me a big revelation and it actually tells us that we miss happiness on three levels –
      1. We are bad at simulating the future and also bad at remembering all previous experiences. In fact I thought I had a good memory and remembered emotions and experiences very well. I realized I was wrong. I was watching the movie 12 Angry Men and Henry Fonda, who plays Juror # 8 asks his fellow juror to tell him the names of the movies which he had seen the previous night and the night before that and so on. The juror realized he could not remember after a point of time. I tried the same with myself. I realized I could not too. There is no doubt that our memory is finite and we donot accurately remember all the experiences. This would lead to a bias. Hence we are not able to decide for ourselves all our good experiences and replicate them in future.
      2. We are most of the time seeking to confirm out beliefs rather than open ourselves to new ideas. This is partly because of out constant search for security. Child hood upbringing I believe is an important factor for this.
      3. The third level is the hard wiring of the brain. The brain is hardwired for a certain negativity bias where we over estimate all the wrong things that can happen to us. This leads to non – action and depression. If you see a lot of depression is because the unconscious mind wants more activity more sensual pleasures more status and the conscious mind is confused.

      May be after reading this you will also be confused. May be such is the nature of happiness.


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