How do you measure happiness? It’s a fascinating question and one that blends psychology, neuroscience, economics, and other interdisciplinary measures. Happiness research has also been finding favor among business types in the last few years as people attempt to determine exactly what makes us happy and if there is some fixed measurement to rank an individual’s happiness.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert recently published an articled entitled “The Science Behind the Smile.” In it he argues that our assumptions about things that make us happy or unhappy, and the causal factors behind these things, are largely misunderstood or simply incorrect. One might assume, for example, that purchasing a new home or taking that dream vacation will make us very happy. And by contrast, that losing a job or a relationship will have equally damning effects on our attitude. Mr. Gilbert’s research and conclusions, however, reveal the fleeting and rather superficial nature of both emotional conditions.
Turns out, happiness (and unhappiness) are temporary states that need to be reinforced or avoided accordingly. For example, a twoweek trip to Bora Bora may make you radically happy. But this happiness will not sustain itself. It will last, best case scenario, for about three months. Just long enough for the water cooler conversations to subside and the digital photos to be archived in your Flickr or Instagram account. The same is true for other happy events: the start of a new romance, purchasing a home, professional achievement. You’ll get about a three month improvement in your overall happiness. The same time frame holds true for negative events. You lose a job. A relationship falls apart. A big project is scratched. You’ll be unhappy for about three months. And then it subsides.
So what sustains Happiness? That really is the question. How do we keep it going? The answer cannot be financial, as most of us would go broke trying to buy and buy and buy the next new shiny toy. Ironically, Gilbert’s findings illustrate that consumerism is actually a double-edged sword. In as much as it’s gratifying most of us realize that it’s not sustainable and, in worst cases, it can cause a depression all its own. The answer cannot be simply interpersonal. If that were the case we’d most likely be in the habit of building, destroying, and building new relationships three or four times a year. So that’s a no-go. The answer, turns out, is much simpler than that.
Doing ‘Good.’ That’s the secret to sustaining happiness. ‘Good’ in this sense is obviously an abstract noun. And although ‘Good’ is different for each of us, we all know what it means. As the Greeks wrote: ‘And what is good, Phaedrus,/And what is not good–/Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” ‘Good.’ Immutable and right. Gilbert concludes that doing Good on a consistent basis: our best efforts, helping others, unrequited generosity, reciprocity, and health are the only ways to consistently reinforce happiness on a Life level. These actions not only create habits but reinforce an understanding that we are capable of best efforts for ourselves and for the people in our lives.
“Doing” is a verb, and should be treated as such. “Thinking” good thoughts is important. “Feeling” good is a by-product. “Believing” in good is a matter of hope and faith. But “Doing” Good means there is action. And action is tangible. Proof that we can positively impact ourselves and others. It is a manifestation of our best qualities. This manifestation, this “doing” represents our finest selves (imperfect as they may be) and is the first step towards generating and sustaining Happiness.
So without oversimplifying anything, Do Some Good. Do Something That Matters. I think you know what I mean. To the best within you.