The Semantics of Happiness

“The quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human,” the researchers concluded.

Printed in tasteful gray font in the subheading of an online Stanford News report, this sentence—and the article it precedes—presents the reader with a conundrum of sorts. The article describes a study on the differences between meaningfulness and happiness, conducted by Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business. The study, in which 397 subjects were surveyed on their day-to-day lives, decisions, and beliefs, draws conclusions like,  “Deep relationships—such as family—increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning,” and “healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning” (Parker, 2014).

The reader’s conundrum—or at least the conflict that I experienced while reading the report—is that the study is at once highly accurate and useless. Few would protest that a family dinner is likely to add more meaning to one’s life than is a pizza night with the girlfriends, although the latter might be more fun. The question that this article raises for me is not whether the results of the study are credible but why it was necessary for an elite institution to conduct research in order to make such self-evident assertions as “the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.”

In December of 2013, the New York Times published an opinion piece which claimed that “social scientists have caught the butterfly” (Brooks, 2013) of happiness. Seven months earlier, the Los Angeles Times had run a similar piece entitled “How to Buy Happiness.” As scientific research expands into nearly every intricacy of life as we know it, a Gold-Rush-like trend has emerged in the empirical study of meaning and happiness. Best-selling books, opinion pieces in major newspapers, and a slew of TED talks tout this research, yet the conundrum presented by the Stanford News article is evident throughout.

In “How to Buy Happiness,” coauthors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton assure the reader that “our ongoing research offers a host of ways to wring more happiness out of every dollar you spend” (Norton & Dunn, 2013). Dunn and Norton expound upon this research in their book, Happy Money, devoting each chapter to a principle that supposedly helps the reader do this. In the chapter “Make It a Treat,” Dunn and Norton describe a study in which a group of students are given a chocolate tasting. One half of the group is sent home with bags of chocolate to eat throughout the week, while the other half is told to abstain from chocolate. A week later, both groups are given a second tasting. Resultantly, “people only enjoyed chocolate as much the second week… if they had given it up in between”(Dunn & Norton, 2013). This, supposedly, proves that one can eke more happiness out of their purchases if they consume occasionally rather than constantly.

I take no issue with the accuracy of this study; however, anyone who has ever eaten too much dessert could attest to the fact that treats are less enjoyable if consumed in mass quantities. The problem with Dunn and Norton’s work is not that it is incorrect but that it is unnecessary.

The Stanford study and Happy Money are two of many instances in which scientific research on happiness proves circuitous, generating data to back up an already-accepted idea. That this research has not been more widely decried is, I believe, attributable in part to the concept of hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is a psychological term which refers to the human tendency to, when presented with a fact or idea, believe that one has known it all along. This is a very real tendency that everyone, myself included, exhibits. However, I am confident the research on happiness that I here examine seems self-explanatory not because of hindsight bias but because it is truly obvious.

In his TED talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness,” Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert discusses “synthetic happiness,” the ability of the brain to find contentment in suboptimal situations. Gilbert explains several ornate studies that demonstrate the ability of the human mind to make good of bad events. He closes his lecture with a few quotes: William Shakespeare’s “Tis nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” followed by a quote from Adam Smith saying essentially the same thing (Gilbert, 2004). While Gilbert apparently intended these quotations as a nice way to close out his talk, to me they illustrate the flaw in his entire presentation; all of the data he presents points towards a conclusion that others have been paraphrasing for centuries.

Self-explanatory conclusions are not the only issue that the study of happiness raises; there appear to be varying opinions among researchers and positive psychologists as to what constitutes happiness. Some draw a clear distinction between happiness and meaningfulness. According to Kathleen Vohs, a co-author with Aaken of the Stanford study, “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others” (Smith, 2013).

Yet in her TED talk on the subject, cognitive researcher Nancy Ectoff defines happiness as encompassing both “pride in accomplishment of a challenge” and “pride and joy in one’s children,” (Ectoff, 2004) both of which the Stanford study associates with meaningfulness as opposed to happiness. In fact, according to Dan Gilbert, an “increase in daily happiness is probably not among” the things that parents can gain by having children (Dorsett, 2011).

That the scientific and psychological community has no consensus definition of happiness does not inspire confidence in research on the subject.

The empirical study of happiness is not an ill-intentioned movement. If anything, it is well-intentioned but misguided. Science is a process of trial and error; we cannot expect every experiment to yield ground-breaking results. One could argue that, while the scientific study of happiness has not produced any heretofore unfathomable revelations, it is at least harmless. There is nothing unethical in using data to confirm widely accepted beliefs, and perhaps some people find personal affirmation in reading the results of the studies.

In a world of limited problems and unlimited resources, perhaps this would be true. But that is not the world in which we live. As members of a global society, we have a duty not only to exercise our abilities but to do so in a way that is useful to others. In the case of the scientific study of happiness, we have tried and we have erred. We must stop trying to extract fulfillment from empty studies and focus our energies on more deserving subjects.

While Dan Gilbert lectures a rapt Internet audience on the brain’s ability to look on the bright side, his colleagues in Harvard’s Department of Social Psychology conduct research with credible potential to benefit people. Take, for example, Professor Mazharin Banaji, who developed the implicit association test, which measures subjects’ willingness to associate positive words with people of different demographics. The tests revealed that even minorities in the United States are more likely to associate white faces than non-white faces with positive adjectives, leading Banaji to conclude that there exist in all of us unconscious prejudices, or “implicit bias.”

This is not something that playwrights and economists have been saying for centuries. Furthermore, Banaji’s work is useful; the recognition that we harbor unconscious prejudices “opens up a whole new universe of decisions that can be made quite differently,” (Johnson, 2013) says Banaji.

Instances abound of social psychologists who use the resources at their disposal to generate useful, unprecedented ideas. The same Stanford report that extolled Jennifer Aaker’s semantic examination of meaningfulness recently reported on the work of Stanford psychologist Anne Ferland, who has established a correlation between language proficiency in young children and the extent to which parents talk to their infants rather than simply in front of them. Ferland and her colleagues now run a program that teaches struggling parents “how they can support their infants’ early brain development and helps them learn new strategies for engaging verbally with their children,” (Carey, 2014) helping children of low socioeconomic status to receive the same early exposure to language as do their more privileged peers.

So why, with no shortage of valuable research in the field of social psychology, is the study of happiness so disproportionately represented? Why do major newspapers promote Dunn and Norton’s vapid advice, and why has Dan Gilbert’s TED talk been viewed over five hundred thousand times?

There is a seductive edge to the idea of analyzing happiness; if there really was some key to contentment that science could unlock, surely our approach to life would be completely altered. It is in our nature to leave our realities unattended and converge upon the prospect of greatness. In the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of people abandoned their livelihoods to seek gold in the West, fruitlessly sifting through California terrain only to find that the silt was nothing but silt. The scientific study of happiness does not destroy lives and cause national crises as the Gold Rush did, but nonetheless, it is past time that we repack our caravans, admit that we have not found what we were looking for, and return to our real work. There is no scientific method to contentment. The concept of human happiness remains too elusive, too stubbornly subjective to quantify empirically.

In some respects, the scientific study of happiness is quite in keeping with the beliefs of humanism; it certainly fits in nicely with the principle that the world stands to be understood through scientific inquiry. However, what draws me personally to humanism—and what prompted me to write on this subject—is the belief that, although empirical study is in general the best way in which to form an understanding of the world, there are some aspects of life that cannot be scientifically proven or explained.

The third and most modern Humanist Manifesto states that “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge… We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.” I find this quotation massively useful in understanding why I, a pragmatic person who spent her summer in a laboratory inexpertly but devotedly studying protein synthesis in yeast, have such a negative reaction to the scientific study of happiness. What the Humanist Manifesto helped me to realize is that although science is the “best method” for determining knowledge of the world, it is not the only method nor is it universally applicable. When it comes to understanding the nature of happiness, I strongly believe that empiricism can only bring us so far. This is at once the frustration and the beauty of life; there are some things that we must simply blunder through by own intuition, that no amount of research and TED talks can guide us through.

Works Cited

Brooks, A. (2013, Dec 14). A Formula for Happiness. New York Times.

Carey, B. (2014). Stanford Psychologist Shows

Why Talking to Kids Really MattersStanford Report.

Dorsett, K. (2011). Does Having Children Make You Happy?. CNN Living

Dunn, E., & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. (1st ed., p. 34). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Ectoff, N. (2004, February). Nancy Ectoff: Happiness and its Surprises. .

Gilbert, D. (2004, February). Dan Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness. .

Johnson, C. (2013, Feb 05). Everyone Is Biased: Harvard Professor’s Work Reveals We Barely Know Our Own Minds. The Boston Globe.

Norton, M., & Dunn, E. (2013, May 19). How to Buy HappinessLos Angeles Times.

Parker, C. (2014). Stanford Research: The Meaningful Life Is a Road Worth Traveling. Stanford Report.

Smith, E. (2013, Jan 09). There’s More to Life than Being Happy.  The Atlantic.