What are the ingredients of the precious elixir of happiness? What are the true roots of that special sense of completeness and pure satisfaction that makes us say “I am happy”?
The answer to this question might not be easy to give, and the reason is that we naturally tend to have a distorted perspective, of what we need to be happy. We give a lot of relevance to elements that are scientifically proven to be not influential at all in the long term, and to ignore certain factors that are contrarily responsible for our mental happiness, in a more enduring and concrete way.
Dr. Jennifer Aaken, General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, describes these factors as “drivers of happiness”, and classifies them according to their influence: money, beauty, youth are usually believed to determine our happiness, but in fact produce a temporary, ephemeral and time-limited kind of joy that dissipates rather quickly. According to her research, what truly produces a high quality, enduring, resilient, and rooted sense of happiness are factors related to social connection, self-esteem, prosocial commitment and free time. These elements are able to generate a strong sense of happiness, resistant to very negative events or life experiences. ¹
Where does this capacity of being happy when facing difficulties or major life traumas come from?
According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, our brain happens to be provided with a “psychological immune system” that allows us to feel happy even when things go wrong, or we don’t obtain what we were looking for. We seem to have the psychological capacity to return to a general set level of happiness, even when we are hit by frustration, sense of failure, desperation and other negative sensations. Our mental happiness seems therefore to be something resilient and flexible. The researcher particularly distinguishes between the “natural” and the “synthetic” happiness, the former being the one we experience when we have what we wanted, the latter consisting in a secondary form of happiness that we artificially make up when things don’t go as planned and we haven’t obtained what we were looking for. He furthermore explains that the synthetic happiness is not a second-rate one but is just as real and satisfactory as the natural one.
Indeed, our “psychological immune system” is responsible for the unconscious cognitive process of “hedonic adaptation” through which, despite good or bad experiences, we flexibly re-establish our happiness (a synthetic one) around a general set-point, by changing our vision of the world, our perceptions and feelings in order to appreciate the new situation we find ourselves into, or in order to consider the alternative we have chosen much more attractive and desirable than the one we have excluded. This is the kind of process that makes us say “the one I own is better than I thought. The one I don’t own, to be true, is not as good as I thought.” To be precise, we enact this kind of process when we find ourselves in a condition of irreversibility, as the reversible condition, keeping the possibility of changing open, is not conductive to the synthesis of happiness. ²
It is important to recognize the fact that we have this capacity, as we wrongly tend to think that different outcomes are “more different that in fact they are”. We overestimate the impact that different conditions will have on our happiness, without knowing that happiness is less easily influenced by external factors than we might think. Indeed, a study conducted in 1978 by researchers Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman on lottery winners and paraplegics showed that, despite a noticeable increase and decrease of the level of happiness immediately after the two facts occurred, within a few months the difference in the level of happiness of the two groups had been minimized. ³
Somebody has defined this theory as the “hedonic treadmill hypothesis”: just as we adjust our pace to the speed of the treadmill, we adjust our feelings and perception of the external world to match new conditions. Humans are made to be resilient, and their ability of hedonic adaptation is expression of the partial independence that happiness has, from the contingent circumstances of life.
Nevertheless, we must consider the factors that actually establish that set-level of happiness we tend towards, despite negative circumstances having occurred.
This major factor has to do with our being social animals, with the need for relational exchange that is vital to us and we can’t live without. In fact, as psychiatrist Robert Walding states, our happiness is linked to the extent and quality of our social relationships. Walding is the current director of a research project that started in 1938 and has continuously proceeded for more than seventy years, being still active.
The “Harvard Study of Adult Development” has begun with the purpose of understanding the key factors that bring happiness in the life of a person. The men that were selected for the study were all students at Harvard University, they were boys from Boston with difficult familiar situations. After many years, their life stories were extremely diversified, and what finally emerged was that those who had invested more on good relationships were happier and healthier than those who hadn’t. It also emerged that the level of happiness was not linked to the number of friends the individuals had but was instead influenced by the quality of their closest relationships. Building relationships of reciprocal trust and love is what makes us happier in the long term, and what strengthens our capacity of proactively respond to the changes that life continuously puts on our paths. 4
To conclude, the science of happiness seems to be something flexible and fascinating, something depending more our deepest selves than on external factors, something we can rely upon when things go wrong but also a precious tool, to be nourished and protected by the right “drivers”, as Dr. Aaker and Dr. Walding, with different words, explained.