Meet the people shaping the future of science

13 Feb 2013

happiness 6Everyone wants to be happy, right? Wrong, says Ed Diener, a psychologist in the emerging field of “subjective well-being”– a professor of happiness in all but name–at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s found that happiness is more than just a warm glow, it’s firmly rooted in culture. And guess what? Money really does make you happier–but for maximum gain you have to be poor to begin with. Michael Bond asks Diener how science goes about adding to what philosophers and artists have told us about happiness over the centuries

Overall, Scandinavian countries seem to be the happiest. Income is very important to happiness up to a point, and it correlates with democracy, human rights, infrastructure, longevity and other things. But once you allow for that, cultural factors that have little to do with income seem to make a big difference. If you take income out of the equation–if you level the playing field, in other words–the happiest people are Hispanic.


Hispanic people tend to look at what’s going to go right. They ask: “What can I do that’s fun, what can I do that’s interesting?” Americans are like this, and Britons to an extent. They worry more about what good things they can get rather than the bad things.

The other big question is, obviously, who are the unhappiest?

Some of the former communist countries and the very poor countries consistently show up as the unhappiest. But allowing for income, the Pacific Rim countries are much less happy than you’d expect. People from Japan, China and Korea tend to see the glass half-empty. When you ask them how satisfied they are with their lives, they look at what has gone wrong. If nothing big has gone wrong, then they’re satisfied. They are a little more tense because they have to be on guard, they have to be careful to avoid making errors and pay the right respect to people.

Why is it harder for Asians to be happy?

In the West the individualistic culture means that your mood matters much more than it does in the East. When assessing life satisfaction, Japanese and Koreans count what their parents think about how they’re living their lives more highly than their own moods.

How does that work?

Take love. In the US, if you asked someone why they divorced their wife and they said they didn’t love her any more, you might say: “That’s too bad.” In Korea, you’d say: “Are you crazy?” Your personal feelings are much less important and not a justification for your actions. Certainly the biggest cultural differences are to do with pride and guilt. Hispanics report much more pride and Asians much less pride, because of the stress on humility in their culture. Asians report more of all the negative emotions, such as anger and sadness. With guilt they report even more, and Hispanics report even less.

Happiness is supposed to be everyone’s goal. Have you found that to be true?

Actually, no. We believe that people have all kinds of values, and the value of being in a good mood, of having fun and feeling joyful–that’s just one value among many. It’s not everybody’s ultimate value. Now, you might say satisfaction is a higher goal because people would have that if they achieved something they valued. We have found that Asian-Americans are more willing to give up fun and enjoyment more frequently than white Americans to reach some other goal.

So are Asians, or any others, worse off for being less happy?

Asian cultures obviously work pretty well, and they’ve been around a long time. The important thing is that all of us need all the emotions. The dysfunctional thing is not only the inability to feel happiness, but also the inability to feel some of the negative emotions when they turn up. Those emotions do things for us. At the same time, while you need to feel anger and fear when it’s appropriate, you don’t want to be feeling those too much of the time because it’s unpleasant.

Happiness can mean different things to different people. How do you know that people take what you say the same way?

This can be a problem. The word “happy” doesn’t have an exact equivalent in some languages. In English, happiness has a number of different meanings. It depends on the context. It might mean “satisfied”, it might mean “joyful”, it might mean a longer-term happiness. We try to break down what people mean by using a bunch of different words describing emotions, including words from their own language. We use these words in various different tests of happiness.

How do you do that?

For example, we ask people how happy they are in general. Then we do “experience sampling”, where we contact them at random moments over a period of time and ask them how they feel at that moment, and then add up those scores. Finally, we do retrospective recall, where we ask people how happy they were at a particular time. We use all these so we know what we’re asking them and to pick up any biases. The only measures we haven’t yet used are biological, such as cortisol and immune response. We could use these to look at stress and tension. People’s reports of their feelings are crucial, but I don’t believe they should take priority over their physiology or facial expressions.

What advantages does happiness bring?

In the West, if you’re a cheerful, happy person, your marriage is more likely to last, and you’re more likely to make more money and be successful at your job. Whether that’s true because everybody likes happy people in Western societies, so you get rewarded more, we don’t know. On average, happy people have stronger immune systems, and there is some evidence that they live longer.

You’ve found that people have a remarkable capacity to adapt emotionally to a terminal illness or debilitating injury. Why is this?

I don’t want to make the case that health problems don’t matter. People with multiple, severe problems do report lower levels of happiness. For others, when they realise they can’t be on the basketball team any more, for example, they see there are new things open to them. They realise there are positive things in their lives, such as social support and love of family, that they hadn’t noticed very much before. But there are some things in life that knock you down from which you don’t come back fully. One of those is unemployment. Unemployed people show a big negative drop. They come back, but not to where they were before. Widows and widowers come back, but it takes them quite a few years.

So does winning the lottery really make you happy?

This does push up your happiness level, as does marriage, but it doesn’t last forever. It can last for a year or two.

Does it help to be well-off?

Every study that’s ever been done on this has always found that happiness increases with income, but in the West the effect is always a small one. Elsewhere, among slum dwellers in India, for example, the effect is much more substantial. There’s quite a difference between making $1 and $5 a day–for one thing, it dictates whether you get to eat that day. In the US, too, it’s much more likely that a poor person will be unhappy. We studied people from the Forbes list who were worth more than $100 million. Most were slightly happier than the average American.

Can science really add anything to our understanding of happiness, beyond the analyses of philosophers?

Bertrand Russell, certainly a great intellect, wrote a book about happiness in which he stated that having children was one of the most important keys to gaining happiness. But research has shown that this is simply not true. People with and without children are about equally satisfied with their lives. We find that people become more satisfied with life when they have a baby, but then drop back to their previous levels after a year or two, and perhaps even go a bit lower than their previous baseline. So as smart as Russell was, pure thought is not always a match for careful empirical study.

Are there any gurus who have got it right?

There are certain things the Dalai Lama says about not stressing yourself out and approaching life with a good mental attitude that I think are probably true. I do agree with a lot of common-sense recipes. The Stoics of ancient Greece said a lot of things that were sensible, such as the need for calm.

How do you explain the explosion in the market for self-help books?

Part of it is the realisation that you’re responsible for your own happiness. You’re not going to learn about it at school. There they teach you how to add up, but they tell you very little about how to live your life. So there’s a vacuum. But it’s also because people’s expectations are higher.


People think they should be living on the edge of joyfulness all the time. You get people who are actually happy, but they think happiness is so important that they strive to be even happier. Yet we’re not built to be joyful. We’re built to be positive, but not to be stuck in a kind of euphoria. We should be in that mid-range so that when something good happens, we can go up. This desire to be always euphoric is a product of medicine, of standards of living, but also of individualism, where the emphasis is on you individually, your emotions and feeling good.

Why did you decide to study happiness–or subjective well-being, as you call it?

Around 1980, I had just finished a study on aggression and crowd behaviour and was looking for a new area. I thought, happiness is a wide-open field, not much has been done in it apart from a few sociological studies, and it’s what people are worried about. People are not just worried about getting rid of depression, they’re worried about living a happy, fulfilled life. So it’s a big issue. And it’s positive, it’s interesting. I had wanted to do a study on happiness when I was an undergraduate, but my professor wouldn’t let me. He said it was too fuzzy.

Do you want to increase the sum of people’s happiness?

I would like other people to take on that mission. I see myself as a more basic scientist, where my major concern is to define the components of subjective well-being and see if we can measure them reliably. As a scientist, those measurements are crucial. That’s a pretty big undertaking by itself. People ask me if I feel bad about the fact that I’m not actually doing anything to make people happier, but it’s like a physicist studying basic particles: they’re not doing anything to make energy. Some people have to do the basic stuff and that’s what I’m doing. The intellectual questions are really exciting.

Do you think it’s possible for everyone to be happy?

I think it’s possible for most people to be happy most of the time. I also believe that there’s a small proportion of society who are so predisposed to depression that drugs are necessary to prevent it. But we find that the majority of people in the West are mostly happy, certainly above neutral. I find it interesting that reporters, especially those from New York City, cannot believe that. I don’t know whether reporters from that city are particularly unhappy, but they find it fantastic when I tell them that most people are, on average, happy.

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13 Feb 2013, and is filled under Happiness.



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