Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?

Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.

Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.

No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.

I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.

Lottery winners aren’t happier right now

Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.

They had three types of people:

  • those who recently won a lottery
  • those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
  • those who haven’t had any major life events recently

The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.

The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.

Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.

It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:

“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.

So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.

This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.

Long-term happiness is on a thermostat

There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.

The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.

The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.

Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.

So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.

Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.


Money is somewhat related to happiness still

So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.

According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.

Think about – and value – time

There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.

I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.

Experience nature

Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.

I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.

Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.

Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.

My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.

In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.

It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.

Good relationships

Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.


You’ve heard all about this before.


I won’t bore you.


Imagining being happy

I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.

The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.

Happiness begets happiness

Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.

14 thoughts on “Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far”

  1. Good piece Dr😍

    My personal thoughts are that happiness (like depression) is a condition fueled by balance, and exasperated by imbalances of many components of the human existence?


    1. I think they even wanted to include happiness in the DSM at one point – but I think it’s different. Having said that it is so so multifactorial and different for every person – which I believe is what you are getting at? Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Matthew Ricard says happiness is a state of internal being unlike emotions which he describes as fleeting and ephemeral.

    Buddhists do not have a word for emotions as they do not honor emotion as American culture does.

    After Maslow hierarchy of needs are met more possessions do not increase happiness

    Happiness can last hours, days or months at a time where an emotion like joy or anger can fade in seconds.

    Happiness happens in one time frame now, not in the past or future. Also happiness seems to be absent when cognitive functions are present.

    Giving and gratitude are part of he happiness train while strong desires, needs and jealousy eliminate any chance of happiness


  3. Well, I feel happier just reading this… Maybe it’s the thought that, here’s someone out in the world discovering and sharing such things free and graciously. Thanks M.

    Lately, as we’ve been batting around the concept of inequality and how to cure it, what has come to my mind, and seems like a truly important realization, is that what all of us, every human desires, aside from happiness, is agency.

    What would a UBI type program attempt to provide? Agency; the ability for many if not most to affect their lives and those around them through economic means in their “pursuit of happiness.”

    When we are busy doing something we find productive, useful, pleasing, fun and/or engaging — and were we to stop and examine our emotions at that time (taking the pulse of our happiness (grin), as it were) we might find that we are in fact happy (or happier than normal). But more than that, how was it that we came to be doing that activity? We were empowered through agency.

    We often take such obvious characteristics of our lives for granted. So it’s easiest to imagine such an esoteric concept as agency — when it’s gone: Take away your income. Take away your freedom to travel, to explore, to help others. Take away your ability to speak freely. Take away your ability to learn, to read. Worse, take away your humanity, your ability to procreate, your ability to see, or hear or move. The more we suppress, the more restrictive and limiting society becomes, the less freedoms we have to affect change.

    Sure, agency is not happiness. But granting or providing expanded agency, I would think, would allow the growth and bloom of happiness.

    (So profound you are. Swimming in your waters, deep and fathomless, I sometimes find I can barely stay afloat.)


    1. Aww, thanks mysterious Anony Mole! I completely agree – agency – or the desire to affect our surroundings is one of the most important things. You know that famous experiment where a rat was put in a cage with an infinite supply of (I think) heroin obtained by pressing a lever – it drugged itself to death. However, when there are other rats and rat toys in the cage – the rat still uses heroin, but doesn’t overdose. Agency is everything!


  4. Thanks for bringing the research together. There was an interesting chapter on happiness in “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari which also drew on various research findings. He made the point that since happiness is based on expectations it’s contextual – and we generally bounce back to our average mood regardless of how happy or unhappy something made us. The evolutionary argument is if our emotions didn’t work like that we’d never strive for anything else.


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