Stumbling on happiness is neither easy nor predictable, and bestselling author-psychologist Daniel Gilbert set out to prove that in his keynote address Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego.
His book of the same name was a long-time best-seller.
In a lively, 30-minute address, Gilbert opened by showing a slide of his mother and the title: “Happiness: What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You.”
”Everyone tells us what we ought to want to be happy,” he says. ‘If your mom was like mine, she probably gave you a lot of advice about happiness.”
On his mother’s list: Marriage, Money and Children.
“It turns out some of what our mothers told us is right, and some is wrong,” says Gilbert, the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
That’s due to the burgeoning research area that has focused much more intensely on what it takes to be happy–and who’s happy–in the last decade or two, Gilbert says.
He tackled his mom’s list one by one, putting motherly advice to the scientific test.
In general, he says, “married people are happeir than unmarried people. They have more money, better health, more sex.”
But the single best predictor of happiness, he says, is the goodness of the social relationship.
So that begs the question: Are married people happier or does happiness make you get married?
Over time, however, happiness in a marriage can decline, says Gilbert, citing research. And if it declines too much, divorce can make people a lot happier than staying married.
But, in the main, he says, his mom’s advice to find a nice girl–”And it wouldn’t hurt if she were Jewish”–wasn’t generally bad advice.
What about money? “You bet money can buy happiness,” Gilbert says. The more people earn, he says, of course the more they can buy, and that can make them happy.
‘But at some point, happiness increases in smaller amounts,” he says.
When does that tend to happen? “Once you have 40 to 70 thousand (in annual income) in U.S. dollars, you have bought all the happiness money is going to buy you,” he claims.
Still, he disagrees with those who say ”the true sources of happiness are not for sale.” Or as he says: “That’s nonsense.”
More money, he says, can buy you better health, help you control your schedule and reduce stress, and give you more family tme.
But people aren’t happiest, it turns out, when spending money, other research suggests. People are happiest, he says, when talking to others or having sex. Some think they are happiest when resting or relaxing, but Gilbrt says that’s not true.
“When you are resting and relaxing, your mind wanders,” he says. “That’s good and bad.”
But when you’re talking to someone or having sex, you tend to be in the moment. “When people are in the present moment, they are happier than anywhere thier minds can take them,” Gilbert says.
How you spend your money can affect your happiness, too, it turns out. In a study done by others, Gilbert says study participants given money and told to spend it on someone else reported feeling happeir later than those told to spend it on themselves.
Gilbert tacked the children-bring-happiness myth, too. “People without chldren are happier than people with children,” he says.
Marriages often improve after children leave home, he says
Despite prevailing wisdom that children are bundles of joy, Gilbert says he has not seen a link between children and increased happiness in 20 years of research.
There was a study finding that link earlier this year, he says, but the study authors retracted it when they discovered a glitch in their analysis.
Citing more research, Gilbert says one study found women with children, when asked when they were happiest, were more likely say when they were with friends or eating than with their children.
Being with their children as a source of happiness was close to doing housework, he says. “Being with children was statistically indistinguishable from vacuuming,” he says.
So what’s going on? Having a child is all-consuming, and parents focus on the high points. Suppose he is watching his beloved Boston Red Sox and the game was pretty boring until a home run.
The boring hours, he says, are superceded by that one moment of glory for his home team.
”That sounds like a day with a 3-year-old,” he says. In a typical day, a parent might have hours of frustration or tedium, followed by the child, chocolate-faced after eating a treat, giving the mom or dad a kiss and declaring their love.
”It’s a grand slam home run to the heart,” Gilbert says. Kids, he says, give their parents “that occasional moment that causes us to remember the whole day as wonderful.”
It turns out, Gilbert says, that his mom–like others–was partially correct in her advice.
His bottom line? When it comes to happiness, “your mother does not know everything.”
“You should call her anyway.”