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We mispredict our happiness

Pleasure or Displeasure

“People routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring.” according to Tim Wilson and Daniel Gilbert, two happiness researchers.

Who is happier? Lottery winners or accident victims?

In 1978 three psychology researchers decided to study the difference in the happiness of lottery winners and that of accident victims compared to a random sample of regular individuals. Their study, published in the  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is now considered one of the founding texts of happiness studies. The results were a surprise to them and to most of us. Winning the lottery not only failed to lift the spirits of the winners but it resulted in less enjoyment of daily activities. The sample of regular individuals rated themselves just as happy as the lottery winners but they got more pleasure from regular activities than the winners. However, even the accident victims believed they would be happier than the lottery winners in a few years.

Just not as we expected!

It is not just winning the lottery that does not make us happier but a whole range of activities that don't turn out as we expect. Studies show that getting a raise or having kids do not have the expected effect. It has been found that many women find caring for their children less pleasurable than napping or jogging and only a little bit more satisfying than washing the dishes.

The "Hedonic Treadmill" and "The Happy Peasant"

One explanation for this state of affairs is the so-called “hedonic treadmill” hypothesis, which claims that people rapidly adjust to improved circumstances. Another hypothesis is that people are relativists and are interested in having more than those around them. Perhaps it is genetics, or that malcontents strive harder, or it is simply adaptation - people adapt to winning millions or to living on a Euro a day.

People do not always know what will give them lasting satisfaction.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, has pointed out some of the ways that people misjudge their own satisfactions. We feel we’ll be happier with more variety, yet, we get more pleasure from the same thing over and over again. We will pay more to keep our options open, but we’re more satisfied when we commit to a particular choice. We anticipate being thrilled by events that, when they actually occur, leave us flat. Our economic growth and increased consumption has not increased our satisfaction.

Happiness is not the only thing!

Many people place their hopes on higher incomes, just as many countries do on higher G.D.P., and yet both end up disappointed. Happiness is good but it is not the only thing. There is more to life than subjective happiness. As John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher stated, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” .


Religious Belief

Who is happier, a religious believer or a nonbeliever?

New analysis shows that it's not quite so simple. Luke Galen  has found that the convinced non-religious are also quite happy, but people who are uncertain are the ones who are dissatisfied. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, a social scientist at Harvard, has analyzed data from the World Values Survey and found some more interesting details.

Religion and Science

Uncertainity leads to dissatisfaction

Previous studies have tended to find that religious people are, on average, happier. But simple 'average' levels of happiness hide a lot of detail - convinced non-religious people are quite happy while those who are uncertain about their beliefs are dissatisfied with life.

Religious people are both happier and unhappier.

In other words, they tend to be found at either extremes of the happiness scale. A higher percentage of religious people say that they are extremely happy, compared with convinced atheists. But a higher percentage also say that they're extremely unhappy. Atheists are more likely to report being somewhere in-between.

Kumbha Mela 2009

Religious service-goers tend to be happier.

Teasing apart the data shows that people who go to religious services and belong to religious organisations are happier.

Non-believers tend to be happier.

In the same analysis, people who believe in god are much less happy. In other words, the happiest people are those who take part in the social side of religion but don't take all the religious doctrine and god  stuff too seriously.

The effect depends on how religious the country is.

The more religious on average the country is, the happier believers are. In countries that are not very religious, non-believers are happier than believers.

This suggests that the reason non-believers are generally found to be less happy is because the studies have usually been done in countries where they are the minority.

In other words, being among like-minded people makes you happier. Also, it might simply be that people who want to fit in are happier. In religious countries, these kinds of people are religious. In non-religious countries, they're non-religious.

unemployment

Religion alleviates the effects of unemployment

This only applies in rich countries. Okulicz-Kozaryn showed that being unemployed makes you unhappy, and that this effect is stronger in rich countries compared with poor ones. Unemployed people who are religious are happier than the non-religious unemployed, but only in rich countries.

He speculates that there is greater social stigma to unemployment in rich countries, and that religion alleviates the misery that this causes.

Religions cause extremes

All this seems to confirm that the religions cause extremes - both high happiness but also high unhappiness. Plus, happiness is mostly linked to social activities. This study seems to explain why atheist countries, like Scandinavia, are amongst the happiest. Atheists are happy when among like-minded people, and the societies in which they predominate are also rich in the other factors that make people happy - freedom, justice, and equality.