HAPPINESS: Weighing Your Well-Being

How happy are you? Lots of people – economists, sociologists, politicians, scientists and advertisers, among others – wish they had some way to measure happiness, both public and private. Is it true that money won’t buy happiness? Are executives happier than their employees, or is it the other way around? Does happiness go with good health?

The National Institute on Aging recently funded a project that tried to devise a “National Well-Being Account,” which would supplement the GNP, the great statistical machine that counts up goods and services. A group of researchers, whose findings have just been published in Science, came up with a tool called the DRM, or Day Reconstruction Method. They simply asked people to reconstruct in detail what they had done the previous day. The subjects were 909 working women in Texas with varying ethnic backgrounds, an average age of 38, and average household income of $54,700. The researchers did not ask the women general questions – how happy they were, whether they loved their children or their jobs, or whether they were reaching their goals – just what they had done the previous day and how they had felt while doing it.

What made them happy, hour-by-hour? At the top of the list were interactions with friends, relatives, and spouses (or significant others). Interactions with their kids came in fourth, and being with the boss was way down on the list. The activities that made them happiest included sex, relaxing with friends, watching TV, and praying or meditating. Cooking and housekeeping scored low, but not at the bottom. What could ruin their day? Poor sleep was a big culprit. And having to commute to work alone.

The researchers concluded that big measurements of health and wealth don’t tell the whole story about how happy people are. Indeed, Americans may be battling something known as the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s a phenomenon observed in the developed world; and it means, roughly, that the more you have, the more you want, and that even a huge increase in income may not increase life satisfaction. Indeed, in the study of the Texas women, those at the high end of the income scale were not notably different, in well-being quotients, from those at the low end.

If there’s a lesson here for anybody but social scientists, it may be that rather than concentrating on the big picture (“Am I healthy, wealthy, successful, good-looking?”), it may be helpful to look at yesterday, all by itself. Reconstruct what you did and how you felt about it. Try to analyze what you enjoyed. And didn’t. You may discover that little things (such as not sleeping well, having a hard commute, or not liking your boss) may adversely affect your happiness more than you thought. And perhaps you can do something about one or more of these problems. Or you may discover that even if you have huge problems, you can still achieve happiness on a daily basis.

From the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter – March 2005

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