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How to Lead a Happy Life

An interview (archive) with Michael Plant, a PhD student, specializing on the nature and causes of happiness at the University of Oxford's Philosophy Department.

If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts: we try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house in a nicer area, and so on. A few of us think about trying to spend less time working, and more time on hobbies or with friends and family. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think. In fact, I don’t think this last idea even crosses most of our minds.

If we want to be happier, I think the first place to start is looking at the available options and then working out which to pursue. The way I see it, there are only three avenues to take.

  1. We can change how we think.
  2. how we spend our time.
  3. or the external facts of our life.

Top practical suggestions;

  1. Write down three things you’re grateful for each day.
  2. Practise mindfulness.
  3. Learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and use it.
  4. Track your happiness, then do more of what you like and less of what you don’t.

These are the things I think everyone could and should do if they want to be happier. They do require a bit of effort – you have to put some work into your habits – but they’re free and will likely have a bigger effort than almost any external changes.

Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic Adaptation is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. The hedonic treadmill viewpoint suggests that wealth does not increase the level of happiness.

As a species, we are extraordinary good at getting used to things, such that very few events in life have a long-term impact on our happiness: births, marriages, deaths, promotions, demotions, etc can all occur to us or around us and typically, after 6 months, our self-reported happiness levels will be back where there were before. If you don’t believe me, think how annoyed you get when the WiFi doesn’t work, then consider that humanity existed quite happily without it for hundreds of thousands of years.

Perhaps the most important case of adaptation comes from the Easterlin Paradox, named after the economist who found it, which is that self-reported life satisfaction scores in the developed world have barely improved over the last 60 years (since we started asking these questions) despite massive increases in GDP. It’s not just that we’re collectively richer, we’re also healthier, living longer in safer societies with better technology than ever before. Even though we’re doing better on nearly every measure of progress, we don’t seem to be getting happier. We adapt just as readily to negative life events too, and studies find those who become disabled report partial to near total adaptation to their conditions.

There are a number of reasons we get these wrong but here are the main three.

  1. when we think about the future, we tend to focus only on one aspect of the event and ignore the others. This is called ‘focalism’ or the ‘focusing illusion’. So if you ask people if they’d be happier living in California or the Midwest, most people say California. Actually the regions have comparable life satisfaction, but people say California because they think of the weather and fail to take account of other things, such as the fact that California is full of tedious hippies.
  2. ‘immune neglect’, is that we are often unaware that we’ll adapt to the good or bad things that happen. For instance, studies show people expect their break-ups to be longer and more painful than they are, in part because we forget that our psychological immune system will kick in and we’ll decide we never liked the person anyway.
  3. we rely on our memories to make future judgements, but our memories are pretty faulty. For instance, we tend not to remember the whole of an experience (‘duration neglect’) but instead remember the peaks and ends of our experiences (the ‘peak-end effect’). Daniel Kahneman famously showed people preferred longer, more painful surgeries with a less painful end to shorter, less painful surgeries because they couldn’t remember how they felt at the time. In other words, last night’s party was never as good as you think it was.

Change how you think and spend your time. In terms of changing how you think, I’d suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and positive psychology. For those unfamiliar with them, the basic ideas are that CBT teaches people to understand their thoughts and stop negative thinking patterns, MBSR helps people accept, rather than fight, negative emotions and so reduce the suffering they cause, and positive psychology trains people to find more positive emotions, such as by encouraging people to be grateful.

Mindfulness is starting to become popular, but the other two are basically unknown. I really hope this changes: given how good we are at adapting these look like the best options for becoming happier over the long term. In just a few minutes a day, you can rewire the way your brain works.

We seem happiest when we’re socialising with other people, outside or doing something that seems meaningful to us (on paper, the Army was a great idea). Will MacAskill has talked about finding purpose in your life through effective altruism, so he’s probably better placed than me to talk about that.

Happy people are more likely to get married, get promoted, earn more, have more friends, be healthier, live longer, etc. The basic explanation is that we like being around happy people, and this small difference has a long-term advantage. So, if you want to become richer, become happier. I stress being richer won’t do much for your happiness but it does mean, if you’re a high-flying executive and you think your colleagues will make fun of you for practising mindfulness and writing down three things each day you’re grateful, you could always tell them you’re just doing it to make more money.

There kinds of happiness

There are two main senses of happiness: we use the word as an evaluative term to describe what makes someone’s life go well for them, or as a descriptive term to refer to a set of psychological states. For the first sense, philosophers tend to use the word ‘wellbeing’ – it’s equivalent to flourishing or ‘eudaimonia’, sometimes called prudential value. The second sense describes things that are more like enjoyment or contentment – and the opposite of suffering and pain. In other words, we can use ‘happiness’ either to talk about the meaning of life or about some sort of pleasant feeling. Following philosophical convention, when I talk about ‘happiness’ I’m only referring to psychological states, not wellbeing.

I think it’s helpful to break up experiences of happiness into a ‘pleasure’ and a ‘meaning’ dimension. Time spent in the pub might be fun, but it’s not meaningful. Time working on an essay, or looking after children, may not be fun, but it might feel meaningful. It’s not clear to me if they are really the same thing – is ‘meaning’ just a form of ‘pleasure’? – but it seems helpful to talk about them differently. An important topic in the field of happiness research is working out exactly how happiness should be understood and measured, which is one area I work on.

When are people most happy? How does happiness play into the larger picture of our ‘wellbeing’ or ‘contentment’?

Interestingly, time spent with children is pretty neutral, time watching TV is fun but not meaningful, and commuting is neither fun nor meaningful. If you want to increase your experiences of happiness, either get a shorter commute or one you’ll enjoy, such as cycling.

‘Wellbeing’ is, just like ‘happiness’, a word with lots of potential meanings. Philosophers have a very tight way of understanding it, as I’ve explained above, but most people would think that was a really strange way of talking. Ordinarily, when people say they are after ‘wellbeing’ I think they tend to mean feeling happy, but also being healthy, feeling like their lives are going somewhere, and probably in some sort of balance.

I take being happy as just being in a mental state that feels good to the person feeling it (which may be a combination of pleasure and meaning). Contentment is a happy and relaxed state, and so you might see it as the opposite of elation, which is a happy and excited state. One is aroused, the other unaroused, but they are both types of happiness because both feel good.

The topic was also discussed at HackerNews on Jul 3, 2020.

Key points from the Hackernews discussion

Insight meditation, which focuses on noticing thoughts and feelings without action or reaction. Part of the wisdom of meditation lies in the following: There is baggage we all carry, the self, this belief we're the center of it all. How do I stop doing what makes me unhappy, if that's "who I am"? But, in reality, I can abandon "who I am" and find new processes of living and new ways of thinking about the world.

In practice, this resetting of your mind is achieved without training by various psychdelic drugs, which peel back the layers of the onion in an effortless fashion. In meditation, you train your mind to actually pay close attention, eventually achieving an effortless open-ness that drugs achieve very simply. Once you're good at following your breath, you can turn to thoughts and feelings, recognizing them as mere arisings in consciousness.

Mere arisings in the mind do not require response: there's no need to act upon our desires, urges, distraction, and regular patterns, they are just heuristics or mental shortcuts the brain uses over and over to save time/effort of decision making. Do we have to respond to all our noticing sounds, light, smells? If not, why do we have to respond to negative thoughts?

Negative thoughts may become crystallized into negative actions. However, if you know what behaviors of your own contribute to unhappiness, you can always pause for 10-15 seconds, meditate briefly, drawing upon your training of the brain's meditative ability, and you will notice the actual feeling of the urge to behave, and not act upon it. It will disappear like very other appearance in consciousness.

Some overlap with Stoicism here. From the Enchiridion of Epictetus:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.