This little guy seems to have found an occupation that makes him happy . . .
The phrase “do what makes you happy” or similar terms that elevate personal “happiness” to a central role in determining one’s life have become a source of fascination for me recently. Perhaps it is simply the manifestation of a larger cultural milieu of solipsism and The Individual writ large. But in many respects, it has become an almost unquestioned telos for our lives; one that I have found myself struggling to resist at least long enough to gain a better understanding of it.
When asked why we hold the jobs we do, or why we engage in many daily activities, the answer is often placed in the larger context of a string of interconnected instrumental actions. “I work hard at work so I can keep my job so I can pay my bills so I can keep my home so I can live comfortably and live happily.” Few of us would say that we do our jobs because the job has intrinsic value. Those who do are certainly better off (at least psychologically) because they do not see their job as merely instrumental, but even then a large number of those people find that their jobs make them happy.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, most people probably don’t know what actually makes them happy. In our consumerist culture, we tend to get stuck on the “Hedonic Treadmill” whereby each “high” of happiness fades quickly and must be replaced with even greater sources of happiness (think of the increasing sizes of big-screen TVs). So when we think to ourselves “buying that new car/TV/etc will make me happy,” we ignore the likelihood that such euphoric feelings from purchase will dissipate rapidly.
In addition, we tend to think that choice will somehow make us happy. The more choices, the better, right? In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz makes a compelling case for why the assumption that more choices leads to greater happiness is not only incorrect, but might also have the opposite effect. So when we seek out scenarios where a greater number of options are made available, we might be doing ourselves – and our level of happiness – a great disservice.
Given that we seem to know very little of what makes us happy, there’s a lot of research (not surprising) into what makes people happy. Economist Kevin Hassett:
John Stuart Mill captured the elusiveness of happiness when he argued against its direct pursuit. “Ask yourself whether you are happy,” he wrote, “and you cease to be so.”
But for those of us who still want to try and capture what happiness means, there’s Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven. He directs the World Database of Happiness, an exhaustive compilation of over 1,500 surveys about self-reported happiness around the world.
Those surveys helped him develop a happiness index. So, now you can find out how much people in 90 different countries enjoy their life on a scale from 0 to 10.
The data have given economists who love to play with data something to be happy about.
The first lesson from the happiness literature is that money can indeed buy happiness. The higher a country’s income, the more likely its citizens are to tell surveyors that they are happy.
But, interestingly, money is only a small part of the story. Some countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico are far happier than we might expect, given their income. Others like Ukraine and Zimbabwe are far unhappier than their income alone would suggest they should be.
So what do the places that are unusually unhappy have in common?
One key factor appears to be that they have very weak rule of law. And the unusually happy places? They tend to be countries with a high degree of religious participation. The five countries with the most surprising happiness given their income are predominantly Roman Catholic.
The impact of religious participation is enormous. Give a person religion and it increases their happiness by about the same amount as if we moved them from the bottom of the income distribution to the top.
So your chances of being happy are higher if you’re rich. But you can be happy in poverty as well.
That brings to mind concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl. He wrote that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Religion, in particular, helps individuals divorce their happiness from their worldly affairs. Money buys happiness, but you can also get it for free.
Now that I’ve hopefully cast some doubt on even knowing what makes us happy (at least from personal intuition alone), let me go back to my original question: is it a good idea to use “what makes us happy” as a guide for choosing an occupation? The answer really isn’t one I’m particularly sure of or happy about (rimshot!). Those who follow “what makes them happy” might in fact be wandering aimlessly, possibly even in the opposite direction. Why, when we have little idea of what even makes us happy, should follow this advice?
But let’s go one step further. What about other types of telos for making our occupational choices? What about “do what leads to a financially stable future” or “do what could be most beneficial to society” or “do what is ethically sound” or, which I will discuss in my next post, “do what best fulfills your arete.”
Until next time, bonnes pensées.