Happiness Factoids

Once again, I came across a study that I wish I had time to read intently. 

This review surveys the literature on what makes people happy, something that is critical to the evaluation of policy proposals, but something that has been, until the last 30 years, overlooked. 

The summary of some of the big findings are here, though I don’t know why the title has “economics” in it. It seems that social science more broadly gets to take credit for these findings. 

I found a lot of the results very interesting, and the most interesting thing to me was that people who are unemployed are very unhappy. I didn’t get a chance to look if this could be reverse causal — that being an unhappy person caused you to be unemployed (sounds kind of reasonable, though it seems that on average, unemployed people are not less cheery by disposition, but that being out of work MAKES them sad), but the point is a suggestive one. It’s made even more suggestive by the fact that part time workers are happier than unemployed people and that full time workers are even happier than part time employees. What this says to me is that in some attenuated way, people are happiest when they believe themselves to have a purpose in an immediate and practical way. People are happiest when they are engaged in a project that requires their work and attention. 

I can personally verify that this is true, because in the moments in my life when I have not had to work, I’m very happy for a few weeks, as I de-stress, but then slowly but surely, I become more listless and depressed. I want something to be working toward each day, otherwise the days move by in a haze and time feels wasted. What if, in the far future, technology erases the need for work. Would humans need to invent work to stay sane and happy? I’m not sure, but part of the reason that this topic interests me is that it seems to point to the broader idea that humans need pain, or at least difficulty, to feel that life is worth living. In some sense, having challenges to overcome — challenges that really are  challenging — is necessary to have a good life. 

The study also mentioned that long commutes (longer than 22 minutes) make people very unhappy (or are correlated with unhappiness, I’ll stop mentioning these statistical provisos). At first, I thought that this meant that density is the answer. We should make everything within close walking distance by building UP (possibly like NY, though I hate to admit that). But there are tradeoffs there too that might be hidden. For instance, I wonder how having SPACE affects happiness or also the proximity with which you have to live with other people. I honestly don’t know the answer, but for me, I need space to myself as well as alone time, but the more people I meet, the more I believe that most people are happier to the degree in which they are in close contact with other people. 

So, if commute time is killer, and density may come with its own costs, we can conjecture that really it is going to be transportation technology (hover skateboards probably) that will bring some serious happiness to people. 

The last radical suggestion I want to make is to wonder whether there is such a thing as happiness. When I think about this concept, I’m just at a loss. Sure, sometimes I feel happy, but that’s pretty rare and it’s usually a short-lived mood. Everything just seems right for a little bit. But at the same time, I’m not unhappy throughout most of my waking moments. I am in a sense, happy, but that happiness is nothing more than the fact that I’m working on a project that seems worthwhile with a set of skills and capacities that I thankfully have. 



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