Happiness measured

Science: Fantastic article in New Scientist volume 180 (4 Oct 2003), covering how science is beginning to identify the keys to a happy life, and perform studies measuring people’s happiness.

That’s a subscribers-only link unfortunately, but I’ll excerpt a few choice snippets:

First off, money:

Can money buy happiness? The short answer is, yes – but it doesn’t buy you very much. And once you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself, each extra dollar makes less and less difference. … In the past half-century, average income has skyrocketed in industrialised countries, yet happiness levels have remained static (see Graph). It seems absolute income doesn’t make much difference once you have enough to meet your basic needs. Instead, the key seems to be whether you have more than your friends, neighbours and colleagues.


First the bad news: good-looking people really are happier. When Diener got people to rate their own looks, both with and without make-up, there was a ‘small but positive effect of physical attractiveness on subjective well-being’.

But don’t compare your looks with what the media puts out:

In a new study, Laurie Mintz and her colleagues from the University of Missouri-Columbia found that women who saw advertisements featuring lithe and flawless young models for just one to three minutes rated their own bodies more negatively and showed an increase in depression. Mintz was alarmed how quickly the women’s self-esteem was undermined. And she believes people are becoming more dissatisfied as new technology allows the media to create ever more unrealistic images.

Mintz recommends less drastic steps to contentment: avoid unrealistic media images; understand that such pictures are airbrushed and ‘Photoshopped’ to perfection; appreciate your body for what it does rather than how it looks.


It is hard to imagine a more pitiful existence than life on the streets of Calcutta or in one of its slums, or making a living there as a prostitute. Yet despite the poverty and squalor they face, such people are much happier than you might imagine. ‘We think social relationships are partly responsible,’ says Diener.

And a global comparison:

The latest global analysis of how levels of satisfaction and happiness vary from country to country shows that the most ‘satisfied’ people tend to live in Latin America, Western Europe and North America. Eastern Europeans are the least satisfied.

… There is plenty more about national happiness levels that has researchers scratching their heads. One of the most significant observations is that in industrialised nations, average happiness has remained virtually static since the second world war, despite a considerable rise in average income (see Graphic). The exception is Denmark, where people have become more satisfied with life over the past 30 years – no one is quite sure why.

and the effects of consumerism:

A growing number of researchers are putting the static trend down to consumerism. Survey after survey has shown that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a ‘happiness suppressant’.

One study, by Tim Kasser at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, found that young adults who focus on money, image and fame tend to be more depressed, have less enthusiasm for life and suffer more physical symptoms such as headaches and sore throats than others (The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002). Kasser believes that people tend to embrace material values when they are feeling insecure (retail therapy, anyone?). ‘Advertisements have become more sophisticated,’ says Kasser. ‘They try to tie their message to people’s psychological needs. But it is a false link. It is toxic.’

Lots of good bits. Pity it’s subscribers-only!

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