March 6, 2007 For most of modern civilization, efforts to understand the human psyche have concentrated on understanding the downsides of anger, depression, anxiety and mental illness. In more recent times, there has been a great deal of scientific exploration of what makes people happy. In our increasingly complex society, happiness is not the simple product of favourable circumstance. Well-being is dependent on making the right individual choices. Handling freedom is not always easy and that has created a demand for happiness advice. Philosophers, psychologists and spiritual thinkers offer happiness counsel, but their widely differing views have never been empirically scrutinized. A special issue on Happiness Advice of the Journal of Happiness Studies published online this week, fills this gap, by comparing the advice given with what is known about the conditions of happiness observed in empirical research.
The idea to give happiness advice proper attention and scrutiny is not unusual in medical professions. For example, if a specific diet becomes popular, than several institutions are available for the public and for the press to check whether it offers a healthy alternative. The same could be done to help the audience to judge the quality of happiness advice. This is necessary, because there is a lot of advice on the market that would lower well-being for the average person if it is taken to hearth.
The special issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies shows that ancient Buddhist advice is not applicable in modern society. Taoism and especially Confucianism offer better changes on happiness. The great German pessimist Schopenhauer did not succeed in helping his readers to come to terms with the harsh realities of life. Avoiding pain was one of the central goals in life according to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but this led him to a too passive conception of human life. The lifestyle advice of New Age thinkers often is conducive to happiness. Psychological self-help books choose subjects that are relevant for well-being and can be as influential as good psychotherapy, but sadly a lot of self-help authors come up with advice that is clearly outdated and that harms people if they follow it.
Support for New age Advice.
Maarten Berg of the Erasmus University Rotterdam has identified common themes in the writings of new age thinkers and presents data that suggest that seven recommendations have the potential to enhance happiness: become spiritual, be authentic, know yourself, connect with others, think positively, take control and life healthy. For two recommendations – meditate and follow your gut feelings or intuition – Berg was not able to find evidence whether the advice was beneficial for happiness or harmful. The advice to live a simple live justly warns against too much materialism, but robs people needlessly of many pleasures.
Better not follow Epicurus advice to forego marriage.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus recommends a risk avoidant attitude to life. Do not become too attached to things or people, because the pain of missing them later on exceeds the pleasure of indulgence in the moment.
This philosophy may seem apt for modern marriage that often ends in a painful divorce or bereavement. Ad Bergsma of the Erasmus University Rotterdam and two colleagues calculated the number of ‘happy life years’ that comes with the choice for marriage in the Dutch population. Happy life years are calculated by multiplying the number of years a person will live by a weight factor for happiness for each of these years.
The results clearly favour marriage.
Married people that stay married can count on a surplus of almost five happy life years compared with people who stay single, and even if marriage ends in divorce the number of happy life years still exceeds the happy life expectancy of the chronic single.
With Maarten Berg and Ad Bergsma of Erasmus University Rotterdam.