The Pursuit of Happiness

By Keith Davis

It’s a right guaranteed to us by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence. But is happiness a choice? Can we choose to be happy any more than we can choose to be rich, healthy, or born in a certain country?

We consulted with a number of experts, both faculty and alumni, and the answers were split.

“No,” said economics professor Elia Kacapyr, who studies and compares the happiness levels among countries. “Yes and no,” said psychologist Douglas Ramm ’72, who, through clinical observation and statistical analysis, has developed The Formula for Happiness. “Yes, but,” said associate professor of writing Cory Brown, who has studied the development of happiness through 5,000 years of literature. Seconding Brown is Dick Schissel, chair of the graduate program in speech-language pathology and audiology who established a clinical hypnosis practice to help his clients improve their quality of life.

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According to Cory Brown, the notion of happiness starts with Shakespeare.

“Before the Renaissance [about 1300–1600], happiness was simply the absence of misery,” said Brown, who recently designed and taught an honors seminar titled The Pursuit of Happiness. “If you weren’t starving or destitute, you were, by default, happy, and you could thank your lucky stars.”

In the semester-long seminar, Brown and his students examined how happiness has been expressed throughout history, from the epic poetry of ancient Mesopotamia to Greek philosophers and medieval dramatists to the current Dalai Lama.

“The goal was to explore the psychological and historical forces that created our beliefs about what makes us happy and how those beliefs influence our behaviors,” said Brown. What he and his students discovered was that around 1600, we started viewing happiness differently.

“Because of advances in science, achievements in art, and not least of all, the beginnings of a middle class, we started to give ourselves more credit for our accomplishments,” Brown said. “We also began seeing ourselves more deserving of happiness here on earth. Why wait for things to improve in a glorious afterlife? That was the beginning of modernity because it introduced the notion that there’s more to happiness than the absence of misery. It opened possibilities.”

The first great articulation of the notion that we deserve to be happy, said Brown, was Hamlet, written in 1601. It was the title character, after all, who said, “What a piece of work is a man…how infinite in faculties…in apprehension how like a god.”

Yet, despite such supreme self-confidence, Hamlet spent the better part of five hours on center stage stewing about which of his many options would enhance his quality of life.

“The modern spirit of humanism that puts us at the center of the universe opens our horizons,” said Brown. “But it also leads us to ask, ‘If I’m so special, how come I’m not richer? If I’m so unique, why don’t I have a bigger house?’”

It shouldn’t be surprising that we often think of happiness in terms of material gain. That notion, too, comes from the 1600s.

“Our sense of the possibility of happiness rose directly with the rise of the middle class, which began with the Renaissance,” said Brown. “A middle-class income assures you a relative level of happiness, all other things being equal.”

Research shows, though, that money can take you only so far. According to a study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Americans earning $50,000 a year are a lot happier than those making an annual salary of $10,000, but Americans pulling in $5 million a year aren’t much happier than those making $100,000.

“Money smooths the way, but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” said Elia Kacapyr, professor and chair of economics. “Suppose cars belonging to someone earning a high income and someone earning a low income break down. The high-income person pulls out his cell phone, gets his car towed to a garage, and takes a taxi to work. A lower income person may not have a cell phone, which would make it harder to get a quick tow—or to get the car back to the driveway because towing and repair costs might be out of the question. That would mean time away from work, which could result in docked pay. A breakdown for that person is a major hardship not just a kink in his day.”

Based on that scenario, you’d assume the person with the higher income would be a lot happier.

“But when that person gets to the office, maybe he’s confronted with a ton of work, and that constitutes a new set of anxieties,” Kacapyr said. “At that point, that person is no happier after his car broke down than the lower income person.”

“Economics isn’t about money,” he said. “It’s about studying human behavior and the ways people make the most out of what they’ve got. Income isn’t the only resource contributing to a high quality of life. Economists approach happiness on a macro scale. What resources make people in certain countries happy, we ask, and why are the people in some countries happier than those in others?”

In a 2008 study, Kacapyr investigated the social, economic, and cultural factors that affected satisfaction with life in 63 countries. The intent was to determine the extent to which self-reported satisfaction with life truly reflects well-being.

First the researchers asked respondents to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale of 1 to 10. The responses were then correlated with variables such as divorce, inflation, and death rates; economic freedom index; percent of the population believing in a higher power; life expectancy; degree of political freedom; and war. The study found that the people in nations with better health (as measured by life expectancy), more spirituality (as measured by the percent of the population that believes in God), and more gender equality (as measured by the female to male wage ratio) are generally more satisfied with life.

“Respondents in former Soviet-bloc countries reported surprisingly low levels of happiness with life, given their circumstances, while Latin Americans reported higher-than-expected levels of happiness, given their circumstances,” Kacapyr said. The countries with the highest happiness ratings? Denmark and Switzerland.

“People are born into cultures that can predetermine their levels of happiness, so in that sense, happiness isn’t a choice,” Kacapyr said. “People are also born into the political and economic structures that control the variables that determine well-being—although you could argue that they could work to change that. But happiness isn’t an individual choice.”

Kacapyr acknowledges that economists and psychologists have different perspectives on happiness in large part because psychologists investigate the happiness of individuals, not nations. Referring to the work of Dan Gilbert, however, Kacapyr maintains that even on a micro level, choices for happiness are limited.

“Gilbert shows that people who suffer disasters, such as earthquakes, and lose most of their material possessions quickly return to their baseline happiness levels,” Kacapyr said. “And on the positive side, after making a choice to pursue a course they think will make them happy, people adapt to their new conditions and return to a happiness level that seems predetermined. For example, we know from solid research and our own previous experiences that the new iPad is not going to change our happiness level for long, but we can’t help trying yet one more time to buy happiness. We aren’t in control in this arena, and happiness is not a choice.”

Yet when people buy iPads, they strengthen their country’s economy, which leads to a higher standard of living, which, according to macro studies, significantly enhances the sense of well-being for the people of a country as a whole.

A few years ago, Douglas Ramm ’72, a clinical psychologist in Pittsburgh, decided to investigate what brought unhappy people into his practice.

What was missing in the life of a client anxious and restless about turning 40? A teenager dealing with an unwanted pregnancy? A wife conflicted about ending her extramarital affair?

“Many of the people who come to see me are unhappy as a result of something they did or failed to do,” said Ramm. “At the same time, those decisions are made in the context of that person’s circumstances. Someone born into poverty, for example, may be less likely to have support from their parents, financial security, and the opportunities for higher education than someone born into the middle class. So—is happiness a choice? Yes and no.”

Does that mean there’s no way for unhappy people to improve their well-being? To find out, Ramm investigated the relationship between voluntary behavior and the quality of life. Examining 100 case histories drawn from his clinical population, he identified seven types of behavior that undermine a person’s happiness and six basic principles for making choices that allow people to become and remain happy. Published in New Ideas in Psychology in 1996, Ramm’s findings formed the basis of what he would call The Formula for Happiness, which he published in book form in 2004.

“Contentment with living is an emotional state determined by how we are situated in respect to certain things, people, and events we encounter in the course of daily living,” Ramm said. “Because some circumstances of our lives have natural or intrinsic worth, they are referred to as values. And since these values are the ones that make a difference in a person’s quality of life, I call them core values.”

Ramm’s Formula for Happiness identifies 10 values, which he calls the Matrix of Core Values. His study indicated a high degree of correlation between the core values and an individual’s reported level of happiness. Based on this study, Ramm has developed a way of measuring happiness that he says is as accurate as an IQ test.

For example, a nurse in her 50s complaining of depression was assessed with high job satisfaction but was dissatisfied with her salary. Her values profile also showed low ratings in intimacy (her second child had just moved away), recreation, and health (she was dissatisfied with her weight). In response, she started an exercise program and took a part-time job, which increased her income but left her even less time for recreation.

“Just because something looks like it will make us happy, we have to consider how that impacts the totality of our core values,” Ramm said. “Being aware of how core values can maximize their quality of life enables people to identify goals and develop plans of action that can enhance overall happiness.”

Ramm has conducted workshops for the Pennsylvania Association of Parole, Probation, and Correction Officers and the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. In addition to using The Formula for Happiness with his clients, Ramm’s systematic approach has been incorporated into secondary school systems as well as intervention programs for troubled youths.

“The goal is to show young people how making decisions based on principles can make their lives better.”

But suppose a person’s circumstances seem hopeless? Can someone suffering from chronic pain still make decisions that will make them happy?

“In my model, health is a core value and has to be considered in relation to the other nine,” Ramm said. “But if you can find a way to divert your attention away from your pain, you’ve enhanced your quality of life. One way to do that is through hypnosis. Other than drugs and surgery, it’s one of the few psychological interventions that can work for sufferers of chronic pain.”

While Dick Schissel doesn’t think of his role as bringing happiness to his patients, he says he helps remove the obstacles that stand in their way. Schissel, a professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at IC, also operates a private clinical hypnosis practice in downtown Ithaca that specializes in pain management, stress relief, and smoking cessation.

“By the time my clients get to me, they’ve tried a lot of other avenues to solve their problems and in many cases have lost faith in them,” Schissel said. “I’m their last resort.”

When they arrive, he added, the conversation isn’t about happiness.

“When I ask my clients how I can help them, they tell me they want to significantly reduce their chronic pain, or lose 20 pounds, or stop smoking, or increase their concentration so that they can improve their golf game.”

He says he sees a lot of varsity athletes and people who want to overcome their fear of spiders or of heights.

“If I can help them do that, their quality of life is improved, and from that I infer that they have increased their level of happiness,” he said.

Schissel starts by focusing on the changes his clients want to make. Speaking softly, making suggestions (such as “you’re walking through a silent forest,” or “you’re on a beach and all you hear is the surf”), his goal is to bring the client into a trance where the noisy conscious mind gives way to the undistracted subconscious. When they get to that state, Schissel gives them suggestions for the positive changes they want to make.

“The conscious mind might reject the suggestions as too simplistic, too hard, already tried, but the subconscious freely accepts them,” he said.

“When they come out of the trance, they feel like they’ve been asleep. Then, when those spiders cross their paths or they feel a craving for cigarettes, they’ll be able to go to that quiet place, focus on the subconscious suggestions, and make the beneficial choice.”

Schissel doesn’t keep data on his success rates, but the client feedback he receives is “very good.” A big reason for that, he said, is that people who seek the services of a hypnotist tend to identify with a spiritual path.

“My clients may not be practicing any organized religion, but being spiritually oriented leads them to be more contemplative. They’re not focused on control, and that allows them to trance better,” he said.

Contemplative people also have a greater sense of gratitude for what they have right now, Schissel added. That ability to appreciate each moment is a major step toward happiness.

“The stock in trade of a hypnotist centers on belief, faith, hope, and expectation,” he added. “If you can help people believe they can change things and accomplish what they set out to do, you’ve led them to a good outcome.”

Does that mean, then, that happiness is a choice?

“I think it is,” Schissel said. “But I have to qualify that.”

For example, people with similar dispositions toward happiness may not enjoy similar circumstances.

“When I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I happened to have had a friend who is a physician and has contacts within the health care system,” Schissel said. “Because I had an advocate, I assumed I’d be entering the system at a higher level and receiving a different kind of care than a person entering the system without those kinds of connections. Not only did I expect to get better care, I also had a greater degree of confidence that my course of treatment would be successful because I felt I was in good hands. I expected a positive outcome. That made me happy.”

What happens, though, when a person’s been through all the treatment options and is still profoundly suffering? That brings us back to chronic pain.

“Suppose my client says, ‘I’m up to 800 milligrams of Vicodin a day, I’m still in constant pain, but I need a way to get through my factory shift because I have to feed my family.’ I may not be able to make that person’s pain vanish, but if I can help him work toward ways of reacting differently, so he’s not cursing his fate, he might be able to realize how satisfactory other things are in his life. Good relationships with his family, for example.”

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert asks, Is a person happier after winning the lottery or after becoming a paraplegic? Gilbert then cites studies that show a year after the event that self-reported happiness levels for lottery winners are the same for people who have been partially paralyzed.

“Human beings have a psychological immune system that enables them to envision a world better than the one in which they find themselves,” Gilbert said.

What’s interesting, he added, is that, over time, our psychological immune systems work better on major negative events (death of a spouse) than on small ones (fender bender). In his book, Gilbert cites a study that showed lovers are quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dishes in the sink. In terms of happiness, our cognitive wiring handles tragedies better than hassles. Then, does it all come down to sweating—or not sweating—the small stuff? To counting—or not counting—our blessings?

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1 Comment

Very interesting study. So people tend to quickly revert to their median happiness level soon after any momentary variation. Sounds like happiness is a habit which isn't going to change significantly unless specifically retrained.