a person driving a car 

Psychologists armed with statistically significant survey data have a lot of advice on how to be happy, but we don’t seem to be very good at following it.

The daily activity most detracting to people’s happiness is commuting. Individuals self-reporting their enjoyment of daily activities ranked morning commutes dead last. Long commutes also correlate with people bringing the stress of work home with them, as summarized in this Slate article:

A survey conducted last year for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, for instance, found that 40 percent of employees who spend more than 90 minutes getting home from work “experienced worry for much of the previous day.” That number falls to 28 percent for those with “negligible” commutes of 10 minutes or less. Workers with very long commutes feel less rested and experience less “enjoyment,” as well.

As the article goes on to relate, long commutes also hurt our health. Commuters experience more recurring back and neck pain, sleep and exercise less, and eat more fast food. The same could be said of people working long hours, but the results are stronger for chronic commuters. Worse, commuting robs us of time that could be spent connecting with friends and family. That is particularly problematic as the amount of time spent socializing is consistently ranked as the daily activity most enjoyed by individuals and the strength of relationships highly correlated with happiness.

Nevertheless, the average commute length is growing.

If you’re looking for advice on how to be happy rather than avoid unhappiness, there’s no shortage of psychologists offering advice based on their research. A strong marriage or generally investing in your personal relationships is highly advised – Vaillant, the director of a 76 year old study on Harvard men from the classes of 1942, ‘43, and ‘44, goes so far as to advise, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Money improves happiness only to a point, although you can get more happiness per dollar by spending money on experiences instead of possessions, spending on others, and buying many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.

So can anyone follow the roadmap to happiness now laid out by these psychologists? Even a casual critic can point out that happiness seems too subjective to be wrapped up in research findings, a point made astutely by Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic:

But what does it mean, really, to be happier? For 30 years, Denmark has topped international happiness surveys. But Danes are hardly a sanguine bunch. Ask an American how it’s going, and you will usually hear “Really good.” Ask a Dane, and you will hear “Det kunne være værre (It could be worse).” “Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come,” a team of Danish scholars concluded. “Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The more interesting critiques of these happiness principles, however, look beyond the fact that happiness is subjective to get at the inadequacy of the concept itself.

One great critique comes from Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his concept of the remembering self and the experiencing self. He explains the difference as follows:

“Basically, it’s between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life or happy with your life. And those are two very different concepts, and they’re both lumped in the notion of happiness.

The experiencing self lives in the moment. It’s the part of you that is happy when biting into a piece of pie, holding the hand of a spouse, and feeling the warmth of the sun. The remembering self is a storyteller. It’s the part of you that looks back at your experiences and is happy or satisfied based on the judgment it makes about your past. Kahneman illustrates the difference between the two:

So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they’re really quite distinct.The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two-week vacation is twice as good as the one-week vacation. That’s not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two-week vacationis barely better than the one-week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story.”

The remembering self also differs in that it is content or not depending on whether it sees meaning in your past experiences – a difficult concept for survey results to handle. If your experiencing self can be a hedonist, your remembering self can be a philosopher, demanding to know why it should be satisfied with the story of your life. As Kahneman admits, “Anyone who doesn’t distinguish those notions is going to mess up the study of happiness, and I belong to a crowd of students of well-being who’ve been messing up the study of happiness for a long time in precisely this way.” 

The aforementioned study of Harvard men from the classes of 1942-44 present an even thornier problem for psychologists studying happiness. The study’s director, George Vaillant, enjoys making bullet point conclusions from his 7 decade study. The top factors correlated with well-being include marriage and some exercise. Alcoholism is one of the worst. But he also approaches his study of well-being like a poet, writing of his subjects: 

“Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.”

One gift of the Harvard study is that it brings the rigor of a large data set to Vaillant’s findings of how the highs and lows of human experience are interrelated. He sees relationships as a key to happiness, but also a vulnerability that a divorce or parting can turn profoundly negative. Happiness is less a continuum and more of a moebius strip, with the highs of ecstasy touching the depths of depression.

Crucial to happiness, more than a checklist of factors correlated with happiness, Vaillant argues, is responding in a healthy way to life’s inevitable setbacks. How does an individual respond to a tragedy like a divorce, death of a friend, or professional setback? Do they cope through aggression? Repression? Altruism? The answer will greatly determine an individual’s ultimate well-being and happiness.

Psychologists have found a lot of useful insights by bringing the rigor of statistics and academic papers to the study of happiness. But the concept is still too slippery to pin down completely. When looking for answers on happiness, we’re still a long way from turning to the data for answers.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.