Happiness and modern times

Though my bi-weekly column is called “A Laughing Matter,” I do typically use this space at the holidays to talk seriously. As has often been observed, humorists are not necessarily happier than others, and the fact is that I and many people — both funny folks and regular folks — often use humor to ward off the seriousness of life. But the seriousness is always there, and I find the holiday season a good time to consider it.

What do we want out of life? If it were one word, I’d say happiness, which, in many ways, is life’s bottom line. After all is said and done, are you, for the most part, happy? Or content? The exact word doesn’t matter. Perhaps we know it by the absence of its opposite: unhappiness or discontent.

Actually, in recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research on happiness, much of it coming under the heading of “positive psychology.” It is no longer a complete mystery what makes people happy, and, in fact, you can live a happier life if you put the research findings to work for you. Various factors have been looked at and one that doesn’t seem to be so helpful is money. Yes, having enough is important, and one of the reasons a lot of people are unhappy today is because they don’t have enough. But beyond that, acquiring wealth does not seem to make people happier.


If you want to read one person to find out more about how to be happy, I’d recommend the work of Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who is generally regarded as the founder of the field of positive psychology. A good place to start is his 2002 book, Authentic Happiness.

In an early chapter, Seligman talks about factors which, as shown by research, correlate most strongly with happiness. One of these is marriage. It turns out that married people are typically happier than unmarried people. Now, remember that correlation does not mean causation; it could be that those who get and stay married might simply be happier anyway. But you really can’t experiment to find out for sure. To truly know which way it goes, you’d need to do an experiment, where you’d take two groups, randomly chosen, have one group get married and the other stay single, and see how happy the people in the two groups are after, say, 10 or 15 years.

Not going to happen. But since it certainly appears to be the case that marriage is good for happiness, why not try it?

Similarly for another factor that seems to be strongly linked to happiness: a good social life. Indeed, the human being is often described as “the social animal.” A recent bestseller by New York Times columnist David Brooks has that title, and one of the things he points out in the book is that research shows that “the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social,” including “socializing after work” and “having dinner with friends.” He quotes psychologist Roy Baumeister: “Whether someone has a network of good relationships or is alone in the world is a much stronger predictor of happiness than any other objective predictor.”

So how are we doing today with these correlates of happiness? Well, the U.S. marriage rate is way down from what it used to be, though the divorce rate has declined in recent years. So that’s kind of a mixed bag.

And what about our “network of good relationships”? One of the most popular (and highly regarded) movies of 2010 was “The Social Network,” which described the founding of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg. But is Facebook making us happier, not to mention tweeting and texting? After all, today we can have thousands of friends.

But are these friends in the old sense of “socializing after work” or “having dinner (or lunch) with”? Clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has long been concerned about the effects of digital technology on modern life. According to a New York Times review of her most recent book, Alone Together, “As Ms. Turkle sees it, online life tends to promote more superficial, emotionally lazy relationships, as people are ‘drawn to relationships that seem low risk and always at hand.’”

To me, what has happened can best be captured by what has become, for many of us, our default gaze. Whether walking or talking, it was once looking straight ahead, looking at other people, or at the world around us. Today it is most often eyes at a 45-degree angle, as we look down at our iPhones.

It’s hard to measure happiness, but given its correlates and how we live today, I don’t think we are happier than we were before screens replaced real life voices and faces. Sigmund Freud even saw problems with the telephone. In his 1930 book, Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote, “If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice.”

At this holiday season, most of us will try to get together with family (and friends, in the old-fashioned sense). We realize, at some level, that genuine face-to-face contact with people we love is still our most important human need. You might try keeping this up after the holidays too!

Best wishes to all for a wonderful holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.