What Makes Us Happy?

BY Paul Solman  June 20, 2013 at 3:02 PM EST

Does being wealthy make us happier? Up to a point. Paul Solman visits the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to explore the relationship between money and behavior, and gets some insight into his own state of mind. An excerpted transcript of Paul’s interview with Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter, which airs on PBS NewsHour Thursday, follows. Carter is a happiness expert and director of the Greater Good Parents program at the Center.

Paul Solman: What have we learned about the relationship between wealth and happiness?

Christine Carter: We’ve learned a lot about whether or not money can buy happiness. And in fact, I think it’s much more accurate to say money does buy happiness in certain ways. It’s not that money buys stuff and that stuff will make us happy. It’s that money buys an entire ecology of happiness, especially for children. If we think about what’s most important for children and their overall wellbeing in life, it’s things like having a strong attachment to your parent; confidence and optimism about your future; strong social ties to other people; physical health.

In this country, it tends to be the upper income families that have health insurance and that’s pretty important for kids. Also, if you come from a more affluent family, you’re more likely to have a parent who doesn’t work full-time and so you have more time with your parent. Or you might be able to belong to a swim and tennis club where you hang out with lots of other families and get to know them, and they know you, and you feel a part of something. So, we don’t necessarily think, “Oh, a swim and tennis club is going to bring great meaning to my child’s life.” But in fact, anything that is going to bring that social context where they feel like they have lots of friends and are a part of something larger than themselves is a plus.

Paul Solman: How strong then is the correlation between wealth and happiness? I thought it tailed off after a certain point.

Christine Carter: Generally for adults the relationship between wealth and happiness is not strictly linear in the sense that it’s not the more money you have, the happier you are. Once you get to a certain point and you have your basic needs met, it takes more and more money to increase your happiness. With kids, the point at where it starts to level off or take more money to increase happiness is much higher than it is for adults because, if you think about it, affluence in your family brings a good school, and a safe neighborhood, and sidewalks, and all of these things that are actually quite expensive and tend to probably matter more to children than they do to adults. An adult can survive unscathed for a year without health insurance if they’re lucky. A kid who misses all of their immunizations — it can have a much more profound effect on the trajectory of their life and their happiness that year, or the next year.

Paul Solman: How are we doing in the U.S.?

Christine Carter: The U.S. is an interesting case. Usually what we see across countries is that as GDP goes up, happiness or subjective well-being tends to go up. The U.S. is kind of a notable case in the sense that in the last 35 years, as GDP has grown, we actually haven’t seen our average happiness level go up.

Paul Solman: But of course, in the last 30 years or so, in this country, even if there were a correlation between wealth and happiness, most people wouldn’t be much happier because most people haven’t become wealthier.

Christine Carter: Most people haven’t. The rich have gotten much richer and most everybody else has seen their relative wealth drop, and so we aren’t seeing an increase in average happiness.

Paul Solman: How are kids in the U.S. doing?

Christine Carter: Kids in the U.S. tend to rank lower relative to other countries in their overall emotional well-being. It’s disappointingly low. If we really are concerned about their emotional well-being and their happiness, we would do much better for our children to improve that ecology that they are growing up in — to improve the schools, to improve their health care, to increase the odds that they’ll have time with their parents, that they’ll have high quality childcare. These things are incredibly important for kids’ emotional well-being and, relative to other developed nations, really not well developed here in the U.S.

Paul Solman: What about the corrosive effects of wealth?

Christine Carter: There are some interesting studies that show that given the choice, people would prefer to make $50,000 if everybody else around them made $25,000, rather than make $100,000 if everybody else around them made $200,000. So, we do have this real impulse to just want to have more than the other guy, right?

There is a little bit of what we think of as a treadmill effect or keeping up with the Jones’s: the wealthier you are, the more money you spend on stuff that increases your sense of what you need in life. And that can be a little bit of an addictive cycle that does not bring happiness. It brings feelings of entitlement, feelings of disappointment when you don’t have as much. It sort of raises the water level on what you think you need, and then you’re expending all this energy towards trying to get it.

So, people who are materialistic in that way tend to be less likeable, less empathetic towards other people. They’re less likely to contribute to their communities; they’re less likely to display an act of kindness. All of these things are really important because likability and kindness, and empathy, these are things that make you happy. They connect you to other people and that’s the most important thing. So, money can be very corrosive in the sense that it can serve to sort of disconnect you from other people, ironically. But that is not necessarily something that is actually that hard to override if we just bring some awareness to it.

Paul Solman: And what about the corrosive effects of wealth on kids?

Christine Carter: What we see in the research is that affluent teenagers will report that they don’t have adequate challenge in their lives and that that sense of not being adequately challenged does impact their overall wellbeing.

It’s natural as a parent to want to make things a little easier for our kids, but unfortunately, when we do that we hinder them. We teach them that they must not be able to handle challenge or difficulty because we’ve removed it, right? And life is full of challenge and difficulty so kids need to learn how to handle it. We need struggle in order to grow. “Snow plow” parents who remove every obstacle from their kids’ paths mean very well, but the unintended consequence is that they raise fragile, brittle kids who don’t deal well with their own mistakes, with life’s normal challenges, and heaven help them if they actually feel pain.

Paul Solman: How does one cultivate the ability to be happy?

Christine Carter: I think the first step is realizing that you can cultivate the ability to be happy. You know, for eons we’ve thought of happiness as a personality trait, and it’s actually much more appropriate to think of it as a skill or a set of skills that we can teach ourselves and teach our children, that we can practice with them.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt the types of things that actually are likely to make you happier over the long term. Gratitude is highly likely to increase your happiness no matter where you begin. So, you could already start off pretty happy or you could be kind of a grouchy, cynical person. A conscious gratitude practice that actually does authentically elicit what you appreciate in life is usually going to make you measurably happier.

Paul Solman: So, this is like writing down three things you’re thankful for or praying: “Thank you Lord for…”

Christine Carter: Yeah, there’s definitely not one size that fits all with gratitude. So, some people can journal at the end of the day. For me and my family, we take 20 seconds at dinnertime and go around the table and say what we feel grateful for.

Paul Solman: That’s saying grace, isn’t it?

Christine Carter: Yeah, I think in a lot of religious traditions there are lots of ways to express gratitude. Grace is one. Bedtime prayers are another. In my household, my kids don’t necessarily say prayers, but they tell me three good things at the end of the day about their days or about their lives, which actually works really well in our modern family because I might be traveling for work, and I’ll get a text from my 12-year-old with her three good things from the day. It helps her go to sleep and it’s also a habit of gratitude that she’s gotten into.

It’s an interesting thing to look at the habits you have in your life. We all have hundreds of little habits that kind of run our life on autopilot. Some of them are going to invoke happiness or other positive emotions and others are going to invoke negative emotions. So it’s really important to bake into our day little routines and habits that are going to elicit positive emotions like gratitude, or appreciation or awe.

Paul Solman: What are the happiness habits that we should develop?

Christine Carter: Exercise is obviously a really positive happiness habit. Connecting to other people is really important. If we’ve learned anything in the last hundred years of research on happiness it’s that a person’s happiness is best predicted by the strength of their ties to other people, both the breadth and the depth of those ties.

So, simply by practicing gratitude or practicing forgiveness, we can cultivate greater happiness in our lives. Little acts of kindness, thinking of other people before ourselves tends to make us markedly happier in life. This is much more fulfilling than a new car, a new pair of skinny jeans, longer eyelashes — the things that our culture is constantly telling us will make us happier.

Paul Solman: And what are the bad habits we should avoid?

Christine Carter: Materialism and consumption can become bad habits for people. Nagging is a terrible habit that is going to affect your overall happiness. Entitlement is a terrible habit of thinking; if you feel entitled to something you’re going to be much more likely to feel disappointed when you don’t get what you want than grateful when you do.
Paul Solman: A friend of mine says, “Happiness in life is managing your expectations.”

Christine Carter: I think happiness in life is not necessarily about having low expectations; it’s about having expectations you feel good about but that are also realistic. So, if you expect something that you can’t get, you’re setting yourself up to feel quite disappointed.

Paul Solman: So, what would you advise me to do today to make myself happier?

Christine Carter: I would advise you to do three things. One, take a moment to reflect on what you appreciate about your life today. Try and think of something that you haven’t thought of in the past that isn’t novel that you’re grateful for today. The second thing I would encourage you to do is to slow down a little bit and focus on one thing at a time. Really allow yourself to be mindful in each of your activities. Be really present instead of thinking about your next appointment while you’re in your current one. Slow down, focus on your breath a little bit and enjoy this moment. And the third piece of advice I’d give you about being happy today is to try and connect with as many people as you can.

Paul Solman: I do all that. I’m really good at all that.

Christine Carter: Good, you’re probably happy.

Paul Solman: I am happy. I’m very anxious though. I’m an anxious happy person.

Christine Carter: Okay, so focus for you. You know, I actually am one of those people that probably is more cheerful genetically than others, and I am very happy because I cultivate all of these things, but I am for sure very prone to anxiety and perfectionism. And lots of research shows that mindfulness can kind of calm our nerves and pull us away from that anxiety a little bit.

I try and take four or five deep breaths. Five seconds in, 10 seconds out, do that four times. It’s only taken a minute and I will be physiologically calmer.

I do that in my bed when I first wake up in the morning because it’s a gentler way for me to start my day rather than starting my day with a long list of things that I’ve got to get done or that I’m worrying about. I do it in my car when I park. I will do it when waiting in a carpool line to pick my kids up from school. I do it before I give a big talk. Anytime that I notice that I’m starting to feel a little tense. It’s a way to consciously bring my heart rate down and it makes me more present to whatever I’m going to do in the next hour.

But you know, honestly, doing that once a day could have a lasting effect for the whole day.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.