Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Finding Happiness

I'm always skeptical about social science research. Or should I say, social "science" research. I'm even more skeptical of news reports about social science research. It seems that editors care more about the catchiness of a lead sentence than about its accuracy. For example, these widely divergent and occasionally misleading lead sentences all introduced articles covering the same topic: a research study published in the March edition of Psychological Science:

"You can't buy happiness, but it looks like you can at least inherit it, British and Australian researchers said on Thursday." (Reuters on Yahoo News.)

"Though most of us spend a lifetime pursuing happiness, new research is showing that that goal may be largely out of our control." (Time Magazine.)

"People tend to be hardwired for happiness, and new genetic research may help explain why." (WebMD Medical News.)

"If you think a new car or the perfect partner is going to make you happy think again, as new research says this is only possible with the help of your genes." (ABC News Australia.)

And somewhat shockingly, "The right genetic mix might lead to a lifetime of happiness, a new British study suggests." (The National Institutes of Health, Medline Plus.) It does?

I don't have access to the full published report, but I assume these reporters did. It's interesting, isn't it, how they all have a slightly--or in some cases, widely--different take on what the researchers actually concluded? Depending on your preferred news source, you might develop unrealistic expectations about a "lifetime of happiness," or you might decide to drink the special Kool-Aid.

The researchers concluded that half the differences in happiness levels among pairs of identical and fraternal twins were genetic. This conclusion, from what I can tell, arises from the fact that fraternal twins were only half as similar as identical twins in "personality and well-being," according to the Reuters article; and the researcher suggests that this difference "strongly implicates genes."

Researchers say, first of all, that personality traits like "being sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious" are genetically determined. They've also concluded from studies of identical twins that these traits have a causal effect on happiness; ergo, happiness is at least partially genetically determined.

The reports all mention that happiness seems to be inversely related to anxiety or worry. Well, duh. What will they reveal next--the shocking connection between happiness and gratitude? Oh, wait--they already confirmed this: "Count your blessings" in order to be happier, researcher Timothy Bates advised.

Interestingly, findings suggested that circumstances did not alter the happiness curve. Income, marital status, education--even devastating life events like the death of a spouse or the loss of a limb--didn't have long-term effects on happiness levels. Rich people and married people are not necessarily happier than poor people or single people.

I'm still trying to figure out what this research means to you and me. What's the big "so what"? Are you doomed to a lifetime of glumness if you're not naturally outgoing and conscientious? Can you learn optimism? Can you cultivate calmness?

Just to indulge the tiny preacher inside me, I'll leave you with two counter-intuitive passages from the Bible about finding happiness, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New:

Blessed [happy] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.(Psalm 1:1-2)

Blessed [happy] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

1 comment:

jeanie said...

Amazing! Happiness is all wrapped up in God! I bet no one said that in those studies.