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Behavioral Science

Probing the origins of happiness

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The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course” lays out a sweeping framework for happiness in childhood and adulthood — and explains how policymakers and leaders can implement this knowledge to improve society.

MIT Sloan PhD student George Ward co-authored the book. He explains what makes people happy, what doesn’t, and why it matters.

What was the impetus behind the book?  The broad idea was to bring together a lot of disparate work on happiness. In the last few decades, there’s been a huge amount of work on what you can loosely call the “science of happiness.” More recently, government policy has moved toward measuring happiness at a national level and using that data to inform policy. Over 23 countries are systematically tracking happiness indicators that complement traditional measures like GDP.

We wanted to bring together this body of work in a systematic, quantitative way. Often, these are single studies that say “x” is important for happiness; “y” is important for happiness. In this book we try to provide an overarching framework that documents what makes for a satisfying life.

On the policy side, more and more countries are using well-being data in the real world. As we speak to policymakers, they often ask the question: “Look, we’re measuring this now and we have the impetus to improve these figures, move up these tables of happiness, and make our citizens enjoy their lives more. What can we do?”The idea of the book is to try to give policymakers a sort of broad road map, if you like, for what’s determining people’s happiness at different stages of life and help them to think about areas where they might target policy.

Credit: Mimi Phan

"The Origins of Happiness" co-author George Ward

How can a government measure happiness?  It’s usually measured with survey data, in questions like: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life, on a scale of zero to ten?” In the United Kingdom, they do it with a number of questions on overall life satisfaction, feelings of happiness, whether the things you do in life are worthwhile, and so on. In a number of countries, it’s now included in major government surveys. Here in the U.S., there are well-being modules in the American Time Use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also track life satisfaction among the population.

Why should government care about who’s happy, anyway?  There are two ways to answer. One is more philosophical and, in a sense, goes back to Enlightenment, if not even further to Aristotle’s “Politics.” There’s an influential school of thought that thinks well-being or happiness ought to be a policy goal, beyond GDP. Jefferson, for example, thought that happiness should be the goal of good government. Ultimately, just making countries wealthier isn’t enough. Life should be more enjoyable.The second is that there seems to be some electoral self-interest to looking after citizens’ well-being. Governments of populations that are unhappy don’t tend to stay in power very long.

What makes adults happy?  Mental and physical health as well as social relationships are very significant. Money plays a role, of course, but isn’t quite as significant as people might think. A huge predictor of unhappiness is unemployment. It’s a big psychological hit: You lose a sense of purpose, and you lose social relationships, relationships with employees, and with management. Relationships are a driving force behind people’s happiness, and that’s not just at home but also at work and in the community.

What makes a successful child?  We look at three dimensions of success: emotional health, behavior, and academic achievement. If you follow a child into adulthood and try to predict their life satisfaction in their 40s, emotional health at age 16 is the strongest predictor [of happiness] much later in life. Even though academic achievement buys you a great deal else, emotional health is the strongest nuts-and-bolts predictor.

Family income in childhood predicts academic success, but it doesn’t predict emotional health and behavior particularly well. Schools can play a huge role in fostering happiness. They can teach kids life skills, resilience, and a lot more about what is important beyond just math and English.

What can we do with this information?  There’s a great deal that individuals can do themselves, of course. But government can also play a key role in fostering the conditions that allow people to live enjoyable lives. Take mental health. Depression and anxiety are a huge source of misery, and they are largely treatable. Currently public health expenditure is heavily geared towards physical health. And treating mental health usually brings with it huge savings in other areas like absenteeism, unemployment, crime, and so on.

There’s also a great deal that leaders in the business community can be doing to make jobs more satisfying and enjoyable. Similarly, a happier workforce can bring with it a number of benefits in terms of productivity, engagement, and reduced turnover.

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