Long-term changes in happiness

The final lecture of the psychology course I have been following focuses on the question of what makes people happy.

In addition to a lot of things that are already common knowledge – such as how winning the lottery is not all it’s cracked up to be – it includes a couple of examples of things that have a persistent effect on your happiness. This contrasts with things like the acquisition of a new gadget, which prompts a brief spike that soon falls back to normalcy.

One thing that makes people persistently happier is plastic surgery. Apparently, this is because time doesn’t desensitize us to how other people respond to our appearance. Neither does it affect how our own perception about our experience affects our mental lives. For those who don’t want to go to the extreme length of surgery, it seems plausible that improving your wardrobe could have a similar effect. Replace some shabby garment with one that you are proud to wear, and it may well make you happier for as long as you own it. I can speak to this from personal experience. Replacing my squeaky, ugly, plastic Rockport shoes with some nice leather Allen Edmonds shoes has made me feel consistently more qualified and capable at work.

Another thing that affects happiness persistently, though in a negative way, is noise. I know plenty about this personally, since I live right beside a busy street, on the ground floor, with my bedroom window right beside a speed bump that people often damage their cars on. This has bothered me every single day since I moved in, particularly when cars wake me up in the morning. I recall being annoyed by similar circumstances in the past, such as the noisy birds outside the Totem Park residence at UBC, or the booming clock beside my house in North Oxford.

The practical message of all of this seems to be: don’t spend your money on electronic gadgets, photo gear, or other expensive trinkets. Definitely don’t spend it on lottery tickets, which are likely to leave you less happy in the very unlikely situation where you win. Spend it on quiet housing and improving your appearance. Another good investment might be Professor Paul Bloom’s forthcoming book: How Pleasure Works. The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

33 thoughts on “Long-term changes in happiness”

  1. I dunno… I think I’d be happy to win the lottery. In fact, on the occasions when I buy a ticket, the $2 price of the ticket is worth the fantasizing about what I would do with the money if I were to win.

  2. “One of the big–one of the other surprises from happiness research is the effects of cosmetic surgery like breast enhancement and breast reduction. One of the big surprises is it makes people happier and then they stay happier. And one explanation for this is how we look is very important. It’s very important for how other people see us and how we see ourselves, and you never get used to looking in a certain way. So, if you look better it just makes you happier all the time.”

    Money cannot buy happiness, unless it is spent on boob jobs.

  3. Some other reasons why cosmetic surgery might be worth the pain and expense:

    People like attractive people. Physically attractive people are thought to be smarter, more competent, more social and nicer. Now, some of you who are very cynical and/or very good looking might wonder “yes, but good-looking people like me actually are smarter, more competent, more social and morally better.” This is not a crazy response. It is–it could be, for instance, that the advantages of being good looking make your life run a lot easier. Teachers are more responsive to you, people treat you better, you have more opportunities to make your way through the world, you make more money, you have more access to things, and that could, in turn, cause you to improve your life. This would be what’s known in the Bible as a “Matthew effect.” A Matthew effect is a developmental psychology phrase for the sort of thing where, well, as Jesus said, “For unto everyone that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance.” That means if you’re good looking you’ll also be smart but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. It’s a long version of the rich get richer and the poor even lose what they hath. So, there’s a variety of studies suggesting that teachers rate attractive children as smarter and higher achieving. Adults think that when an ugly kid misbehaves it’s because they have an ugly soul [laughter] while the attractive kid, “oh, that little scamp, somebody must have been bothering him.”

    When I was in the University of Arizona and we lived next–and all I remember of my neighborhood is we lived next to this little boy and his name was Adonis. [laughter] Cute kid, but come on. [laughter] Also in mock trials judges give longer prison sentences to ugly people. [laughter] That’s the Matthew effect, those who hath little get even that taken away and thrown into prison.

    Oh, humanity.

  4. Interesting! Though, with plastic surgery you are only delaying the inevitable. Some day, if you make it long enough, you’ll look prune-y and emaciated.

    I wonder if accepting how you look naturally eases the pains of growing older?

    Or maybe it is better to just cut yourself up to match arbitrary body ideals.

  5. The sociology and ethics of cosmetic surgery are other areas of thinking altogether.

    That said, while some body ideals are definitely culturally specific, there are others (such as facial symmetry) which are recognized by newborn babies from all cultures.

    They may not have any moral importance, when it comes to the person with the symmetrical face, but they aren’t arbitrary from the standpoint of perception.

  6. Not all plastic surgery makes a person more attractive and statistics also show that once a person has had plastic surgery, they fail to be happy with their looks and over shorter and shorter periods of time, they need to go under the knife again. I don’t know if that is happiness or just a temporary illusion. It also speaks of the profound unhappiness that many people feel about themselves.

  7. Want to get paid like a CEO? Image is key

    A surprising study finds CEOs who look like they know what they’re doing take home a bigger paycheque

    Dave McGinn

    Globe and Mail Update Published on Monday, May. 03, 2010 6:50PM EDT Last updated on Monday, May. 03, 2010 7:16PM EDT

    Making it to the top in the corporate world depends on much more than just appearances, with executive search firms and a candidate’s résumé deciding who gets the corner office. Or so you might think. A recent study shows that when it comes to being the big boss, image is key.

    “Giving the layers of vetting that goes on for a CEO, this just was very surprising,” says Campbell Harvey, a finance professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and co-author of the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

    In three online experiments, Dr. Harvey and his co-authors asked nearly 2,000 participants to assess photographs of more than 100 unidentified CEOs and non-executives. The researchers used photos of white males only, explaining that there are still so few women and minority CEOs, respondents would be more likely to recognize individuals and possibly skew the results.

    In the first experiment, participants were shown photos of CEOs paired with regular people of similar dress and appearance. Asked to rate the competence, attractiveness, trustworthiness and likeability of the subjects, 54 per cent of respondents found the CEO group more competent-looking and 52 per cent found them more attractive. However, the CEO group was rated as less trustworthy-looking and less likeable.

    In the second study, photos of CEOs of large companies were paired with CEOs of small firms. The CEOs of bigger firms were rated as more competent by 55 per cent of respondents. But bosses at smaller firms were rated as looking more likeable, attractive and trustworthy.

    The third experiment produced the most significant results, Dr. Harvey says. Participants were shown pictures of CEOs and asked to rate their competence on a five-point scale. Turns out the group rated at four points or higher were paid on average 7.5 per cent more than the CEOs who scored three out of five.

  8. My comment is not so much about this particular post, but more to say thanks for sharing the Academic Earth lecture series on Psychology by Paul Bloom at Yale!

    Can’t tell you how valuable it’s been, but I’m sure you already know!

  9. I found Professor Bloom’s course just excellent. I am planning to get the textbook and reader, once I have cleared some of my existing backlog of reading.

    The only slightly annoying thing is how many of the images and movie clips have been cut out from the lecture videos, due to copyright restrictions. To me, it seems like online courses should have the same fair use rights as in-person lectures.

  10. “One thing that makes people persistently happier is plastic surgery.”

    This is a deeply saddening idea.

  11. Why? The way we look is arbitrary in many ways. What is so objectionable about altering it in a way that has many distinct benefits?

  12. Or you are so determined that your perspective is correct and universal that you are unwilling to consider the alternative.

    It seems a bit strange and authoritarian to look at evidence that something tends to make people happy, then despair about it because it clashes with your personal aesthetics.

  13. I agree that there is nothing inherently “good” about the natural. Some people are born without limbs, and using prosthetics – an alteration of the “natural” body, would not be considered better (or more “good”) than the alternative by most.

    But there seems to be something questionable about the nature of invasive plastic surgery on perfectly healthy, properly limbed, and otherwise naturally disability free individuals. Especially since it is not the matter of living with our own bodies that is the problem, it is the matter of *everyone else* living with our own bodies that we consider problematic.

    It’s the pressure of these external forces that people take to heart, and to the surgery table. Surgery can be very dangerous, and the limitation of the possibility of side effects caused by it seems to be an inherently reasonable and good thing.

    Seeing body modification in this light, as a dangerous operation that we take upon ourselves – possibly causing death in some circumstances – as a measure of trying to live up to social expectations and social pressures, it does not seem so blameless to me.

    In fact, it seems to reflect a kind of perversity. That we are so angry with our own bodies that we are only happy when we cut them up and fill them up with possible harmful chemicals.

    Doesn’t that seem borderline psychotic?

  14. Some people are born without limbs, and using prosthetics – an alteration of the “natural” body, would not be considered better (or more “good”) than the alternative by most.

    er that’s “the alteration of the natural body WOULD be considered better than the alternative than most.”

  15. But people get tattoos, piercings, wear makeup, dye their hair.

    Some (a lot of?) plastic surgery looks terrible. But so do a lot of tattoos, piercings, make overs. It’s not that much different, although I think what makes it seem different is that a doctor does it. Normally we think of a doctor as someone we task with caring for our health, not for indulging our vanity.

  16. But people get tattoos, piercings, wear makeup, dye their hair.

    The modifications you are talking about are relatively minor. More like embellishments than say, body restructuring.

    Perhaps what offends me most is the lengths to which we’re willing to go to approximate promoted cultural norms.

    Probably it’s silly to imagine plastic surgery as something borne of 21st century materialism. There’s evidence of some form of body modification in most cultures I know of – as a measure of group conformity. We just have the technology and the hygienics to open ourselves up and make major modifications now.

    I mean really what we’re talking about is the lengths to which we’ll go to adhere to cultural norms, and the deeper we cut ourselves to conform – the more absurd and repulsive it seems to me.

    And I guess, as an extension of that – I feel a kind of depression about the limited imagination and acceptance that it reflects.

  17. I find I am much happier when I am outside – quite a simple step.

    Do others find that they are simply happier when they are outside?

  18. Although men are now having plastic surgery too, which is the next phase in a self-centered , navel-gazing culture, it is primarily used by women to stay young, keep their man or to find a new one. I find it very sad that a perfect and fake breast would make a relationship more secure or exciting. I t is fascinating that after a mastectomy many women will select a breast implant for their husband or partner. This fake breast can often mask problems that may arise in the future and cause additional surgery and pain. Plastic surgery is great for people born without a palate or accident victims, but it is simply extravagant in a world that is starving. If you need happiness, go outside, read a book or hold hands with a friend.

  19. In general, people find sound becomes annoying when the level in the community, averaged over 24 hours, exceeds 65dBA. Since the introduction of high-bypass jet engines, with their big, slower turning compressor fans, airports have managed to keep more of their 65dBA sound contours within their own perimeters. Likewise, since the advent of welded track and electric locomotives, railways have become less of an annoyance.

    Car engines, too, have been hushed to well below their annoyance levels. Electric vehicles have become almost too quiet. There is talk of having to equip them with automatic beepers, or even simulated engine sounds, in order to warn pedestrians of their approach. While sound barriers along busy highways have helped make life more tolerable for local residents, research still needs to be done on making road surfaces quieter. The bulk of the traffic sound today comes from the screech and whine of rubber on tarmac or concrete.”

  20. Nova Scotia couple give away $11-million lottery windfall

    Four months after cashing in an $11-million lottery ticket, Allen and Violet Large have nothing to show for their winnings.

    Nothing material, that is. A long list of local charities are reaping the benefits of their decision to give away the money – and media from around the world are picking up on their story.

    But the humble couple who retired to rural Nova Scotia didn’t set out to make headlines.

    “We didn’t do it to get recognized,” Ms. Large said in an interview Thursday morning. “Why spend money when you already have everything you need?”

    It made no difference that the winnings made it possible to buy things never feasible on working-class salaries. They drive a five-year-old truck and a 13-year-old car, have no microwave or voicemail and live in a 19th-century home that is paid off.

  21. It was at that moment of bliss that I realized how the objective parenting research and the subjective parenting experience could both be right. Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don’t remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.

    We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.

    Children regularly give parents the kind of highs that only narcotics can rival. The unpredictability of those moments of bliss is an important factor in their addictiveness. If you give animals a predictable reward—say, a shot of sugar every time they press a lever—you can get them to press that lever quite regularly. But if you want irrational and addictive behavior, you make the reward unpredictable. Pressing the lever produces sugar, but only once every 10 tries. Sometimes, the animal might have to go 20 or 30 tries without a reward. Sometimes it gets a big jolt of sugar three tries in a row. If you train an animal to work for an unexpected reward, you can get it to work harder and longer than if you train it to work for a predictable reward.

  22. So the masters of Powerball take in $200 million in ticket sales for Saturday’s drawing. Very likely, they pay out $280 million in jackpot—not to mention the sub-jackpot prizes, which amounted to $41 million in Saturday’s drawing. Which means the house loses. And if the house loses, by definition, the average player wins.

    This may make Powerball look dumb; why would a casino run a game where the house stands to lose? The answer is that the current large jackpot is the result of a long string of games when the house did win. Cumulative-jackpot lotteries such as Powerball are essentially a massive transfer of value from the dupes who play when the jackpot is small to the wiser ones who wait until the jackpot is big, with the house taking a healthy cut along the way. Here’s the one piece of solid advice in this column: If you play Powerball every day, stop playing Powerball every day. If your dollar can be spent for a 1 in 80 million chance of $10 million or a 1 in 80 million chance of $120 million, why would you choose the former?

    You should have played, stupid.

  23. What makes us happy?

    SIR – Your article looking at whether governments should pursue happiness (Economics focus, November 27th) quoted evidence that economic growth makes people happier. The evidence you cited was cross-sectional and pooled the richest with the poorest countries. But the issue about growth is a time-series issue, and, in considering our own future, we should focus on evidence from other countries similar to ourselves.

    The stark fact is that in the world’s two leading advanced countries, the United States and Germany, happiness has not risen despite the striking rises in real income. The data for America go back as far as 1950 and for (west) Germany to 1970. Long-term economic growth is of course to be welcomed and it will occur. But it is not a guarantee of greater well-being, and its claims should be properly balanced against those of everything else that makes life worthwhile. It is excellent that a head of government should be presenting this view so strongly.

    Richard Layard
    Professor emeritus of economics
    London School of Economics

    SIR – Maybe the question you want to ask would be better put as “should governments pursue jobs rather than growth?” Our recent annual “World of Work Report” showed that satisfaction in life is in fact driven principally by employment outcomes rather than economic growth. Lower unemployment combined with long-term efforts to reduce excessive income inequalities are the key to increasing life happiness.

    Sameer Khatiwada
    International Institute for Labour Studies

  24. The U-bend of life

    Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older

    ASK people how they feel about getting older, and they will probably reply in the same vein as Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” Stiffening joints, weakening muscles, fading eyesight and the clouding of memory, coupled with the modern world’s careless contempt for the old, seem a fearful prospect—better than death, perhaps, but not much. Yet mankind is wrong to dread ageing. Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.

    When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

    This curious finding has emerged from a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being. Conventional economics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dismal way in which the discipline talks about happiness. But some economists, unconvinced that there is a direct relationship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the matter and measure happiness itself.

  25. Surveys show that only about 25% of people consider how noisy a product will be when buying it, according to Mike Goldsmith, a former head of acoustics at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory. But many of them come to regret this, and half of such disgruntled shoppers say they would pay as much as 50% extra for a product that makes half as much noise.

    Last year Quiet Mark, a British not-for-profit company, was launched to encourage manufacturers to make quieter products. It was founded by Poppy Elliott, the granddaughter of John Connell, who founded the Noise Abatement Society in 1959. Ms Elliott believes that a quiet environment is necessary to enable people to fulfil their intellectual and creative potential. She points to a report on the health effects of noise published by the World Health Organisation in 2011, which found that in western Europe, excessive noise was second only to air pollution as a cause of environmental ill-health. Quiet Mark campaigns for quieter products and awards a stamp of approval to products or schemes that minimise noise, including kettles, blenders, hairdryers and washing machines—and even hotels and silent musical instruments.

  26. The same set of principles works on our emotions. When you get an emotional shock—good or bad—your brain wants to re-equilibrate, making it hard to stay on the high or low for very long. This is especially true when it comes to positive emotions, for primordial reasons that we’ll get into shortly. It’s why, when you achieve conventional, acquisitive success, you can never get enough. If you base your sense of self-worth on success—money, power, prestige—you will run from victory to victory, initially to keep feeling good, and then to avoid feeling awful.

    The unending race against the headwinds of homeostasis has a name: the “hedonic treadmill.” No matter how fast we run, we never arrive. “At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance.” “I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.”


  27. At some level, we all know that social comparison is ridiculous and harmful, and extensive research confirms this: “Keeping up with the Joneses” is associated with anxiety and even depression. In a series of experiments that required subjects to solve puzzles, for instance, the unhappiest people were consistently those paying the most attention to how they performed relative to other subjects. The small rush of pleasure we get from doing better than some can easily be swallowed up by the unhappiness from doing worse than others. But the urge to have more than others, to be more than others, tugs at us relentlessly.

    We live in a time when we are regularly counseled to get back to nature, to our long-ago past—in our diets, our sense of communal obligation, and more. But if our goal is happiness that endures, following our natural urges does not help us, in the main. That is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. Happiness doesn’t help propagate the species, so nature doesn’t select for it. If you conflate intergenerational survival with happiness, that’s your problem, not nature’s.

    In fact, our natural state is dissatisfaction, punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction. You might not like the hedonic treadmill, but Mother Nature thinks it’s pretty great. She likes watching you strive to achieve an elusive goal, because strivers get the goods—even if they don’t enjoy them for long. More mates, better mates, better chances of survival for our children—these ancient mandates are responsible for much of the code that runs incessantly in the deep recesses of our brains. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve found your soul mate and would never stray; the algorithms designed to get us more mates (or allow us to make an upgrade) continue whirring, which is why you still want to be attractive to strangers. Neurobiological instinct—which we experience as dissatisfaction—is what drives us forward.

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