Book Summary: Happiness: Lessons from a New Science

Picture of the cover of <em>Happiness: Lessons From a New Science.</em>

This is my Happiness: Lessons from a New Science summary.

Happiness: Lessons from a New Science Summary

What is the problem?

Jeremy Bentham was a shy and kindly man, who never married and gave his money to good causes. He was also one of the first intellectuals to go jogging – or trotting as he called it. (pg. 4)

From his experiences in Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl concluded that in the last resort “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, that last of human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” (pg. 8)

What is happiness?

People can say at any moment how they feel. (pg. 12)

Most people find it easy to say how good they are feeling, and in social surveys such questions get very high response rates, much higher than the average survey question (pg. 13)

Layard defines happiness as feeling good and states that the book is concerned with increasing people’s average happiness over time. (pg. 17)

By using very powerful magnets it is possible to stimulate activity in the left side of the forebrain, and this automatically produces a better mood. Indeed, this method has even been used to alleviate depression. Even more remarkable, it has been found that to improve the immune system, which is heavily influenced by a person’s mood. (pg. 19)

When different people are exposed to good experiences, those who are naturally happy when at rest experience the greatest gain in happiness. And when they are exposed to nasty experiences, they experience the least increase is discomfort. (pg. 19)

When people are exposed to a painful experience, their subjective pain reports are highly correlated with the different levels of brain activity in the relevant part of the cortex. (pg. 20)

It is not possible to be happy and unhappy at the same time. Positive feelings damp down negative feelings and vice versa. So we have just one dimension — running from the extreme negative to the extreme positive. (pg. 21)

People who achieve a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than those who live from one pleasure to another. (pg. 22)

Oscar nominees who won went on to life four years longer, on average, than the losers. (pg. 24)

Are we getting happier?

When people become richer compared with other people, they become happier, but when whole societies have become richer, they have not become happier. (pg. 31)

When we look at the same people over their lifetimes, we find they got no happier, even though they get much richer. (pg. 32)

A group of Chinese students were asked to answer a happiness survey in both Chinese and English, with two weeks between the two events. The students reported almost exactly the same average level of happiness in both Chinese and English, and the answers in the different languages were highly correlated across the students. (pg.34)

In Switzerland most people speak French, German, or Italian, but all these groups give similar replies to the question about happiness. (pg. 34)

Most evidence suggests that clinical depression has increased since the Second World War. (pg. 35)

In any one year about 6% of people in the United Sates experience a major depressive episode. (pg. 35)

In the United States over a quarter of young white men say they have already experienced problem with alcohol. This compares with under 15% of men over sixty-five who say they have ever experienced such problems. (pg. 36)

In Europe, the number of people dying of cirrhosis of the liver is up since 1950 in every country except France. (pg. 37)

Youth suicide has increased in almost every advanced country. (pg. 37)

If you’re so rich, why aren’t you happy?

Since 1972 Americans have been asked whether they are satisfied with their financial position. Although real income per head has nearly doubled, the proportion of people who say they are pretty well satisfied with their financial situation has actually fallen. (pg. 42)

The only situation where we might willingly accept a pay cut is when others are doing the same. (pg. 44)

At the extreme we have the Russian peasant whose neighbor has a cow. When God asks how he can help, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.” (pg. 45)

If I work harder and raise my income, I make other people less happy. But when I decide how much to work, I do not take this “pollution” into account. so I will tend to work more than is socially efficient — and so will everyone else. (pg. 47)

A dollar rise in experienced income causes a rise of at least forty cents in “required income.” (pg. 49)

People do underestimate this process of habituation: As a result, our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits. (pg. 49)

Among rich countries, people in the United States work the longest hours. In most countries and at most times in history, as people have become richer they have chosen to work less. Over the last fifty years Europeans have continued this pattern and hours of work have fallen sharply, but not in the United States. (pg. 50)

So what does make us happy?

Despite these problems you will still hear that some trait is x% “heritable,” meaning that x% of the variation is due to the genes. In most cases the figure given is an overestimate, because it includes as a genetic effect any effect of experience when this is positively correlate with the effect of the genes. (pg. 58)

As adoptees progress through life, the effect of their adoptive parents fades and the effect of their genes increases. (pg. 59)

Among humans, controlled experiments to improve parenting have been shown to have lasting effects on the children. (pg. 60)

For many reasons mothers treat one twin differently from another, and even by the age of seven we can see that the favored twin behaves much better. (pg. 60)

What’s going wrong?

Bhutan is small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. In 1998, the king announced that the nation’s objective would be the Gross National Happiness. In 1999, the country’s ban on television was lifted. Crime increased, families dissolved, and drug use rose. (pg. 77)

Unmarried parents are on average twice as likely to split up as married parents. (pg. 79)

In 1950, 20% of U.S. mothers went out to work. Now it is over 70%. (pg 82)

Given that the rate of divorce has soared over the past 50 years, one would expect that the remaining marriages would be happier, but marriage satisfaction has actually fallen. (pg. 85)

Over a lifetime a typical Briton spends more time watching television than doing paid work. The figures are much the same in the United States. (pg. 86)

Richard Layard believes that television increases violent behavior. Two days after heavyweight prize-fights in the United States, there is 9% more homicide than otherwise. And after a reported suicide in a television drama, more people actually take their lives. (pg. 87)

Researchers measured the change in children’s aggression in the two years that followed the introduction of television. This showed conclusively that the introduction of television increased aggression.

The more television people watch, the more they overestimate they overestimate the affluence of other people. (pg. 89)

Since television has a negative impact on your perceived position, it is bad for your happiness. (pg. 89)

On one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week on keeping up with the Joneses. (pg. 89)

Can we pursue a common good?

On average, people with a strong moral sense do better than others, even economically. (pg. 102)

People who are given thirty minutes beforehand to talk to other strangers are quite good at forecasting how the others will behave in the ultimatum game. (pg. 104)

The evidence also shows that when one spouse does something and the other spouse reciprocates, the first gets less satisfaction than when no direct reciprocation occurs. (pg. 105)

At this point in the text, Layard writes at length about utilitarianism. His analysis is aimed at a popular audience and will not be of much use to anyone who has taken an ethics course or read a few articles on Wikipedia. However, Layard does mention two books that argue against utilitarianism, Utilitarianism and Beyond and Utilitarianism: For and Against. This sort of information is very useful to utilitarians, as reading these will help correct for confirmation bias.

Can we tame the rat race?

For example, in 1996 the Eurobarometer survey asked employed people in each country whether in the last five years there had been a significant increase in the stress involved with your job. Nearly 50% said it increased, while 10% said it diminished. (pg. 158)


That’s all, folks! If you enjoyed this, consider buying a copy of the book.

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