This is a review and summary of David Myers’s The Pursuit of Happiness.
General Thoughts on the Book in General, Generally
The book is pretty good. I gave it a four out of five stars on Goodreads. If you’re looking for an answer to the question, “Who is happy?” and are not interested in reading more rigorous texts, then this is a good place to start. If you’re interested in the more pragmatic question, “How can I become happier?” then I would suggest you start with Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness.
It is, however, a bit dated. Specifically, more recent results suggest that the disabled are significantly less happy and satisfied than the book would lead you to believe (although they are still better off than one would naively suspect), the theoretical foundations of Pennebaker’s work on trauma-writing have advanced significantly and focus on the benefits of sense-making and its mediating role in cognitive accessibility, most people adapt to marriage within two years, negative affect peaks in late adolescence, etc.
Myer’s has a tendency to use anecdotes, which work well stylistically, but are probably too easy to believe, which is to say: readers may come away convinced of the truth of more than they would based on a careful review of the evidence.
The Pursuit of Happiness: Summary By Chapter
What is well-being?
Fewer than one in ten rate themselves as more dissatisfied than satisfied.
People over report good things. There is more reported voting (extrapolated from surveys) than actual voting, many fewer cigarettes smoked than actually sold, less tax evasion than known to occur.
As they begin college, only 2 percent of students say there is a very good chance they will drop out, even temporarily. Only about half of the students entering a four-year college or university graduate within five years.
To discover who is happiest, and why, we need only assume that those who say they are “very happy” or “completely satisfied” do experience greater well-being than those who say they are unhappy or dissatisfied.
Wealth and well-being
The correlation between income and happiness is modest, and in both the United States and Canada has now dropped to near zero.
When subjects of countless experiments speak or write on behalf of some point of view, they come to believe it more strongly.
A satisfied mind
Indeed, a recent Gallup poll offered the astonishing result that people with incomes of under ten thousand dollars give 5.5 percent to charity, and those earning fifty to sixty thousand give a stingier 1.7 percent.
In a 1990 Gallup poll, Americans readily applied the label “rich” to others. The average person judged that 21 percent of Americans were rich. But virtually none–fewer than 1/2 of 1 percent–perceived themselves as rich. To those earning $10,000 a year, it takes $50,000 to become rich. To those making $500,000 a year, rich may be $1 million income.
Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are. Bertrand Russel
The demography of happiness
Most men in their early forties do not experience a dip in well-being, that is, a mid-life crisis.
Adult moods (compared to adolescents) are less extreme and more enduring. Emotional intensity decreases with age.
Middle class housewives who feel less free–whose lives feel full and rushed rather than free and easy–express greater feelings of happiness and contentment.
Myer’s writes here that women experience more intense emotions than men. I’m skeptical of such claims but, on reflection, it strikes me as possible that women are more likely to indulge in their feelings, which does intensify moods. Why do I believe that women are more likely to indulge in and cultivate emotional states? Because society promotes the stereotype that women are emotional, illogical creatures, which encourages greater emotional expression, while portraying men in an opposite way.
Men are more likely than women to say that their best friend is their spouse, and four in five women say their best friend is another woman.
Statistical digests of many dozens of studies credit race and education with less than 2 percent of person-to-person variance in well-being.
Reprogramming the mind
Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours. Richard Bach
Astrology doesn’t work. Subliminal persuasion doesn’t work.
The traits of happy people
Every time we act, we amplify the underlying idea or tendency.
Do we wish to change ourselves in some important way? A potent strategy is to get up and start doing that thing. Don’t worry that you don’t feel like it. Fake it.
Going through the motions can trigger the emotion.
If we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate. William James
“Flow” in work and play
In fact, the less expensive (and generally more involving) a leisure activity, the happier people are while doing it.
Among the college students I have spent twenty-five years working with, few behaviors strike me as more irrational than self-destructive sleep patterns, with resulting fatigue, diminished alertness and, not infrequently, failure and depression.
Those sleeping seven to eight hours a night were half as likely to be depressed as those sleeping less (or more).
One astonishing recent result even found that daily meditation boosted longevity. Seventy-three residents from nursing homes were assigned either to a meditation or no-meditation condition. After three years, one fourth of the non-meditators had died, while all of the meditators were still alive.
The friendship factor
When Pennebaker surveyed more than 700 college women, he found one in twelve reported a traumatic sexual experience in childhood. I think it’s easy to become jaded and ignore these kind of self-report measures and just continue to systematically underestimate the amount of sexual abuse people, especially women, continue to endure, that is largely invisible to the rest of us. I have a tendency about this kind of thing and react with, “well, that’s bullshit”, but I have heard enough independent measures reporting surprisingly high results to convince me otherwise.
Myer’s speaks here about Pennebaker’s research and the importance of self-disclosing traumatic events to other people or a diary. Newer research on trauma writing suggests that it is not so much telling someone about the event, as it is constructing a narrative to explain what happened. That is, the key factor involved is making-sense-of.
Compared to American students, university students in Hong Kong talk with half as many people during a day, but for longer periods.
National Opinion Research: “Looking over the last six months, who are the people who you discussed matters important to you?” Compared to those who could name no such intimate, those who named five or more such friends were 60 percent more likely to feel “very happy.”
I’d just like to point out how absolutely weird that last statement is. It takes the people on one end of the scale and compares them to those with the most social resources and says, “Hey, look how important social relationships are!” I could take income and do the same thing. The completely destitute and homeless are way less happier than the average billionaire! Look how important money is to happiness! But, of course, no one does this, which begs the question: why do people want to believe that social relationships are paramount to happiness?
People report greater well-being if their friends and families support their goals by frequently expressing interest and offering help and encouragement.
Love and marriage
In the United States, almost two thirds say their marriage is “very happy.”
In one study, researchers Stephen Strack and James Coyne observed that “depressed persons induced hostility, depression, and anxiety in others and got rejected. Their guesses that they were not accepted were not a matter of cognitive distortion.”
95 percent of Americans over age forty have married.
“The real proportion of those marriages that were successful… may well have been under a fourth.”
The gap between the happiness of the married and the unmarried seems to be shrinking.
For couples living apart (because of dual careers, military service, or imprisonment) absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Such couples have double the normal rate of divorce.
Those who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to get divorced.
The number of premarital sexual partners correlates with marital unhappiness.
75 percent of divorced people remarry — half within three years.
Although second marriages have a 25 percent greater risk of divorce, remarried people are virtually as satisfied with their marriages as those in first marriages.
In a 1988 Gallup survey, nine in ten Americans said they had not had sex with anyone other than their spouses during their present marriage.
Those who married out of romantic love experienced a diminishing of romantic love after five years. In contrast, those in arranged marriages reported more love as the years went by. In fact, a decade after marriage, love was more abundant in arranged than love-based marriages.
Virtually every couple that had sex more often than they argued were happily married; no couples that argued more than they had sex rated their marriage as happy.
Thoughts on this chapter
I’m convinced that most authors are too optimistic about the benefits of marriage. Myers ought to be commended for the sheer amount of disturbing evidence that he presents in this chapter.
He still seems optimistic, though. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for such optimism. If an alien visited Earth, knowing nothing about marriage, and was presented with all the studies on marriage, would he be as optimistic as most authors are? I don’t think so.
Books on happiness ought to be counseling people not to get married at all. Texts will often speak at length about all the problems with marriage, the downsides, and then talk about how you, with effort, can maybe prevent that from happening. Odds are you won’t beat the odds. That’s why they’re the odds. Your marriage will be unhappy. Don’t get married in the first place. You’ll be better off.
This is all a little tongue in cheek. I’m not certain that people really shouldn’t get married. Maybe with a little knowledge, most marriages would be worth it. The idea that maybe marriage isn’t worth it deserves serious consideration, though, in light of what we know. Authors need to stop assuming that the answer to the question, “Should people get married?” is yes, and start thinking.
Why are most authors so optimistic about marriage? Probably because they themselves are married.
Faith, hope, and joy
Economists were more than twice as likely as those in other disciplines to contribute no money to private charities. In laboratory monetary games, students become more selfish after taking economics courses.
Okay, that’s my summary. If you enjoyed this The Pursuit of Happiness summary, you should really check out the book! Definitely worth the read.