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What is happiness?
by Jay Gutman
2016-08-17 09:50:16
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hap01_400Why did I decide to research what makes people happy? I read a lot of books on happiness, which seemed to focus on the individual rather than social aspects of happiness. Books that insist you should focus on the moment rather than worry about the future, focus on talking to yourself in positive terms or focus on building a positive image of yourself. These are very helpful tips which I do not discard or view as useless, but what I noticed is that happiness can vary from moment to moment, day to day, individual to individual, organization to organization.

A drunk will have unhappy mornings and happy evenings, physically active students will be happier in sports class than in the classroom, some men and women will be happier around their friends than around their spouses and so on.

So what makes a person “satisfied” with his or her life? I interviewed about 500 people, first in coffee shops before a series of coincidences led me to think that someone or some people in the government or at my school were not happy with the fact I was asking random people in-depth questions about their life satisfaction. I then massively spammed facebook groups with qualitative surveys, that is surveys with Q and As with essay-type answers. The response rate was very high, and some people got a lot off their chests.

I then printed out and analyzed the questions, for a brief moment my room was messier than Einstein’s desk. There were surveys everywhere on the floor, I read and coded the answers on my bed (I had no office) and the process was so tedious that I often slept with interview responses around and sometimes on my bed.

The results on what makes people satisfied with their lives? People tend to see themselves as individuals and often do not want the presence of any other person to be overbearing. Independence is not just an “Aries” or “Aquarius” thing, we all get a little anxious when the presence of another individual is too overbearing.

But to the point. There are four main areas where most people want stability.

1. Emotional stability

People don’t like being alone but like being surrounded by emotionally stable people. People can either feel that other people are “playing with their emotions” that is eliciting emotions, for example “frustration” constantly turning down favors or saying “no” or “jealousy” by constantly talking about what the person doesn’t have. Or people can feel that emotions are being “passed down” that is that the presence of an emotionally unstable person around them is passing over the emotion. An angry boss can pass the anger over, an anxious or neurotic colleague can have an unwelcome presence.

2. Personal stability

Most countries have social constructs on what being a stable person means. It can mean a person who is employed, who is in a stable marriage, who does not have excruciatingly long commutes to work, who does not do anything in excess.

The perception of stability makes a lot of people satisfied, while the perception of lack of personal stability can make some people anxious or dissatisfied with their life. That’s when some people can have dilemmas that can seem difficult to solve: I want to live closer to work but also want to live in a safe neighborhood and so on.

3. Organizational stability

Everyone seems to want a clean, clear predictable environment where tasks are rather easy to carry out. Everyone wants pay that comes out that certain day, clear guidelines on what can make them keep or leave their job, time to keep their house tidy and time to eat at certain times and to maintain an organized life around children, family or the workplace.

4. Ability to carry out the day to day tasks

Whether at home or at work people want to master all the tasks that they have to carry out. They want to know how to perform the daily tasks at home and at work. Inability to perform a task that is perceived as mandatory can be a source of anxiety or dissatisfaction. That could be being in a foreign country and not speaking the language, not knowing where to pay the phone bill or not knowing how to use the new software at the company.

This was supposed to be a dissertation several hundreds’ pages long listing some more of the details of what people told me and some clear categories of what makes people satisfied or dissatisfied under what circumstances. Meditation and yoga can lead to happier lives, but so can boxing and mixed martial arts depending on who you ask.

In sum, people want to be “in control” of themselves. Fast learners tend to ask people and learn so they can be more in control, while some abusive situations can arise from people who don’t feel in control of themselves and feel like they have to depend on someone else to perform daily tasks.

So why is this research useful or useless? It could somewhat help provide tips and advice on educational planning, immigration planning, social planning, office organizational planning, marriage counseling and so on. Maybe one day I’ll get to defend the dissertation.  

I spent the last five years observing and researching what makes people happy. The process was rather messy and I was flunked out of my Ph.D. program while doing the research, in a school where the pursuit of happiness was not the norm.

Researching happiness is rather complicated in academia, where a lot of the research focuses on setting historical records straight, confusing individual concerns with national concerns and writing dissertations as letters to the advisor rather than studies, experiments or reflections on issues of public importance.

I hope some day graduate students can be trained to conduct useful research independently rather than be taught to be dissertation advisor pleasers, which unfortunately is the norm these days. The process was also so tedious and complicated that I think I called pretty much everyone names over the process, for which as always I sincerely apologize.

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Emanuel Paparella2016-08-17 13:07:21
Sometimes it helps to go back to origins. The first well known luminary to reflect on “eudemonia” or happiness in his Nichomechean Ethics is of course Aristotle. He arrives at the conclusion that all people, consciously or unconsciously, strive for happiness; not by empirical research or by “scientific” evidence, by interviewing a fairly large number of people and then determining what is the norm or the least common denominator. Had he done that he would have been the father of the modern positivistic age some two thousand years ahead of his time. It is dubious whether or not he would have been a greater genius because of it. No, Aristotle was no positivist or empiricist; in fact he thought that to proceed that way was the equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. He might even have flunked a student or two at the lyceum for using such an empirical method to write a thesis, something that Socrates would never have done for he was no academic and did not found or manage a school.

But I dare say that Aristotle makes sense, nevertheless. Had one conducted a research during the Nazi period on what makes people happy, I wager one would have come to a wholly different conclusion than had one conducted the poll in the same country after World War II. In other words, if one wants to know what ultimately makes people happy, one has to first determine rationally, not empirically, what is the nature of man, or what is human nature and how does one fulfill its potential or its purpose or destiny, in conformity with it. A society influenced by Nazism was already outside the norm of what human nature is and to around interviewing people in it it to confirm the insanity. Not proceeding the rational Aristotelian way is the cause of much bad psychology and self-help stuff nowadays. On the other hand, if one follows the Aristotelian method, one may be more confident that one will place the horse before the cart and arrive at a modicum of “eudemonia” despite adverse circumstances; even if the horse refuses to take orders from its master. Do I hear echoes of “and what did these ancients really know” with their obsolete anachronistic ideas?” Well, let’s look around, not much happiness to be found…; that too is empirical, to be sure, but it may confirm that Aristotle was on the right track after all and we moderns may be only deluding ourselves that we may be on the right one because of our modernity...

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