Aunt Ilsa and the Pursuit of Happiness

Aunt Ilsa wouldn't have thought much about a recent study or Daniel Gilbert's book about happiness.

My late, great Great Aunt Ilsa Goldberg, nee Frank, PhD., died about four years ago, but her influence remains with me still.

She was an inimitable character, with large bushy eyebrows and an unblinking stare that evoked a great horned owl, a German accent that was thicker when she died than the day she had arrived in the United States nearly 70 years earlier, and an unrelenting willingness to voice her opinions.

She had many of them when they came to me, and, until I married Dunreith, few of them were positive.

My time of arrival, my style of dress, and my facial all were fair game for Ilsa’s withering comments.

She grew particularly animated one time when I mentioned the idea of happiness.

“Happiness, schmapiness,” she harrumphed, in essence, before going onto topics like my poor breeding.  Her statements notwithstanding, I do have to say that at those moments she did look, well, happy.

A recent study by researchers in Ilsa’s native Germany addresses the emotion she found so repugnant.  Based on a data set of about 150,000 adults over the course of about 24 years, the study found that people’s happiness levels changed quite a bit.

Here were the major factors, according to Live Science Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas:

  • Marry well: The personality traits of partners influenced people’s happiness. Neuroticism, or a tendency toward anxiety, emotional instability and depression, was most influential. People who married or partnered with neurotic people were less likely to be happy than people who married non-neurotic types.
  • Focus on the family: People who assigned relatively high value to altruistic and family goals compared with career goals were happier. Women were also happier when their male partners ranked family goals high.
  • Go to church: People who went to church more often were happier, though the study can’t determine whether the happiness is related to religious views or to the social circle religious organizations offer.
  • Work, but not too much (or too little): People’s happiness matched how well they felt their work hours matched their desired work hours. In other words, people who worked more or fewer hours than they preferred were less happy. Working less or being unemployed was worse than working too much, presumably because underemployment is a financial blow, the researchers wrote.
  • Get social, and get moving: Social interaction and exercise were both associated with happiness. Working out made people happier regardless of body weight. The only correlation between body weight and happiness was that underweight men and obese women were more likely to be unhappy.

The study’s findings contradict the “fixed-point” theory of happiness, advanced by people like Daniel Gilbert in his entertaining book Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert and others have maintained that people have a general level of life satisfaction to which they return after either the highs or lows with which life presents.  Lottery winners tend if anything to feel worse about their lives, while generally sturdy folks who endure major losses tend to regain their emotional equilibrium, Gilbert says.

He also has a fascinating and provocative thrust to his argument where he essentially says that we do not know what will make us happy, and that indeed the very orientation of thinking that a future job, house or relationship will deliver us to higher levels of contentment is flawed.

What do you think?  Who is a fixed-pointer and who holds a more fluid understanding?

My strong sense is that Aunt Ilsa wouldn’t find much in either camp to agree with, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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