What and who defines happiness?

Here’s the guy who actually did define happiness, and measure it and describe it–so we could all find it.

“In a recent study, sex was the most rewarding activity for a group of Texas women.  I believe that is because they have never analyzed data.”

 This from the 2006 autobiography book chapter written by Edward Diener, known as “Dr. Happiness,” who passed away April 27 from cancer at age 74. He was as much in love with finding, defining, quantifying and proselytizing happiness, which he called “subjective well-being,” as he was with his wife of 54 years, Carol. Dr. Denier, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Washington in 1974, credited his mother’s interest in Norman Vincent Peale’s “power of positive thinking” for orienting him toward research we can use to uplift ourselves and everyone in our orbits.

Dr. Ed Diener
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, Univ. of Illinois News Bureau

Before offering his findings, a bit about this remarkable individual, who lived a playful and exuberant life, mostly as a professor at the University of Illinois (though his final home was in Salt Lake City). Born in 1946 the youngest of six children to a farming family in Glendale, California, his father sent him to Fresno State College with the hope of furthering the family business. “Bored to death” with “weeds and seeds,” he cleaved to the “less predictable” field of psychology, which his dad said would be unnecessary if people just worked harder. But his supportive parents soon got on board, and later Ed, then married to Carol (his high school sweetheart) applied to UW “because Seattle was very green and pretty.”

He got turned on to measuring behavior by his UW professors Irwin Sarason and Ronald E. Smith. His professor Scott Fraser steered him toward studying “de-individuation,” how people lose self-control while in groups, and a study Dr. Diener did with fellow grad students about kids’ willingness to steal extra candy made the news every Halloween. Those were the days before ethics committees, and the Psych department, distracted by its share of internal scandals, didn’t consider the need to get subjects’ approval for studies like “Beat the Pacifist” where, playing a pacifist ostensibly being tested for his resolve, Dr. Diener got assaulted with rubber bats to assess group aggression.

Studying positive feelings was considered “flaky” at the time, with psychology centered on anxiety and depression. It was only when he received tenure at the University of Illinois in 1980, that he was free to study the field that always lured him. As a Fresno undergrad faced with a final project, he’d proposed a study about farmworkers’ happiness, to his advisor’s response, “Mr. Diener, you are not doing that research project for two reasons. First, I know that farm workers are not happy, and second, there is no way to measure happiness.”

So that’s what he set off to correct. During a Sabbatical year in the Virgin Islands, while his psychologist wife taught nine college classes, Dr. Diener read the sparse literature about subjective well-being—and published his first paper discussing it, now cited thousands of times.

He specialized in measurement, as previously no gauges of happiness existed, inventing many, including the five-statement “Satisfaction with Life Scale,” the basis of polls that become headlines. His specialty remained obscure until picked up in the late 1990s by the respected psychologists Daniel Kahaneman and, separately, Martin Seligman, with whom he has since collaborated on numerous projects. He did hundreds of laboratory and cross-cultural studies of well-being, and earned more than 12,000 citations in scientific works. He edited several professional journals, and founded two; he wrote books, including Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (2008), co-authored with his psychologist son. He won awards for mentoring and joining with colleagues in research, and sought opportunities to amplify his work and findings to fulfill his goal of improving the world.

Yet, consumed as he was by his work (and he admitted it often kept him awake at night), he announced that a major “project” for the rest of his life was “to make Carol’s life as happy as it can be.” He said: “Although it may seem strange to mention Carol’s happiness in a professional biography, I want to ensure that young, ambitious psychologists do not forget the point that one should not excel at their jobs at the expense of being decent human beings.” He writes proudly of Carol’s accomplishments, including earning a law degree “for fun” in the mid-1990s while a psychology professor and raising their three children, twins Marissa and MaryBeth, and son Robert. In the same time stretch, the Dieners took in five foster children, adopting two, Kia and Susan.

Here was someone who enjoyed life, noting “when talent and passion are combined, we are most effective.” He savored equally his family, friendships and mentor relationships. The New York Times obituary recalls, “He was known for hosting parties that included activities like carving Spam into various shapes and walking on glass, and for hiding cash in the pages of books for his family to find. He once greeted his son’s wife’s sister in full pirate regalia, wearing a beard and using a hook for an arm that he bade her to shake.

“Then he excused himself, came back as Ed Diener and never mentioned it again.”

So, what did Dr. Diener find are the ingredients for happiness?

Where you live makes a huge difference. We in the US are set up for happiness (and report highest levels of it), with a secure, non-corrupt government, and bountiful resources. Dr. Diener’s world map of happiness, as presented at a University of British Columbia talk in 2017, shows the US and Canada rating even higher than Denmark.

Genetics also determines happiness. Dr. Diener cites findings that identical twins reared apart for 40 years are more similar in their levels of happiness than fraternal twins raised together.

Money can aid happiness, but only to a point. Once basic needs are covered, additional wealth enhances well-being only slightly. As he puts it in his talk, “Meeting needs is important; going from a Ford to a Mercedes, not important.”

Surprises: Self-esteem only enhances happiness in cultures that value it. In the US, self-esteem does predict happiness, but Dr. Diener’s daughter Marissa found in her studies that Indian women minimized thoughts of self but derived their happiness from the well-being of their families. Similarly, being religious only enhances happiness in cultures that value religion. In Scandinavia where religion isn’t important, both high and low-religiosity respondents were equally happy—to the same level as religious people in a religious country. The key here is being “congruent with your culture;” standing out diminishes happiness.

Attitude and outlook are major influences on well-being. Dr. Diener found that gratitude, compassion, seeing the good, and “not catastrophizing” the current situation all contribute. He says it’s important to see negatives in context, and realize that over all, things in the world are getting better—longevity, violence, and resources for the poorest are all improving.

That’s not to say that very happy people don’t have negative feelings. Dr. Diener once asked the Dalai Lama, “Do you have to be happy all the time?” Answer: No. Dr. Diener says that for optimal happiness, negative emotions in some situations are beneficial. Happy people are still concerned about worrisome things—though they may worry less, and are more likely than depressed people to take action.

Most important is strong social relationships. Dr. Diener evaluated the top 5% of happiest people and one thing stood out: Every one of them had strong social relationships and social support. However, it’s not only having support, but being a support-ER. “People find purpose and meaning in that,” he says. “It’s not what you’re getting, but what you’re giving that brings happiness.”

Dr. Diener and his son in their book propose “The AIM Model” to increase happiness. The initials stand for Attention (what you focus on matters—note good things and skip over bad), Interpretation (spin events positively) and Memory (happy people remember pleasant aspects from their lives). As a psychologist myself, I notice much of this overlaps with the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model I was taught—Replace habitual, unconstructive responses with more useful and empowering reactions. Dr. Diener researched and endorsed a program called “Enhance,” consisting of ten weeks, each practicing a different happiness-promoting skill.

Dr. Diener also encouraged companies to provide a setting conducive to their employees’ happiness, with research showing lower turnover, better co-worker cooperation, more customer loyalty, fewer sick days, more energy and greater creativity resulting when workers are content.

Happiness, Dr, Diener concludes, is not a consequence of doing good things—it’s the beginning and a cause of good things. Happiness, ideally, should start at the beginning of life, rather than arriving “if” or “when” criteria are met. The rewards are longevity, more productivity at work, fulfilling social relationships, better health—being happy brings more happiness in a self-perpetuating cycle. Interestingly, I watched several videos of Dr. Diener giving lectures on happiness, and while he proffered some jokes that got his audiences guffawing, he never cracked a smile throughout. He writes that “I am extremely high in life satisfaction but I am only average in levels of positive moods.”  He then notes that “happiness is a process, not a place,” continuing, “happiness requires fresh involvement with new activities and goals—even perfect life circumstances will not create happiness.”

Dr. Diener felt his insatiable curiosity and wonder at the world would fuel ongoing productivity. “This is yet another lesson for young readers,” he insisted, “life is not over at 50. Or 60. Or 70.  …Scientists often continue productive careers into their 80s.” Dr. Diener leaves behind a rich legacy, and one can envision him, busy assessing the happiness of angels.