Science: Happiness and Human Behavior

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam, who also pens the Department of Human Behavior column, was online Monday, Oct. 1 at Noon ET to discuss a new study that shows Americans are happier than people from Japan or Korea, but also are more prone to discontentment. He will also answer questions about his recent columns.

The transcript follows.


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome! We are going to be talking today about my science page article about happiness -- new research suggests that while Americans are in general happier than people from many other countries, they may pay a price in terms of contentment. I would love to hear from you about whether the research matches your own experience -- is there a tradeoff between happiness and contentment in everyday life?

I am also happy to field any questions about my weekly Department of Human Behavior column -- today's instalment looks at the phenomenon of false confessions -- why innocent people sometimes admit to doing things that they did not do. The column is pegged to the ongoing Larry Craig controversy.


Silver Spring, Md.: Love this article and all your columns!

I especially see the anti-Harry Lewensteins all over the place - those obsessed with what they don't have, instead of what they do have. The real $64 million question is: How do we teach people to learn to be happy?

I somehow - genes? upbringing? - get great pleasure still from all the little things, like hitting all green lights! I've suffered some loss this year and may not be able to have children biologically. As painful as that may be, what snapped me out of it was realizing what a great husband I have and a fabulous dog who I 'baby.' Who could want more than that?

I swear I remember watching a tv show of all things years ago. An older woman got cancer but wasn't wallowing, her daughter asked her something like how could you not be upset and ask "why me?" after all she had been through. The mother replied, "I didn't ask 'why me?' when I met your father, or when I was blessed with any of you children. I certainly didn't do anything to deserve all that joy so why should I think I deserve or don't deserve this."

It really stuck with me. Such a simple way of accepting what life hands you.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much for this lovely note.

I have to confess I personally marvel at people like Harry Lewenstein. During our interview, I kept pressing him on whether he was upset or regretful or angry, and he kept saying he wasn't. It got me wondering about whether contentment was a skill, much in the way Michael Jordan's basketball talent was a skill, and whether some people are more blessed to have it than others ...


Washington, D.C.: That was a very interesting article. But I particularly wanted to congratulate your graphic artist for a brilliant piece of work.

Shankar Vedantam: I second your praise. The graphic by Patterson Clark, for those who have not seen it, shows a Sisyphus-like figure pushing a smiley face up a mountain. It perfectly gets at the futility of chasing happiness by seeking additional positive events in your life -- the higher you go up the mountain, the harder it gets just to stay in place!

Obviously, this work ties in closely with the large body of evidence that shows, beyond a certain point, increasing amounts of money make fairly little difference in day to day satisfaction.


Tampa, Fla.: It appears that having expectations that all will and should be well is the issue. Take away the expectation and whatever arrives is accepted and experienced. Classic symptom of the advantage that we have living in this country-we expect too much!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the comment. I think you are exactly on the mark here. Expectations seem to be central to how we process positive and negative things in our lives. People who are happier tend to expect more, and get upset when life does not measure up. People who expect less are more easily satisfied. The dilemma, of course, is that it doesn't make sense to want to be unhappy -- sure, that will make you more sensitive to positive events, but who wants to be unhappy?


Bethlehem, Pa.: Do you think level of happiness in the U.S. is strongly influenced by our cultural emphasis on materialism? How does this compare to the idea of materialism in Japan and Korea?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question. I am not sure this can really be answered empirically -- materialism isn't just a function of being wealthy and many people in poor countries would be as materialistic as people in rich countries if they had the opportunity.

I guess I am saying is that my instinct is that materialism per se might not be cause as much as symptom -- what prompts people to believe the bigger house will buy them more happiness? It is the chase of happiness that is the lure, and the new research suggests that the harder we chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes.

One of the things I found intriguing about this research is the way it connects with ideas from many philosophical/religious traditions. Psychologists are hardly the first people to point out that the people around us who seem truly happy are often not the ones who have the most things, or even the most positive things happen in their lives.


Silver Spring: I loved this article. Just today I was praying with my best friend and the root of the issue was contentment and taking things one day at a time. I think that is the key to happiness. Just living in the moment that you are in. When I feel unhappy, I am usually overwhelmed and preoccupied by things that have not yet occurred. When I take that step back and live in the moment I am more at peace and can be happy in my life. I think that living in our society, we are pressed to strive for more and more and expect more and more. Not to say that having expectations is bad, but living in that thought to the exclusion of thought to now is detrimental.

Thanks for extra food for thought!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Silver Spring. As I reported this article, I did get the sense that the ability to focus on the present was what might separate the Harry Lewensteins from you and me. Well, from me at any rate!

I asked Harry whether he spends a lot of time in the past and the future and he said no. This is what allows him not to spend his time comparing where he is with where he was, or where he is with where he could be.

For most people, of course, this is far easier said than done!


Shankar Vedantam: There are several questions coming in about my column today on false confessions. In the interest of simplicity, I will answer questions on the happiness piece first, and then turn to the column in the latter part of the chat.


Harrisburg, Pa.: We Americans almost sound more bipolar, which got me thinking: does the degree of being bipolar change significantly among countries?

Shankar Vedantam: I really don't think this is a question of mental illness (although the new research was substantially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.) My guess is that the extent of bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness, is going to be similar in different parts of the world.

Any clinical differences, in any case, are unlikely to approach the magnitude of the differences unearthed by this study, which found a two-fold difference between people in America and those in Japan. While the Japanese need only one positive event to regain their daily equilibrium after a negative event, Americans seem to need two positive events to regain their footing after a negative event.


McLean, Va.: Thank you for the fascinating article on happiness. Does Shigehiro Oishi posit any reasons for the satisfaction equilibrium differences among the groups he studies? As a third generation Japanese American who has studied about and lived in Japan, I think Japanese are on a more even emotional keel because of their deep-seated "shikata ga nai" attitude toward life. It loosely translates to -- "it can't be helped... stuff happens." Also,Japanese often exhort each other to "gaman suru" or to be patient, stoic, and put up with misfortunes, irritations, and the like.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question. The new study laid out the differences and explored the psychological terrain behind them, but did not look at the issue of culture.

It is important to point out that what the psychologists are getting at are fundamental aspects of human behavior, not just differences between nationalities. Even among the Japanese, the researchers found, the same pattern holds true -- Japanese people who report being happier overall than other Japanese people seem more prone to everyday discontentment. So while culture undoubtedly plays a role in why different groups look so different on average, you can't explain everything via culture.


Washington, D.C.:1. What is the ratio for people from India? Is it also 1:1.31?

2. Are there any theories on why the Japanese ratio is 1:1?

3. Have these ratios remained constant over time, or have they changed over the decades?

Shankar Vedantam: Good questions all, but the research did not address these issues. This was a cross-cultural study involving Asian Americans, European-Americans, Koreans and Japanese. The study found that Asians and Asian-Americans reported lower levels of overall happiness compared to white American volunteers, but seemed to have a better grasp at everyday contentment. Again, remember the group data is only about averages -- within each group, the tradeoff between happiness and contentment repeats itself.


Skill?: I bet it probably is a skill! Like drawing or crunching numbers - some are born with a natural flair but others can learn.

Reminds me of treatment for those with OCD - part of it is just stopping yourself at the onset of the compulsive behavior, so that the 'ruts' don't get to run so deeply. Just like happy thoughts or negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling if allowed to continue over and over again - kinda like brain-washing yourself.

Hey, it all connects with the confession piece. Maybe we need a team of interrogators to 'coerce' people into feeling better about their situation.

Shankar Vedantam: I like the idea!

Yes, I am sure that while being contented is partly about genes and partly about culture, it is also accessible via practice and intention. Indeed, there is a fair amount of research showing that people can learn to pay attention -- or be mindful, to borrow a term from yoga and Buddhism -- to everyday things. Rather than seek to increase the number of positive things that happen to you, this approach suggests you try to increase your own sensitivity to positive things.

Or, as John Milton put it, "The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."


Expectation vs. Entitlement: I really think it's an entitlement issue. Good things happen to us, so of course, we should always have good things happen to us.

Maybe this can be taught. We all know kids brought up with plenty of money who don't act entitled. Isn't it funny how this all comes down to: Count your blessings. The problem is someone's response to that, it's usually, "Yeah, but..." instead of just really counting them.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the note. Well said indeed.

Of course, as that well known psychologist William Shakespeare put it, there is often a wide gap between understanding wisdom and being wise.

"If to do were as easy as to know what were good to

do, chapels had been churches and poor men's

cottages princes' palaces ..."

(this from The Merchant of Venice)


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Silver Springs said that we are pressed to strive for more and more and expect more and more. Do you think this is what is ultimately detrimental to our ability to be content, or is it necessary in order to eventually be satisfied with our lives?

Shankar Vedantam: I think this is a real dilemma. I asked Oishi at the end of our interview whether he would personally prefer the "Japanese way" of being less happy overall but more contented, or the "American way" which is happier overall but more prone to everyday discontentment. He said he preferred the "American way" but said he had come to realize that there were real trade offs in making that choice ... I think you could make at least an argument that the flip side of contentment might be passivity.


Tenafly, N.J.: Regarding Bethlehem's question, to what degree can materialism be regarded as an effect (say, of, the desire for greater social standing)? Has this been explored before?

Shankar Vedantam: I am sure it has, but I don't have the research at my fingertips. Any one else know the answer to this question?


Margate, Fla.: Re: Happiness

Aren't you confusing happiness with satisfaction? Cultural differences appear to produce extremes in reaction to stability within a society. Expectations create emotional responses. What is happiness in a theocracy is not happiness in a free society where satisfaction is determined by the ability to agree or disagree with social constraints.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the good question. There has been a debate within the field for sometime about how you measure happiness. Do you ask people, questions such as "are you happy overall?" Or do you ask people to keep a diary and note toward the end of each day how the day went. The interesting thing is that the global estimates and the day to day estimates don't always match up -- the new study, found for instance, that Americans report higher global estimates but were more prone to being irritated by things on an everyday basis.

Obviously both measures are important. The day to day measure tells you what people's lives actually feel like on an everyday basis, but the global measures, which are a subjective assessment of one's life, also are important even if they are sometimes unreliable because, when it comes to a subjective thing like happiness, our subjective assessments matter whether or not they are accurate.


Washington: Hi, would you mind providing a link to the happiness article? I'm having trouble finding it, and the columns link doesn't have it. Thanks. Is Great Happiness Too Much of a Good Thing?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks. The happiness article was not one of my weekly columns, but the science page article today.


happiness v contentment: Do you think there are cultural reasons for the differences in reporting happiness v. contentment? Some cultures place more emphasis on being content with day to day existence, while others push people harder to strive and "succeed". Striving for happiness is not terribly conducive to being content on a daily basis as the stress of working harder for whatever achievement is, well, stressful. Sometimes I think Americans say they're happy as justification for working too much, etc., and as a form of showing success. Eg, I work way too much, hate most aspects of my job, and never see my family, but I'm going to make partner soon so I'm "happy".

Shankar Vedantam: I am going to post several excellent comments that have come in without too much response -- a lot of them are much smarter than my responses anyway!


Living in the moment: I find this very hard to do, as I've started spending more time regretting past events, while at the same time worrying about the future. Spending so much time mentally in the past and the future prevents me from doing what I need to do today, to make today a good day.

I just read Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner, and was struck by how no matter how bad his circumstances became, he got through it by concentrating on what he needed to do at that moment, every moment. That book, and your article, are inspiring me to unlearn how I talk to myself, and what I spend my time thinking about. Thanks.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much.


Southern Maryland: Since you're quoting Shakespeare and philosophers today, why not add Abraham Lincoln's choice words: "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Chiefly, I'm happy with my own problems. If everybody threw their problems into a big pot, they'd still pull their own back out again.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks!


NY: There's a danger to the "even-keeled" perception (and stereotype, even though people don't realize it). It leads to subconscious thinking that "Asians are passive". I can't begin to tell you how many Asian-Americans I know that have been frequent targets of some random stranger who's having a bad day "taking it out" on them, perhaps feeling as though "oh, they're not gonna fight back".

Shankar Vedantam: A useful caveat ... thanks for the reminder.


Bethesda, Md.: Regarding today's (10/1/07) article on happiness:

How do you define and measure happiness?

Shankar Vedantam: Please see my note a few questions ago about the global estimates versus the day to day estimates ...


Durango, Colo.: Thanks for taking questions today.

FMRI- has provided quantum leaps (pun intended) in evaluating and quantifying perceived pain. Are there similar FMRI studies regarding positive perceptions/responses in real time?


- Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Shankar Vedantam: There is a large and growing field of "positive psychology" that looks at this and similar questions.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: Since all of us suffer some hard knocks in life, don't you think happiness is more of a factor in peoples' resilience. And do you think the ability to bounce back from these hardships is partially genetic?

Shankar Vedantam: yes, I do think that genes matter. But they probably don't matter as much as we think they do -- the reason for the two-fold difference between Japanese and Americans clearly cannot be entirely genetic. Besides, as I have noted earlier, there are also large intra-group differences, so the group differences studied in the article are useful mainly in that by averaging out behavior among groups of people, it gives us a "signal" of an underlying phenomenon ...

Here's psychologist Tom Bradbury's take on the meaning of the research as it applies to happiness in intimate relationships: "For all of us, changes in the intense passion that marked our early days should serve as a signal to take an active approach in shaping our environment so that it is more fulfilling -- a task that might be hardest for those who were most positive early on. This article is not saying that more positive events are detrimental, as I read it, only that there are diminishing returns. As intimate partners, we have to find novel and arousing ways to keep chasing these returns."


Detroit, Mich.: I once read a book called "the paradox of choice" that claimed that having too many choices was a bad thing sometimes. Instead of going to the store and picking up a jar labeled 'peanut butter', you have a decision of crunchy, creamy, low-fat, honey roasted, etc. everything today is a decision. Do you think less abundance in this country would be a good thing?

Shankar Vedantam: Goes back to the happiness-contentment trade off. I am not sure there is really a right choice for everyone, but there are probably right and wrong choices for individuals.


Foggy Bottom: I work in an IT Help Desk environment. Our staff is basically a well-balanced happy group of people when they start working here. Some of those whom we service have an incredible sense of entitlement and feel that if they target us with over-the-top anger, tantrums and threats, they'll get what they want. When we give them what they've demanded, they're still not happy and demand more, usually things that we have no control over, such as the laws of physics or the fact that their secretary is gone for the day and they want us to do that work as well. Eventually, this constant barrage of negativity burns out our staff members and one by one they leave or develop stress-related health problems. The offenders are the most successful and respected members of the organization; they have so much to be happy about. What can we do to combat this so morale is preserved in our little IT Help Desk office?

Shankar Vedantam: Ouch. My sympathies.

Behaviorists often note that if you want to dissuade certain behaviors, the best way to do this is by ignoring it and also by rewarding any behavior that you do like. In other words, instead of taking for granted people who do nice things for us and fuming at those who do bad things to us, ignore the bad stuff and praise the good stuff. Not sure if that will work, but maybe worth a try?


Alexandria, Va.: Cultural and religious heritage has a lot to do with this. Eastern religions often focus on letting go of material things, living in the moment, letting go of control (or the perception of control). Western tend to be about getting somewhere and one's individual soul, relationship with God, etc. Also, many Eastern societies stress the collective good over the individual. American history has been all about individual achievement. It is not too hard to incorporate some Eastern behaviors into our lives--the next time you have to wait in traffic, ask yourself what getting upset with accomplish. Just let it go. Then let someone else in front of you.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the note ...


Silver Spring, Md.: How does a person accept what comes in life with a belief system that is based on the existence of a higher being? In other words, how does someone simply accept things in life (good and bad) if you believe in karma and in the saying that what comes around goes around?

Shankar Vedantam: Wow. A pretty big question. I am not sure that karma or buddhist ideas about acceptance necessarily need to equal passivity.

I suppose it goes back to that idea of knowing the difference between the things you can change and the things you cannot change ...


"The Power of Now": Is the title of an excellent book by Eckhart Tolle. I borrowed someone's version on CD and loved it so much I bought my own set and gave them as presents to friends. It really teaches you how to live in right now. Easy to say 'just concentrate on now' but harder to learn. I think it's definitely worth checking out, again, especially the audio version - listening to it is kind of like meditating.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much


Washington, D.C.: I think another dimension of happiness may be comparing ourselves with what we believe to be other people's levels of misery. It struck me as a soldier in Vietnam that I would find men in truly awful day to day field conditions who sincerely considered themselves lucky not to be in some other assignments they would describe to me, even if I knew the latter to be demonstrably better. So there are probably multiple strategies for finding peace of mind, if not outright happiness.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much for the comment


NY: Shankar,

Love you columns and chats (however rare they are). One point in your article was somewhat eyebrow-raising: you referred at one point to "European-Americans". That general vicinity in your article almost sounded as though you might start to fall into generalizations - and not just cultural/'nurture' ones, but racial/'nature' ones. And I'm certain that that's not what you're really thinking - it just might be easily hijacked.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much. Your point about group stereotypes is well taken -- I have addressed this issue a couple of times in this chat. Averages are just that - averages. Differences within groups on most dimensions of behavior are usually larger than differences between groups.


Silver Spring, Md.: On confessions: While I can see someone saying, "Well, I don't remember hitting that Alt key, but I -was- distracted and if they swear they saw, I guess they're right."

I cannot see someone saying:

"Well, I don't remember stabbing that man 17 times, cleaning all the blood off me and disposing of the body, I guess it must have just slipped my mind if there's this other evidence."

The two scenarios don't exactly translate. I do believe influence-able people - like those teenage boys - can be talked into confessing, but grown adults? I also think law enforcement officers can cross the line in coercion even though as a group, they are full of integrity.

I do wonder how many of the false confessors have committed other crimes for which they haven't been caught. I mean, suspects are brought in for a reason, often for their criminal past, right?

Shankar Vedantam: To switch to the confessions column, thanks for the question. I agree, there is a difference between those two things, which is why skeptics of false confessions argue that the laboratory studies do not say much about what happens in the criminal justice system.

That said, I do think that people often have a larger sense of autonomy and agency than they actually do -- there are several small warehouses filled with studies that show people are influenced in their everyday lives by external factors. Interrogations are often designed to produce confessions -- indeed, as Pete Blair put it, any interrogation technique that is effective in getting bad guys to confess probably runs the risk of getting some "false positives" into the net as well.


Munich, Germany: Regarding your article on confessions, I have the impression that people looking for confessions usually attempt to browbeat or badger someone into confessing.

Which emotional response is this browbeating intended to evoke?

Fear of an alternate and worse outcome might motivate to confess to a lesser crime, but sadness could cause someone to acquiesce and wrongly confess to an accusation, as could anger or humiliation.

Are people suffering from depression more likely to be railroaded into making a false confession than healthy people?

Shankar Vedantam: I think there is good evidence that people with mental illness might be more easily browbeaten into confessions.

But as my column notes today, perfectly normal people are also susceptible to subtle and not-so-subtle techniques, not all of which rise to the level of what we would call "coercion."


NY: Shankar, You've written much RE hidden biases and their potential life/death consequences (e.g. doctors diagnoses and treatment prescriptions). Obviously you're someone who's armed with this knowledge about biases in general. And you experience them on a daily basis. At work, especially (which is a situation harder to remove yourself from; in life, if you receive drive-by discrimination, you can chalk it up to randomness, or you can vote with your feet and not patronize a certain business). Let's say it's your boss who you realize treats you differently than he does your co-workers, based on stereotypes. What do you do?

Or, say your co-workers treat you differently based on stereotypes, and a conflict of some sort has been made known to your boss. You explain to your boss that you've been discriminated against. Your boss tells you "don't be so sensitive" or "don't act like a victim". What do you do?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks so much for the question -- another toughie!

I think one of the interesting thing about a lot of new research on the science of prejudice suggests that it occurs at a largely unconscious level. People who deny bias might be (a) telling the truth, (b) lying or (c) sincerely believe they are telling the truth when they are lying.

While the research so far has produced very compelling data, these findings don't lend themselves automatically to every individual situation. (Before jumping to options (b) and (c) it is also important to consider option (a) as well.) In the end, it might be more productive to spend less time on trying to prove you are right, and in finding ways to work out the problems through negotiation. Hope that helps!


Tucson, Ariz.: When I lived in Sri lanka, I couldn't believe what people put up with, such as the smiling women out picking tea leaves in the fields all day for hardly any money! Then there was a drought, so the government shut the electricity off for so many hours a day (it was hydroelectric power) and people didn't complain. THEN the electric co workers went on strike, and there was NO electricity, EVER, and again, NO ONE complained. I was just wondering what US citizens would do if that happened here!!!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the comment.

On that final note -- not sure whether this is an inspiring example of contentment or an appalling example of passivity -- thank you all for contributing to a stimulating conversation.


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