Happiness: A User's Manual
Twenty strategies adapted from the scientific research and applied to New York living.
By Ben Mathis-Lilley
Decide where to go to college by picking two decent schools and flipping a coin.
The relatively unexamined life is worth living. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice documents numerous studies in which thinking too hard about multiple choices leads people to preemptively regret the options they’re going to miss out on. This triggers a stress reaction that tends to focus narrowly on random variables—producing unwise decisions, paralysis, and superfluous law degrees. Those who seize the first option that meets their standards (which don’t have to be low, just defined) are happier than those who insist on finding the perfect solution.
Don’t go to law school.
Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).
Fire your therapist if he so much as mentions your childhood.
Contra Freud and pro common sense, much of Authentic Happiness author Martin Seligman’s research suggests that rehashing events that enraged you long ago tends to produce depression rather than sweet closure and relief.
If someone tells you he’s still pining for his ex, ask the ex out.
Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert is currently conducting a study designed to show that the best way to predict how much you’ll enjoy a blind date is to ask the last person to go out with your date how much fun he had.
If you can’t decide what TV to buy, walk across the hall and ask your neighbor if he likes his.
In multiple studies, subjects felt they’d be better able to predict their reaction to an experience by imagining it, rather than hearing somebody else’s testimony. Even regarding such seemingly straightforward activities as deciding whether to eat pretzels or potato chips, they were wrong. Turns out, people are happier following advice.
Send the kids off to day care, summer camp, and boarding school.
On a day-to-day basis, caring for children creates roughly the same level of satisfaction as washing the dishes. In fact, surveys of parents invariably find a clear dip in happiness after the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, which continues unabated for twenty years—bottoming out during adolescence—and only returns to pre-birth levels when the child finally leaves home.
But make sure they’re busy once they get there.
Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life.
If you go on a shopping spree, throw away the receipts.
In one study cited by both Schwartz and Gilbert, photography students were allowed to keep only one picture taken during their course. Some students were later allowed to swap their choice for a different photo, yet those who couldn’t change were much happier. How did they deal with inflexibility? By rationalizing how much they enjoyed their new decoration.
If you’re on the fence about whether to sell your stock, sell it.
Most people predict that they’d be more unhappy if they sold a stock that went through the roof than if they kept one that tanked. They’re wrong—aggressive actions that go awry are mentally catalogued as valuable learning experiences.
Take the local, and don’t wait for the express.
Inaction, on the other hand, gnaws away at the mind relentlessly, like so many rats chewing on an empty Mountain Dew bottle someone dropped onto the tracks as you idly waited for the 4. You should have just jumped on the 6.
Give up the great American novel, and start temping.
Some poor countries (China, Brazil) are happier than others, but few nations are mired in spiritually fulfilling poverty. Money, when used to feel secure about your ability to shelter and feed yourself, can, in fact, buy happiness.
But don’t work overtime . . .
The marginal life-enhancing value of each extra dollar quickly levels off, however; hence the existence of James Bond villains and studies showing that lottery winners and Forbes 100 members are no more likely to be satisfied than anyone else.
. . . As long as you’re content socializing within your tax bracket.
Nevertheless, being aware of how much less money one has acquired than one’s peers is quantifiably frustrating.
Join a church, a yoga studio, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, or an underground fight club.
People who have more friends and belong to community-building groups are happier. To paraphrase the Norm MacDonald–era “Weekend Update,” perhaps that’s the kind of finding that could have been published in the scientific journal Duh, but there it is.
Order from the same takeout menu every time.
Researchers found that subjects asked to choose their meals weeks in advance mistakenly predicted that variety would make them happier, while those who simply decided what to eat on the spot were completely satisfied with the same thing each week. (Although eating macaroni and cheese endlessly, like repeating any pleasant experience over and over, reduces its appeal—so switch it up with cheeseburgers.)
Take advantage of your exercise machine’s “cooldown period.”
One study found that men who underwent short, uniformly unpleasant colonoscopies found them more repulsive than men who had long procedures with a brief respite near the end. Adding a slightly less grueling epilogue to a grueling but valuable experience—like a workout—makes you more willing to repeat it in the future, even if it means an increase in the overall gruel endured.
Patronize King Cole’s and other establishments that employ a “mixologist”; avoid any bar named after an Irish person.
Spending your alcohol allowance on a few finely crafted cocktails is probably better than guzzling giant troughs of beer, since the ability to limit one’s indulgence is one of the baseline characteristics of happy people. Researchers aren’t sure whether moderation is chicken or egg, but they do know that teetotaling doesn’t confer any particular advantage.
Ask the next person you meet on Match.com to marry you.
Studies show that married people are happier than unmarried people. Too much choice, whether over tonight’s dinner or your partner for the next 50 years, can create paralysis and anxiety. If you make a mistake, you have the capacity to rationalize the worst decisions. And if all of that doesn’t work, well, we’re able to find happiness in even the most hopeless situations.
Splurge on a restaurant after the Yankees playoff game.
College kids surveyed in the weeks before emotionally high-stakes athletic competitions tended to dramatically overestimate how happy they’d be after wins because they forgot victories don’t eliminate sources of irritation. Similarly, they overestimated how upset they’d be after their team lost because they failed to remember that they could be comforted by other sources of pleasure.
Don’t watch the Knicks.
Not related to any recent scientific findings. Just sound advice.