Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Do People Create Their Own Luck?

UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, April 2006

Does success make you happy, or does happiness make you successful? This might sound like a pleasant topic to debate over tea some afternoon. But for psychologists, poll-takers, economists, and other observers of behavior, it's crucial. Their quest for answers has recently produced a 50-page article in the Psychological Bulletin, which reviewed 225 scientific studies of this subject.

So what did the researchers find out? The short answer is that while success probably does make people happy (it's better than failure, at any rate), it is also true that having a happy temperament (defined in the article as "long-term propensity to frequently experience positive emotions") enables you to do the things that turn into success. Your "positive affect," which is the outward sign of your happiness, will make it more likely that you'll land the job, find friends, form a happy marriage or other intimate long-term relationship, make money, be loved in your community, and be healthy. The evidence regarding health is only suggestive--happy people tend to say they are healthy, but that doesn't mean they really are. We do know from other research that having friends, love, respect, "social support," and agreeable employment--as well as optimism and a positive attitude--do tend in the long run to make people healthier.

Plowing through their accumulated evidence, the researchers asked whether happy people are better off, whether they cope better, whether they reap larger social rewards, and whether they have stronger immune systems. And the answers were invariably yes, even though the evidence for stronger immunity is, again, only suggestive so far. But happy people seem to do better socially--they seek out other people, they solve problems creatively, and so on. They are more resilient and thus adapt better to adversity.

Be happy, don't worry?Still, questions remain. Most of this research applies only to people in western cultures--and in relatively nonthreatening situations. Maybe "a propensity to experience positive emotions" works well when you have no serious problems anyhow; but when the hurricane or the earthquake shakes you up (or you get fired, or are diagnosed with a serious illness), a propensity to happiness may be less helpful. And as the researchers point out, a happy scam artist might be more effective at committing fraud without getting caught than an unhappy scam artist. Sometimes happy people are judged shallow or complacent. Furthermore, discontent or deep unhappiness can be huge and effective motivators. Some unhappy people are very successful and creative. There are always costs and trade-offs.

Perhaps the most that can be said is in the study's conclusion: happiness is a great asset, but no guarantee of a perfect life.