The Great American Dream – anyone can rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful.
These dreams come from our culture – work hard, get a great education, work even harder, make lots of money, become attractive, marry a beautiful spouse, have kids, retire in a beach house.
Generally, our culture is good. It motivates and humanizes. It’s what says, “having an affair is wrong” when we come too close to losing control. It’s what says, “give back to your community” when we get too greedy.
But in the spirit of cohesion, patriotism, and lazy thinking, we often forget that culture is a work in progress, full of many mistakes.
Gays are gross? Yes, let’s kill 27 of them! Introverts are weak? Yes, let’s become extroverts! Muslims hate freedom? Yes, let’s spend $1 trillion and 3,542 American lives to kill over 100,000 Iraqis! Iraqis aren’t human, so who cares!
I believe the American Dream is one of those cultural mistakes, nothing more than a convincing scheme.
Despite the cries of Occupy Wallstreet, it’s still possible to rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful. But I think the reason that most people are too lazy to achieve that dream isn’t because they lack ambition, but because it just isn’t worth the effort.
Below I look at six dreams which I believe all of us have held at some point in our life, but which I believe deserve a second appraisal. Dreams which we are told will make us fulfilled and happy, but which may actually do very little besides use up our time.
Money often costs too much. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
Money buys happiness and increases life satisfaction. Just take a look at the graph below – as income increases, so does happiness.1
That’s better – now we see a clear relationship. More money = more happiness.
The average person with a family income of $60,000 is about 20% happier than someone with a family income of $15,000.
How can the difference be so small? So small that I had to manipulate the graph? The poor are more resilient than we think. The rich are too ambitious and overworked.
In my previous life as a wall street consultant, the high pay came with long hours and high stress. I was working 60 hours a week.
It’s the same for all high-paying jobs. Lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or consultant – if you’re getting paid above average, you’re also working longer than average.
Was the extra 20 hours of work each week worth a 20% increase in life satisfaction? No.
A five minutes a day, 30 minutes a week gratitude journal could have done the same. More even.
Let’s get geeky.
When evaluating a decision, estimate the potential benefit and the potential cost. If the benefit is high and the cost low, great. If it’s the other way around, stay away.
In everyday life, this is called common sense. In the world of business, this calculation is called return on investment (ROI).
A high paying job will cost about 20 extra hours each week in additional work and stress. It’s potential reward is about a 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness.
A gratitude journal will cost about 30 minutes each week. It’s potential reward is a 10 to 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness – let’s say 15% for this calculation.
In other words, the ROI of a gratitude journal is 30 times the ROI of a high paying job.
In other words, you should quit your stressful job and start spending some more time being grateful. Or don’t quit. It’s just 30 minutes a week.
Takeaway: Materialism is inefficient.
Beauty might bring happiness, but happiness always brings beauty. -Kevyn Aucoin
If your kid is fat and that gives her anxiety, that’s a problem. But if she has that anxiety because you keep telling her she needs to lose weight, you may want to stop. For the average child, physical appearance has no correlation with happiness.2
It’s different for adults. The good-looking are on average 7% happier than the bad-looking.3,4
For comparison, the grateful and optimistic are 20 to 50% happier than the ungrateful and pessimistic.5
Changing your appearance will do little to change your life satisfaction. Unless you’re an urban female.
Urban settings (but not rural settings) promote a“free market” of relationships in which attractiveness, a basis for personal choice, is an important determinant of social and psychological well-being. -Does Attractiveness Buy Happiness6
Having lived in NYC, I agree. As a child living in suburban American, I had no choice but to play with my neighbors. When I lived in the city I didn’t even know my neighbor’s names.
In an urban setting, attractiveness helps form connections, especially if you’re female. In urban settings, the pressure to be beautiful is strong, mostly if you’re female.
So if you live in a city, are female, and your weight is giving you anxiety, lose weight. But that takes months and mountains of willpower. Do something easier.
If becoming more attractive is one of your goals, it’s because you want more social approval. You want more self-esteem, more attention, and more smiles directed your way. I understand. I want to be more attractive too.
But there is an easier way. Make more, better friends. Be interesting. Be zestful. Volunteer. Join clubs. Be passionate. Go do things. People like that are beautiful, regardless of their physical appearance.
Takeaway: Unless you’re really hideous or actually find happiness in obsessing over your appearance, don’t worry. Ugly people are happy too.
A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. -Steve Martin
Remember the last time you had a warm soup or apple cider during the winter? Or a cold soda or beer during summer? It felt good. Because of the contrast.
There is no hot without cold; no cold without hot.
I’m not getting philosophical. Humidity after a clear day is correlated with reduced vigor and happiness.7 Sunshine after a cloudy day is correlated with increased mood.8
But sunshine after sunshine is correlated with nothing.
But if every day was warm and sunny, you would get use to it.
A study of 1,993 Americans living in California, Michigan, and Ohio found no correlation between location and life satisfaction. That is, although people in the midwest complained about their poor weather, although they also said they would be happier if they lived under California’s bright sun, although Californian’s said that their bright sun makes them happier, midwesterners were just as happy as Californians.9
We have a tendency to take things for granted. The weather is no exception. A 2006 study found that the only time rising temperature was correlated with rising mood was in spring, when the memory of cold winter was still in mind.10
Weather is also not that important. Most of the time, we’re indoors completely unconcerned about the temperature and humidity. In the California study, weather was ranked last in importance out of 11 items. Would you rather have good job prospects, a vibrant social life, financial security, or nice weather?
I would rather have the first three.
There is one exception – living in an extremely cold region with below average levels of sunshine is correlated with reduced wellbeing.11 In places like Alaska and Greenland seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is much more common. SAD is depression brought on by poor weather and lack of sunlight.
Takeaway: Avoid really cold and dark places. Everything else is not much different.
Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents. –Betsy Stevenson
I’m single right now. Possibly because I tell dates, “I don’t want kids”.
I’ve looked at the data myself – three studies have shown a negative correlation between happiness and having kids.12,13,14 They also showed that kids decrease rather than increase marital satisfaction.
Two recent studies suggest that parents are actually happier than non-parents, and that their studies are more accurate than the previous ones.
I don’t think it’s that clean-cut. I believe this active debate indicates that there is no clear correlation either way.
Maybe kids will make you happy. Maybe they won’t.
So if you’re looking to have children to improve your marriage or to make you happy, like 76% of Pew respondents, who answered that their reason for having kids was the ‘joy of children’, you may be making a mistake.
Think about it – you’ll spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars raising your children. If you spent that same time meditating, exercising, and becoming more grateful, you’d be guaranteed to be happier.
But there is more to life than happiness, which is probably why despite the data, Betsy decided to have kids.
Three recent studies suggest that having children increases meaning and purpose in life. And of course – all of us want to leave a legacy. For some it will be our children, for others our books, and for others our companies.
If you want children to be your legacy, and you’re willing to sacrifice your time, money, and peace of mind for it, I applaud you. I need your kids to fund my social security.
Takeaway: Kids are for meaning and purpose. Friends and vacations are for happiness.
*Ironically, across all of these studies, men with children had greater well-being than women with children. I’m so glad I’m a man. Not only do I not have to give birth, I don’t have to have periods, I also don’t have to change
any as many diapers.
**If you’d like to better understand how, on average, having kids can possibly reduce happiness, I recommend the book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all. ―Aristotle
I love to learn – I read new research papers and books every week. Does that love of learning correlate with increased life satisfaction?
Sometimes. A survey of 2,727 Americans found that those with a high level of education were twice as likely than those with a low level of education to be very happy.15
But that same survey found that those with a low level of education were 47% more likely to be the happiest than those with a high level of education.15
I would rather be happiest than very happy. It seems it would be better for me to enjoy, rather than to always question.
Knowledge is power. No one said that power is happiness.
Knowledge teases, with the hope of the grand things our lives can be, but also with the despair of the grand things our lives are not.
These results have been confirmed by a meta-analysis of over eight surveys measuring over 100,000 people.16
The very happy are the most economically productive – making money and driving innovation.
The happiest people are the most socially productive – spending more of their time on developing their relationships and their communities.
So is a high level of education worth it? If you’re just looking for happiness, then no. You don’t need a PhD, Masters, or even an Undergraduate degree. Demographics are poorly correlated with life satisfaction.
All of us want more than happiness – we also want meaning and purpose. Many people choose to have kids to fill that need. I would rather learn as much as I can and share that knowledge with all of you.
For that I may need to make a sacrifice.
I may need to choose ‘very happy’ over ‘happiest’.
Oh the sacrifice.
Takeaway: Cheap education is good education.
The growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects. It means that decisions require more effort. It makes mistakes more likely. It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe. -Barry Schwartz
A few months ago I was having a quarter-life crisis. That’s what gave birth to this blog.
Quarter-life crises are a new phenomenon. So are mid-life crises and the case that the average person will change careers seven to ten times.17
Why the changes? The burden of choice and pains of possibilities unreached.
Some choice is good. It gives birth to individuality. It gives us the feeling of control.
Too much choice is bad. It overwhelms.
From the book the Paradox of Choice:
I want a pair of jeans—32–28,” I said. “Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”
I was stunned… I decided to try them all…
The jeans I chose turned out just fine, but it occurred to me that day that buying a pair of pants should not be a daylong project. By vastly expanding the range of choices, they had created a problem. Before these options were available, purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.
And that’s just pants.
We of Gen X and Y know we can travel the world, save starving children, rise the corporate ladder, and dream big dreams. Our worlds are no longer limited to the town we grew up in. The possibilities are exciting.
The possibilities are also crushing. With every fork come dozens of choices than need evaluation. With every choice made, there are dozens of possibilities turned away, waiting to fester into regret.
With power and opportunity come responsibility – the requirement to evaluate more and more choices. It can be draining.
Soon I will be moving. A part of me wants to comb through the data and create complicated statistical models to rank all of my choices. A part of me knows that the data is a curse, because NYC or San Francisco, Singapore or Boston, there are people. As long as there are people, I will be happy.
Takeaway: Simplify. Uncertainty feels bad, simplicity feels good.
There are no universal truths – just averages. You may be the exception that finds bliss from becoming rich or moving to a California beach. I hope you are – because those goals are easy compared to the true paths to happiness, which require changing our personality.
But as much as I hope and as much as you hope, you’re unlikely to be that exception. So remember – just because society encourages you to be excited about something, just because you listened and now feel excited, doesn’t make that something a good idea.
People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think. -Daniel Kahneman, founder of Behavioral Economics
Culture is humanizing. Culture is also often stupid.
Think I’m wrong about one of these ideas? Did I miss a happiness scheme? Tell me with a comment below!
1. General Social Surveys, 1972-2006
2. Holder, M. D., & Coleman, B. (2008). The contribution of temperament, popularity, and physical appearance to children’s happiness. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 279-302. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9052-7
3. Daniel S. Hamermesh & Jason Abrevaya, 2011. “”Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness”?,” NBER Working Papers 17327, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
4. World Happiness Report, 2012
5. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. P. (2004). STRENGTHS OF CHARACTER AND WELL-BEING. Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
6. PLAUT, V. C., ADAMS, G., & ANDERSON, S. L. (2009). Does attractiveness buy happiness? “It depends on where you’re from”. Personal Relationships, 16(4), 619-630. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01242.x
7. Sanders, J. L., & Brizzolara, M. S. (1982). RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN WEATHER AND MOOD. Journal Of General Psychology, 107(1), 155.
8. Howarth, E. E., & Hoffman, M. S. (1984). A multidimensional approach to the relationship between mood and weather. British Journal Of Psychology, 75(1), 15.
9. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy?. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 9(5), 340.
10. Aaronson, L. (2006). Happiness Is a Beach, Sometimes. Psychology Today, 39(1), 27.
11. Rehdanz, K., & Maddison, D. (2005). Climate and happiness. Ecological Economics, 52(1), 111-125. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.06.015
12. Clark, A.E. and Oswald, A.J. (2002a). “Well-Being in Panels”, mimeo, University of Warwick.
13. Rafael Di Tella & Robert J. MacCulloch & Andrew J. Oswald, 2003. “The Macroeconomics of Happiness,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 809-827, November.
14. Alesina, Alberto, Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch. “Inequality And Happiness: Are Europeans And Americans Different?,” Journal of Public Economics, 2004, v88(9-10,Aug), 2009-2042.
15. World Values Survey Databank, United States , United States , United States , United States 
16. Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2007). The optimal level of well-being: Can we be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360.
17. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Tenure Summary, 2010, USDL-10-1278
Next post: The Science of Compassion