Happy People

A deep and revealing dive into who is and isn't happy and why.

Posted Jan 09, 2019

Some 40 years ago, Jonathan Freedman’s Happy People was published, marking a new era in the study of happiness in America.  Freedman was a Columbia University professor who had co-led an exhaustive research project on happiness a few years back for Psychology Today.  Freedman (now a professor at the University of Toronto) remained interested in who was and wasn’t happy, and why, as he pushed his findings from the landmark study further in the 1978 book.  Freedman had what was unarguably a goldmine of research into the subject at his disposal, as the responses from the Psychology Today questionnaire were combined with those from a similar survey published in Good Housekeeping to generate a total of almost 100,000 responses. 

Readers hoping there would be a simple formula or recipe to happiness presented in the book would be disappointed, however, as artificially producing the emotion just didn’t work, Freedman explained.  One could have all the typical social and economic ingredients for happiness but still be miserable, he made clear upfront. Or, completely conversely, could be thoroughly happy without having any of them.  Happiness was a function of how an individual responded to environmental conditions rather than the conditions themselves, his extensive investigation showed, making one’s approach to life the key to how happy one was likely to be.

In his book, Freedman presented a number of leading theories about happiness, and then measured their validity against his research findings.  He was quick to discount the popular “comparison” theory of happiness, in which individuals determined how happy they were or weren’t in relation to other people.  Rather than being absolute, in other words, happiness was relative, this theory went, not unlike how economic or social status was often believed to work.  Because we lived in groups, humans measured whatever they possessed in relation to that of others, many an anthropologist argued, making it easy to transfer the theory to the arena of happiness.  But that was just one piece of the story, Freedman thought, as his research showed that a good number of people had no interest in comparing common elements to happiness—sexual satisfaction, say—to what others possessed.  “The absolute scale seems to me to work for internal states that contribute to happiness,” he stated, thinking that, “comparisons to others are largely irrelevant.”

Freedman also did not heavily subscribe to the “expectation” theory of happiness, in which individuals measured how happy they were based on the “spread” between what they hoped for and what they had actually realized.  Individuals with a narrow spread possessed a high level of happiness, according to this theory, as they were getting most or all that they wanted in life.  Conversely, those with big gaps between their expectations and reality were unhappy people, as life was just not turning out to be as good as they had believed.  While there was some validity to this idea, Freedman explained, the expectations versus achievements theory was, like the comparison theory, not the basis for most people’s happiness.  In his research, Freedman found individuals who had reached or surpassed all their goals in life but remained despondent, supporting his view that the population was generally sorted into happy and unhappy people.  “They continue to view life as an unhappy state,” he wrote of these unfortunate folks, more reason to subscribe to his contention that “attitudes toward life determine how much we enjoy what happens to us and what we achieve.”

While not totally dismissing the comparison—or expectation-based theories of happiness— Freedman leaned more to one in which adaptation played a significant role.  Like all organisms, humans adapted or got used to their environment, with this normal process providing a kind of benchmark level of happiness for each individual.  We became happier people when the circumstances of life exceeded our adaptation level, according to this theory, and unhappier people when things fell below that level.  An increase in happiness could thus only be realized by surpassing our adaptive state in some way, suggesting that we had to continually shake things up at least a bit in our lives if we hoped to become ever happier.  “This theory explains why people who seem to have everything are not necessarily happy,” Freedman wrote, an idea that supported the fact that money was not strongly linked to happiness.  The apparent luxury of having all of one’s needs and desires met was therefore not a particularly good enabler of happiness, something that might have come as a surprise to those wishing they could be in someone else’s (more pricey) shoes.

Related to the adaptive theory of happiness was the concept that each individual was fundamentally a work in process, making the common pursuit of becoming a happier person a mostly lost cause.  As Maslow had proposed in his hierarchy of needs, humans strive to achieve a higher state of being once a certain level of needs are met, turning life into an endless climbing of an existential ladder.  While a good thing in terms of personal evolution, this continual reaching for something “higher” was not at all an effective agent of happiness in that one was never satisfied or fulfilled in the present moment.  Freedman believed that this theory helped to explain why so many people remained frustrated in their efforts to achieve happiness regardless of how hard they tried.  “Once attained for a moment, it seems to slip from one’s grasp and be just around the bend,” he observed, an apt description of the elusive nature of happiness.

Finally, Freedman believed that based on his interpretation of some hundred thousand accounts of personal happiness that some people were simply better at being happy than others.  There was thus a sort of talent attached to being happy, just as achieving anything in life required having a certain aptitude or set of skills to actually get it done.  Why some people had this ability and why others didn’t remained a total mystery, but there did seem to be some validity to the idea that happiness was either a competence developed over time or a gift that one was lucky enough to be born with.  Freedman had perhaps more insights into the subject than anyone else on the planet, but he readily admitted that he had yet to crack the code of happiness.  “Happiness is an enormously complex concept and feeling,” he concluded in his Happy People, thinking there was still much work to be done in the field to try to solve one of life’s greatest puzzles.

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