An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Probing the Origins of Happiness

  • Kara Baskin, MIT Sloan
  • 1

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The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course lays out a sweeping framework for happiness in childhood and adulthood — and explains how policymakers and leaders can implement this knowledge to improve society.

MIT Sloan PhD student George Ward, (above) who co-authored the book, explains what makes people happy, what doesn’t, and why it matters.

What was the impetus behind the book?

 In the last few decades, there’s been a huge amount of work on what you can loosely call the “science of happiness.” More recently, government policy has moved toward measuring happiness at a national level and using that data to inform policy. Over 23 countries are systematically tracking happiness indicators that complement traditional measures like GDP. In this book we try to provide an overarching framework that documents what makes for a satisfying life.

On the policy side, more and more countries are using well-being data in the real world. The idea of the book is to try to give policymakers a sort of broad road map, if you like, for what’s determining people’s happiness at different stages of life and help them to think about areas where they might target policy.

Why should government care about who’s happy, anyway?
There are two ways to answer. One is more philosophical and, in a sense, goes back to Enlightenment, if not even further to Aristotle’s Politics. There’s an influential school of thought that thinks well-being or happiness ought to be a policy goal, beyond GDP. Jefferson, for example, thought that happiness should be the goal of good government. Ultimately, just making countries wealthier isn’t enough. Life should be more enjoyable.

The second is that there seems to be some electoral self-interest to looking after citizens’ well-being. Governments of populations that are unhappy don’t tend to stay in power very long.

What makes adults happy?
Mental and physical health as well as social relationships are very significant. Money plays a role, of course, but isn’t quite as significant as people might think. A huge predictor of unhappiness is unemployment. You lose a sense of purpose, and you lose social relationships, relationships with employees, and with management. Relationships are a driving force behind people’s happiness, and that’s not just at home but also at work and in the community.

What makes a successful child?
We look at three dimensions of success: emotional health, behavior, and academic achievement. If you follow a child into adulthood and try to predict their life satisfaction in their 40s, emotional health at age 16 is the strongest predictor [of happiness] much later in life. Even though academic achievement buys you a great deal else, emotional health is the strongest nuts-and-bolts predictor.

Schools can play a huge role in fostering happiness. They can teach kids life skills, resilience, and a lot more about what is important beyond just math and English.

What can we do with this information?
There’s a great deal that individuals can do themselves, of course. But government can also play a key role in fostering the conditions that allow people to live enjoyable lives. Take mental health. Depression and anxiety are a huge source of misery, and they are largely treatable. Currently public health expenditure is heavily geared towards physical health. And treating mental health usually brings with it huge savings in other areas like absenteeism, unemployment, crime, and so on.

There’s also a great deal that leaders in the business community can be doing to make jobs more satisfying and enjoyable. Similarly, a happier workforce can bring with it a number of benefits in terms of productivity, engagement, and reduced turnover.

For more, read the full article on the MIT Sloan website.

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P. Michael Hutchins

Sat, 04/21/2018 7:50am

The proper role of government is to protect individual rights.

If government would do that - but only that - individuals would be freed to pursue their own happiness, which is the only way to get there.

Happiness arises from one's realization that he is fit for living - that he can accomplish his goals and deal with problems that come up. The context of his life, such as his health and that of his region, is only a small player.

Most people have to learn that cause-and-effect relationship - usually via painful experience and some form of therapy. Proper schools could help that immensely, but schools that teach that happiness comes from others is not proper. But that's another story.

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