Meet the Happiest Man on Earth: Alvin Wong

Alvin Wong and his wife, Trudy Schandler-Wong.

The New York Times asked Gallup to come up with a statistical composite for the happiest person in America, based on the characteristics that most closely correlated with happiness in 2010. Men, for example, tend to be happier than women, older people are happier than middle-aged people, and so on.

Gallup’s answer: he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year. A few phone calls later and …

Meet Alvin Wong.

New York Times: Discovered: The Happiest Man in America

(via Theoretick)

The article ends abruptly.

Are Wandering Minds Unhappy Minds?


That seems to be the conclusion of the recent Track Your Happiness Survey:

Our lives are most enjoyable and content when we are completely focused on the job in hand – even more than when we are daydreaming about pleasant thoughts.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” their study concluded.

“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

Telegraph: Why our wandering minds are making us miserable

(via Coewrote)

I’m skeptical about causation here – could it actually be that when we’re doing something we enjoy, we’re less likely to let our minds wander? Wouldn’t that be a symptom, not a cause, of unhappiness? Here are the things that cause mind wandering, according to the study: “resting, working or using our home computer.” The things we are doing when most focused: “sex, exercising or in intense conversations with friends.”

The methodology of the survey is somewhat questionable as well: it required people to self-report their levels of “happiness” at different times during the day and answer assorted other questions like “do you have to be doing what you’re doing right now” and “do you want to do be doing what you’re doing right now.”

For what it’s worth, I tried participating in the survey, but found it to be a hassle and quit doing it. The questions were often vague and difficult to answer accurately, especially if I had to fill out the survey hours after it came in. One thing I found especially difficult is that when I was fully engaged in something, I was a lot less likely to be aware of whether I was happy or not.

A quick note on the results: since you can put in anything you want for “what are you doing,” it’s possible that particular tasks done on a home computer (like “working on my screenplay,” “sequencing electronic music,” or “reading my favorite blog” were broken out separately, unjustly maligning “home computer” usage).

Amber Case has a write-up about her participation in the survey here.

Update: This New Scientist story has more:

Crucially, episodes of mind-wandering tended to precede bouts of low mood, but not vice versa, suggesting that the former caused the latter. […]

“This is a really solid piece of work,” says Jonathan Smallwood at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says that mind-wandering and levels of happiness have been linked in laboratory studies, but never before in such a large population of people going about their daily lives.

But the claim that mind-wandering causes unhappiness needs to be further evaluated, he adds, because he and others have shown the effect can run in the opposite direction. In laboratory experiments, he found that lowering a person’s mood, perhaps by showing them a video about a sad story, led to more mind-wandering.

“It’s difficult to make causal claims,” says Smallwood. “But it’s undoubtedly the case that negative mood and mind-wandering are inextricably linked.”

Oh, and see also:

What the Brain is Doing When it is “Idle”

Boredom can be lethal

Why boredom is exhausting

Study Finds Relationships Help You Live Longer

No man is an island, and if he tries to be one, he may die sooner, according to a new BYU analysis.

Researchers have discovered that people with greater social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than their socially reclusive counterparts.

In fact, a lack of friends is as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. It’s also twice as damaging as obesity and more harmful than not exercising, according to the study.

“We’re not in any way trying to downplay the seriousness of these other risk factors, (which) are very important,” said author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology at BYU. “Rather, we’re trying to make the point that we need to start taking our social relationships just as seriously as we take these other factors.”

The researchers combed through thousands of studies since 1900 to find 148 that dealt with their research questions. Those studies asked more than 300,000 subjects about relationships and then tracked their health outcomes for an average of 7.5 years.

Deseret News: BYU study finds relationships help you live longer

(Via Theoretick)

This post rounds up previous posts on this subject.

Happiness And Sadness Spread Just Like Disease

happy feet

There may be a literal truth underlying the common-sense intuition that happiness and sadness are contagious.

A new study on the spread of emotions through social networks shows that these feelings circulate in patterns analogous to what’s seen from epidemiological models of disease.

Earlier studies raised the possibility, but had not mapped social networks against actual disease models.

“This is the first time this contagion has been measured in the way we think about traditional infectious disease,” said biophysicist Alison Hill of Harvard University. […]

Happiness proved less social than sadness. Each happy friend increased an individual’s chances of personal happiness by 11 percent, while just one sad friend was needed to double an individual’s chance of becoming unhappy.

Wired Science: Happiness And Sadness Spread Just Like Disease

How to make yourself happier in just a few seconds


The authors hypothesized that thinking about the absence of a positive event from one’s life would improve affective states more than thinking about the presence of a positive event but that people would not predict this when making affective forecasts. In Studies 1 and 2, college students wrote about the ways in which a positive event might never have happened and was surprising or how it became part of their life and was unsurprising. As predicted, people in the former condition reported more positive affective states. In Study 3, college student forecasters failed to anticipate this effect. In Study 4, Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for the literatures on gratitude induction and counterfactual reasoning.

Source: “It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts.” from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Barking up the wrong tree: How to make yourself happier in just a few seconds

(via Duff)

(Photo credit: Marko Bajlovic / CC)

Life Without Serotonin


I had no idea the link between serotonin and depression was in doubt. Very interesting:

Via Dormivigilia, I came across a fascinating paper about a man who suffered from a severe lack of monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin etc.) as a result of a genetic mutation. […]

Overall, though, the biggest finding here was a non-finding: this patient wasn’t depressed, despite having much reduced serotonin levels. This is further evidence that serotonin isn’t the “happy chemical” in any simple sense.

On the other hand, the similarities between his symptoms and some of the symptoms of depression suggest that serotonin is doing something in that disorder. This fits with existing evidence from tryptophan depletion studies showing that low serotonin doesn’t cause depression in most people, but does re-activate symptoms in people with a history of the disease. As I said, it’s complicated…

Neuroskeptic: Life Without Serotonin

See also:

Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature

Obliquity: sometimes it’s better to try the indirect approach


Obliquity describes the process of achieving objectives indirectly, such as the financial success that comes from a real commitment to business. And obliquity is ubiquitous – it can even be applied to happiness. It has long been suspected that the happiest people are not those who pursue it directly. John Stuart Mill was the strongest exponent of utilitarianism, the notion that the goal of mankind was the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Yet towards the end of his (far from happy) life, Mill found that ‘this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness – on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’

Surely obliquity goes against everything we’ve been taught? Isn’t it true that you must do better if you set out to maximise something – happiness, wealth, profit – than if you don’t? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Life is too complex and uncertain for us to be able to predict and follow the most direct perceived route to success. Our knowledge is always imperfect, and events are influenced by the unpredictability of other people and organisations. Instead, our objectives are best achieved by a more meandering approach that enables us to adapt our strategy to changing situations. And we learn about the nature of our objectives and the means of achieving them through a process of experiment and discovery.

Management Today: Obliquity: the roundabout route to success

See also: Kay’s previous Financial Times article on the subject.

(via Relevant History)

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrhayata/1875046344/ / CC)

Shopping for Happiness? Get a Massage, Forget the Flat-Screen TV


Consumers found that satisfaction with “experiential purchases” — from massages to family vacations — starts high and increases over time. In contrast, spending money on material things feels good at first, but actually makes people less happy in the end, says Thomas Gilovich, Cornell University professor of psychology and Travis J. Carter, Cornell Ph.D. ’10.

Science Daily: Shopping for Happiness? Get a Massage, Forget the Flat-Screen TV

See also: Transumers.

(Photo credit: Thomas Wanhoff / CC)

Americans’ job satisfaction falls to record low

Even Americans who are lucky enough to have work in this economy are becoming more unhappy with their jobs, according to a new survey that found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work.

That was the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in more than 22 years of studying the issue. In 2008, 49 percent of those surveyed reported satisfaction with their jobs. […]

Workers have grown steadily more unhappy for a variety of reasons:

– Fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.

– Incomes have not kept up with inflation.

– The soaring cost of health insurance has eaten into workers’ take-home pay.

AP: Americans’ job satisfaction falls to record low

(via Cryptogon)

Researchers discover that stress isn’t a modern invention

Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.

When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.

Ars Technica: The prehistory of stress

(Thanks Paul)

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