VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 10 -October 1998

People need help finding what makes them happy

Psychologists can help them find those answers.

By Jamie Chamberlin
Monitor staff

Money, cars and houses. People work hard to get these, but once they do, some immediately feel that more money, a second car or a summer home will make them happier.

But according to best-selling author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, material things aren’t making people’s lives satisfying, and psychologists need to figure out what will. In his talk 'If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy?'—part of the presidential theme on prevention at APA’s 1998 Annual Convention in San Francisco—Csikszentmihalyi explored the reasons people are driven to amass more wealth when it doesn’t bring them happiness and ways that psychologists can help people discover what does make them happy.

'Prevention…begins with bringing clarity to the question, ‘What sort of a life is worth living for?’' he said.

For more than 30 years, Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago, has studied what makes people’s lives meaningful and satisfying. He’s found that material well-being is not linked to emotional well-being. In his recent study of 1,000 teen-agers, he found that those in low social classes reported the most happiness and children in high social status families reported the least. He also cited a study by David Myers, PhD, professor of psychology at Hope College, and Edward Diener, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, which found that while people’s personal income has more than doubled between 1960 and 1990, the percentage of people who describe themselves as happy has declined.

Just beyond reach

Although research indicates no clear relationship between material wealth and happiness, said Csikszentmihalyi, many people still equate more money with more happiness. In a survey conducted by the University of Michigan, when people were asked what would improve the quality of their life, the majority said more money, he noted.

Why? Csikszentmihalyi identified four reasons. First, when resources are unevenly distributed, people compare themselves to richer people instead of appreciating the money they have. Second, today’s culture measures success by money, not by factors like patriotism or citizenship that once were valued more. Thus, since material wealth is largely sum-zero, there are fewer rewards to go around. Third, people are never satisfied with how much money they have. Once people reach a certain material goal, they believe reaching an even higher one will make them happier. Fourth, many people spend nearly all their time pursuing material wealth; they have little time for pursuing other goals that are necessary for a satisfying life, such as friendship, love, music, sports and literature.

Advertising strategies play a key role in our pursuit of material wealth as well, said Csikszentmihalyi. 'Too many institutions have a vested interest in making us believe that buying the right car, the right watch or the right education will vastly improve our chances of being happy,' he said.

Finding alternatives

One of the most important challenges psychologists face, said Csikszentmihalyi, is to help people discover alternatives to material wealth that lead to more rewarding lives.

'If the main justification of our profession is to help reduce psychological distress…then we should try to prevent the disillusion people encounter when they find out they have wasted their lives struggling to reach goals that they can’t be satisfied with,' he said.

While there has been slow progress in understanding what happiness is, said Csikszentmihalyi, psychology does offer alternatives to material pursuits that can make people’s lives more satisfying. He listed Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization theory, APA President Martin E.P. Seligman’s learned optimism theory, and his own 'flow' theory as prime examples. Flow, he explained, is a state of deep focus that occurs when people engage in challenging tasks that demand intense concentration and commitment. By studying the lives of thousands of people, Csikszentmihalyi has found that a person’s happiness largely depends on whether he or she can make flow a constant part of their life.

Calling for psychologists to promote what delivers happiness only echoes what a great philosopher once asserted, Csikszentmihalyi said.

'Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato wrote that the most urgent task for educators is to teach young people to find pleasure in the right things,' he said. 'Now this task falls partly on our shoulders.'