Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor
New book explores the science of happiness
A new book on happiness might surprise some of those hoping to find
more of it. “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological
Wealth” affirms that lasting happiness is attainable and
desirable, but it also dispels some common myths about what makes
people happy and whether the pursuit of happiness can go too far.
The authors tackle age-old questions with some of the tools of modern
science: Can money buy happiness? Is ignorance truly bliss? Are happy
people shallow and unaware of the problems of the world? Can a person
be too happy?
University of Illinois psychology professor Ed Diener and his son,
Robert Biswas-Diener, offer a unique perspective on happiness, which
they call psychological wealth. Diener is a pioneer in the field of
positive psychology, which focuses on the underlying mechanisms of
mental health rather than disease. Biswas-Diener, known to some as the
“Indiana Jones of happiness research,” has extended his
father’s work to other cultures. His studies have taken him to
places as different from one another as Greenland, the African savannah
and the slums of Calcutta. This far-ranging research gives the authors
a global perspective on some of the universals of happiness.
The book begins by defining happiness, which the authors insist is qualitatively different than euphoria or bliss.
“Psychological wealth,” they write, “is more than
simple fleeting joy, and more than an absence of depression and
anxiety. Psychological wealth is the experience that our life is
excellent – that we are living in a rewarding, engaged,
meaningful and enjoyable way.”
Components of psychological wealth include “the feeling that life
is full of meaning, a sense of engagement in interesting activities,
the pursuit of important goals” as well as positive emotions and
a sense that one is connected to something larger than oneself.
The authors review the research on what makes people happy and how and
when a positive outlook correlates with one’s life circumstances.
The research affirms that happy people tend to think more creatively
and connect better with friends than their unhappy counterparts.
Happy people are healthier, have stronger immune systems and are less
likely to suffer from stress and heart problems than unhappy people,
who tend to complain more about their pain and also recover more slowly
after an illness.
“Many people think of happiness as shallow, selfish, naïve
and complacent,” the authors write. “There is now a body of
evidence from scientific studies that indicates precisely the opposite,
that positive feelings are functional and beneficial.”
On the issue of whether money can buy happiness, the authors report
some interesting findings. Contrary to a popular belief that rich
people tend to be greedy or to engage in excessive pursuits that make
them miserable, the data suggest that increased income correlates with
increased psychological wealth. Those living in countries with higher
per capita income, for example, report a higher level of well-being.
The authors also ask: How happy is happy enough? They explore whether
the unbridled pursuit of happiness can have negative consequences.
They report on a recent study, conducted by Diener and his colleagues
at the University of Virginia and Michigan State University, which
suggests that moderate happiness may actually be preferable to
The study challenged the assumption that all measures of well-being go
up as happiness increases. While many indicators of success and
well-being do correspond to higher levels of happiness, the researchers
reported, those at the top of the happiness scale (people who report
that they are 10s on a 10-point life-satisfaction score) are in some
measures worse off than their slightly less-elated counterparts.
“The highest levels of income, education and political
participation were reported not by the most satisfied individuals (10
on the 10-point scale),” the authors of the study wrote,
“but by moderately satisfied individuals (eight or nine on the
The 10s earned significantly less money than the eights and nines.
Their educational achievements and political engagement were also
significantly lower than their moderately happy and
“While positive emotions are beneficial, a few negative emotions
can help us to be more fully functioning individuals,” Diener and
The book also explores whether, and how much, genes or the environment contribute to an individual’s sense of well-being.
While some studies suggest that genetic factors contribute to
depression, the authors emphasize that with regards to happiness, the
balance tilts toward the environment and how people adapt to their
surroundings. The researchers conclude that a person’s
genetic destiny can be easily modified depending on how well he or she
adapts to life’s changes.
The book concludes with a “happiness score sheet” that
allows readers to evaluate how happy they are in their current
“We have shown in this book what we think is a revolutionary idea
– that happy societies are more likely to be successful ones, and
happy individuals are more likely to be successful ones,” the
father-son duo write.
Diener, popularly referred to as Dr. Happy, is the Joseph R. Smiley
Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Illinois. Biswas-Diener is a
lecturer at Portland State University.
“Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth,” was published by Blackwell Publishing.