Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Recipe for Happiness

Today's New York Times has an article about happiness research. An excerpt:

Claudia Senik, professor of economics at the Sorbonne, believes that the struggle for a certain achievement may offer a peculiar reward all its own. Although many people seem quite goal-oriented — especially when it comes to money, homes, cars, new kitchens and other goods that have become stand-ins for status — maybe it's not so much having the stuff that people really enjoy, but the struggle to obtain it.

In an unpublished paper called "Is Man Doomed to Progress?" which she presented at a symposium, "Economics and Happiness," last month at U.S.C., Dr. Senik examined the impact of anticipating future gains on a person's current level of well-being.

Researchers have noted that, for example, given the opportunity to schedule a fancy meal, many people tend to postpone the feast — to savor the anticipation of it. In fact, Dr. Senik found that when people aspire to a better quality of life within the next 12 months, the attempt to reach that goal alone — the anticipation independent of the outcome — seems to bestow happiness in the present.

"For the basic person there is pleasure in progress," Dr. Senik said. "We are proud to aim at something — to earn a degree, buy a house. So when I work to reach a higher position or earn a higher income, I'm already happy today."
This rings true to me. It seems consistent with Ben Friedman's lecture on the importance of economic growth, but it suggests that prospective growth may be more important than past growth. The story about postponing fancy meals seems to point in a different direction than David Laibson's lecture in the fall about how people have problems with self control.