The Pursuit of Happiness

Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College
Saturday, September 1, 2007
Freshman Assembly, Yale College Class of 2011

President Levin, Provost Hamilton, colleagues who have joined us on the stage today, families, and members of the Class of 2011: I am delighted and honored to address you this morning. It is, indeed, a great privilege to welcome 1,322 freshmen to Yale. In doing so, I am going to reflect for a few moments on something the founders of this nation called a self-evident truth, the unalienable right to pursue happiness. To the students of the Class of 2011 who are about to embark on an adventure unlike any that has come your way before, I ask this morning, “What makes for a satisfying and fulfilling life?” Throughout history and across many cultures this simple question has produced complex and sometimes contradictory responses.

I suspect the search for an answer will be on your minds throughout your Yale years.

Let me begin with a story from my own time as an undergraduate student. I recall the fall day during my sophomore year in college, when I decided I would major in psychology. My social psychology professor was describing a study that would soon appear in the scientific literature. It is a modest study by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the findings captured my attention in a way that I still remember.

A team of psychologists at Northwestern University had interviewed 22 winners of large sums of money in the Illinois State Lottery and compared them to 22 individuals selected randomly from the telephone directory. The average windfall was about a half-million dollars; seven had won a million dollars each. And here is the amazing finding: They were no happier than the random sample of their fellow citizens drawn from the phone book. Sure, they could now afford first-rate vacations, fancy cars, and large homes — remember, this was back in the 1970s — but the impact of this pleasant surprise on happiness did not endure. In fact, their pleasure in everyday activities such as talking with a friend, eating breakfast, or reading a magazine actually dropped. The investigators also reported data showing that there was nothing special or unusual about people who play the lottery. They were very similar to the comparison group in nearly all other respects.1

Now, if these findings don’t impress you, consider the following. These psychologists also studied 29 accident victims who had lost the use of their arms or legs as a result of their misfortunes. These individuals reported feelings that were symmetrical to the lottery winners: Although they rated their present happiness a bit lower than those selected from the phone book (but still quite positively on the happiness scale), they expected to be just as happy in the not distant future. The injured group did not appear nearly as unhappy as the investigators expected them to be. So the first psychological lesson about happiness is this: Longer-term emotional states are not as powerfully affected by events in your lives as you might expect. Money does not seem to buy happiness but neither does serious and permanent injury necessarily produce misery.

Of course, I am oversimplifying. It is the case that earning enough money to lift one’s family out of poverty produces greater happiness. Additional earnings beyond that, however, do not seem to add much more to life satisfaction. Families with incomes of about $50,000 per year are, indeed, happier than those making $10,000. But families with annual incomes over $5,000,000 are not much happier than those earning, say, 5% of this amount.2 People quickly become accustomed to whatever it is they have, and more of it does not make them much more content, although they believe it will. As a psychologist, I might call this habituation, whereas an economist such as President Levin would refer to it as declining marginal utility. The investigators who conducted the study of lottery winners and accident victims labeled it the hedonic treadmill.3

You can also find evidence for this phenomenon by comparing the relative happiness of the citizens of various nations. While there certainly is a stable trend in which the citizens of wealthier nations express greater life satisfaction than those of poorer nations, this trend levels off more quickly than expected. There are almost no differences in happiness between nations of average wealth and those that are most affluent. And, there are many anomalies: The purchasing power of the average citizen in the People’s Republic of China or in Brazil is relatively low, but their self-reported happiness is quite high, for example.4 At minimum it is fair to say that the relationship between money and happiness is not linear. Or, as Woody Allen once put it, “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”5

Now I am not arguing that every Yale College student should, upon graduation, give away all of his or her worldly possessions and take a vow of poverty. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with making money. But it is what you do with what you earn (and how you go about earning it) that, in part, determines whether you are satisfied with your lives. And, of course, versions of this problem have perplexed philosophers from ancient to modern times. In considering a happy life, Plato focused on harmony among one’s desires, aims, and goals. Aristotle grappled with the ethical responsibility to flourish through devotion to excellent activity. And many thinkers through the ages, from Augustine to Descartes, have claimed that happiness requires virtue.6 (But I get ahead of myself here; I seem to have put Descartes before d’ horse!)

Given the data relating winning money or being injured in an accident to happiness, perhaps it comes as no surprise to you that we are especially inaccurate when predicting the emotional consequences of outcomes and events in the future. We are not very skilled at what is called affective forecasting.7 For instance, just before a presidential election, when Americans are asked how they would feel if the candidate they are supporting won or lost, they (not surprisingly) describe the intense joy or profound unhappiness anticipated. But they don’t quite feel this way the day after the election. Those people who voted for the winning candidate are happy, but not nearly as happy as they thought they would be. And those whose candidate lost the election, while sad, are not nearly as miserable as they predicted they would feel just a few days earlier.8 Similar findings have been reported when college students are asked to predict how they would feel if their football team won or lost on the next Saturday afternoon.9 They forget that even if the football team wins, there are still papers to write and exams to study for the next day. And even if the team loses, they still have plans to hang out that evening with their close friends. And here’s some good news: Even the break-up of a romantic relationship isn’t as sad as college students expect it to be (not that it is pleasant, of course).

It is not just students who have difficulty predicting their future feelings. Surveys of adults across this country suggest that most believe, for example, that folks who live in California are happier than everyone else, and that they themselves would be happier if they picked up and moved to California.10 But what’s the reality? Californians are about as happy as those from Kansas or Connecticut but no happier. So, why the bias? Well, when you ask people to imagine a California life, the scenes that come to mind are of perfect weather, beautiful people, and clean sandy beaches — a Hollywood fantasy world. The reality of course is more complex: It also includes heavy traffic, expensive homes, and occasional earthquakes; not what the Mamas and the Papas (or even Phantom Planet) imagines when they are California dreamin’, especially on a winter’s day. So, hedonic pursuits and material pleasures do not reliably produce greater happiness. Even if they did, we still would not be very skilled at predicting the events that are actually going to make us feel good.

So, what does make us happy? One psychologist describes three kinds of happiness: the pleasant life (based on hedonism), the good life (based on engagement), and the meaningful life (based on belonging to and serving something larger than oneself).11 We’ve already dealt with the elusiveness of the first kind of happiness, the pleasant life. But, what of the other two — the good life and the meaningful life?

This psychologist — Martin Seligman — claims that there are six virtues endorsed essentially by every major religious movement and cultural tradition of the last 3,000 years: (a) wisdom and knowledge, (b) courage, (c) love and humanity, (d) justice, (e) temperance or moderation, and (e) transcendence.12 He argues that by finding and developing our personal strengths, we can live a life characterized by these six virtues. And when we find opportunities to engage in those strengths around which we define our identity — he calls these signature strengths — we experience authentic positive emotions like joy, pride, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Some of you may find your signature strengths in your curiosity and open-mindedness or your integrity or leadership abilities or your modesty or your ability to express gratitude in appreciation of others. A good life, characterized by the six virtues, is more readily attained, to use a cliché, by going with one’s strengths. Individuals whose lives are characterized by these virtues also find it easier to form strong connections to other people. And a robust predictor of happiness, as it happens, is having rich and satisfying social relationships.13

In the early days of my career as a social psychologist, I conducted experiments showing that when people feel joyful, they are more likely to engage in selfless acts of altruism. And, conversely, when they help others, they are more likely to feel happy. We called this — not very creatively — feel good, do good and do good, feel good, respectively.14 In the laboratory, we could stage-manage an opportunity for helping someone (e.g., another student would drop a pile of papers he or she was carrying in the hallway outside the room). Happier research participants were more likely to offer help, and helping bred happiness.

The lessons from this line of research are, I think, profound, even if the experiments were a bit contrived. A happy life is one in which we find ways to transcend our own needs and desires and work on behalf of someone or something else that is larger than ourselves. You will find many such opportunities at Yale, and I urge you to take advantage of them. Merely participating in a group activity pursuing some goal that cannot be accomplished alone — consider performance ensembles or athletic teams — can generate feelings of fulfillment. For some of you, opportunities will present themselves through immersion in a different culture, such as by living with a roommate from Peking University when you enroll in our joint program there. Taking another step and engaging in something that improves the lives of others or repairs the world can help to build a happy life as well. And I hope it is clear that living a life that transcends oneself is possible no matter what one’s political outlook. You can work on behalf of others by creating jobs and opportunities on Main Street as well as by lobbying for human rights in the developing world. As Bob Dylan sings, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” and the critical element is finding meaning in that effort.
One last finding from the social psychology laboratory: People believe they will feel more regret by doing something inappropriate than by not doing something that would have turned out to be a good thing. Most of us suspect that nothing would make us more unhappy than trying and failing. But, when you actually measure their feelings, people report much more regret due to inaction than if they had actually done something that went sour. Missed opportunities do, indeed, produce unhappiness.15

So here you are on your first day at Yale, surrounded by loving families, and dressed — not for the last time — in your blue blazers and non-flip-flop footwear. And, perhaps you are asking yourself the question, “What is college for?” Is it merely a way to acquire a credential to help one attain “the good life?” I am arguing today that this answer is narrow and likely misguided. Rather, college seems to be the time to begin cultivating an “examined life.” This begins with a sophisticated consideration of virtues and strengths. But isolated reflection is not enough. Here at Yale you will have opportunities to transcend yourselves, and by forming deep relationships with others and working selflessly to promote a greater good, you will develop the habits of mind and behavior that can lead to fulfilling and happy lives.

Here’s to hoping that the keys to a truly satisfying future await you at Yale. Welcome Class of 2011!

1. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R.J. (1978). “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917-927.

2. This example is from Gilbert, D.T. (2006). “Stumbling on Happiness.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf. For a more thorough explanation, see Layard, R. (2005). “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science.” New York: Penguin. For different conclusions, see Easterlin, R.A. (2005). “Diminishing marginal utility of income? Caveat emptor.” Social Indicators Research, 70, 243-326.

3. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society.” In M. H. Appley (Ed.), “Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium” (pp. 287-302). New York: Academic Press.

4. Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). “Will money increase subjective well-being? A literature review and guide to needed research.” Social Indicators Research, 57, 119-169.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). “Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest,” 5, 1-31.

The data analyzed in these articles are collected in part by the World Values Survey Group (see

5. Allen, W. (1983). “Without Feathers.” New York: Ballantine Books (p. 109).

6. McMahon, D.M. (2006). “Happiness: A History.” New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

White, N. (2006). “A Brief History of Happiness.” Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

7. Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University and Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia have conducted dozens of experiments on biases in affective forecasting. Gilbert’s excellent book summarizing these and many other findings, “Stumbling on Happiness” (2006, New York: Alfred A. Knopf), provides a memorable and amusing tour through this literature.

8. Gilbert, D.T., Pinel, E.C., Wilson, T.D., Blumberg, S.J., & Wheatley, T.P. (1998). “Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638 (see Study 3).

9. Wilson, T.D., Wheatley, T.P., Meyers, J.M., Gilbert. D.T., & Axsom, D. (2000). “Focalism: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 821-836.

10. Schkade, D.A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9, 340-346.

11. Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). “Authentic Happiness.” New York: The Free Press.

Seligman, M.E.P., & Royzman, E. (2003). “Happiness: The three traditional theories.”

12. Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). “Authentic Happiness.” New York: The Free Press.

13. Bradburn, N. M. (1969). “The Structure of Psychological Well-being.” Chicago: Aldine.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). “Very happy people.” Psychological Science, 13, 80-83.

14. Salovey, P., Mayer, J.D., & Rosenhan, D.L. (1991). “Mood and helping: Mood as a motivator of helping and helping as a regulator of mood.” Review of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 215-237.

15. Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V.H. (1995). “The experience of regret: What, when, and why.” Psychological Review, 102, 379-395.