The studies that I had cited rely on people to report their own happiness level. For example, the survey asks you to indicate how happy you are (on a scale of 1 to 5), and then asks you to state your annual income, monthly salary, personal net worth etc. The same is then done to thousands of individuals living in different countries, and then the numbers are crunched to generate the conclusions that follow logically.
Other kinds of studies study more directly the nature of happpiness itself - what is it? How does it come about? - and the world's leading researcher in this field is Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I hate to oversimplify Mihaly's ideas - because he is a lot more profound than a quick browsing of Internet materials on him might suggest, and also because in recent years, he has expanded the scope of his research into new territority - but for the purposes of this post, oversimplification is necessary.
some day, because he deserves it!
To put it very simply, happiness comes from having order in consciousness. What does that mean? It is a state of optimal experience. It is about control over your own attention. It is a situation when the information that keeps coming into your awareness is congruent with your goals, leading to an effortless flow of psychic energy. That's what Mihaly calls flow.
Flow is the kind of experience where you are totally engaged in what you're doing. Time passes without you being aware of it. You are pushed into higher levels of performance and a different state of consciousness. Flow experiences lead to the growth of the self.
There are certain typical elements which facilitate the flow experience. There is usually a challenge, a clear objective - you know what you want to do. Then there is instant, constant feedback on whether you're on the right track. The level of skill that you need to employ is high (for you) and the activity consumes your total concentration. At the same time, the challenge is just right - it is not too great (which leads to anxiety) nor too small (which leads to boredom).
Flow can come from a wide range of activities. In fact, it could come from any kind of activity, as long as the necessary elements are present. Mr Wang will offer you some situations from his life, during which he has experienced flow:
Well, you get the idea. As I mentioned, flow can come from a wide range of different experiences. And flow is pure happiness. That's what it is.
PLAYING THE GUITAR: Reaching that magical point when voice and fingers and emotion all come together and Mr Wang disappears into his own music, becoming pure soul.
COURTROOM DRAMA: Cross-examining a key defence witness in a tense, exciting case, and moving in for the kill. Reaching that magical point when suddenly your mind can read his mind and inexplicably you know, before he says a word, every word that he's going to say.
WRITING POETRY: Those rare moments when words cascade into your head as if some Divine Person is pouring them in and it's all you can do to get them out, get them out, typing as fast as you can.
RUNNING: Those rare occasions running on cool, dark evenings when mind and body become one, and pain becomes an object that you can shift away from your self, and it's as if you can fly. Sometimes known as runner's high. (Alas, nowadays when Mr Wang goes running, it's mostly aches and pains he gets).
SEX: The ecstatic kind. No further details.
Of course, there are more-intense and less-intense flow experiences. One of Mihaly's most important contributions (in my view) is the idea that you can manufacture a flow experience out of almost anything (which means that almost everyone has the potential to find happiness in their lives).
For example, he gives an example of a factory worker, Rico Medellin, who has to perform the same task on each factory item that comes to his station (600 identical factory items per day). Despite the apparent crushing boredom of such a job, Rico enjoys it tremendously because he has made a game out of it - he challenges himself to set and break his records in the number of seconds needed to finish one unit; the number of units he can finish in a day; and so on. He finds happiness in his job because he has created the elements of a flow experience - there is a challenge (to break his last record); there is immediate feedback (30 seconds to finish this unit!); and the task absorbs all his attention (because he's trying to break the record). It fully absorbs him the whole working day.
Back to our original discussion. Does money buy happiness? Well, possibly, it can. If your high in life comes from challenging yourself in the game of golf, then money obviously facilitates your happiness by purchasing the golf clubs and the club membership. On the other hand, Mihaly demonstrates that happiness can be found in an extremely wide range of circumstances, many of which have nothing to do with money. Small children are constantly happy, for instance, because they are curious about the world. Even small, simple things - a bird, a flower, the shapes of clouds in the sky - can totally absorb their attention.
I have a couple of wealthy friends who are in the hobby of collecting art. They spend thousands of dollars on just one piece of art. I also have a brother who paints in his free time - although an amateur, he has held several exhibitions in Singapore. My brother is deeply in love with art - creating it, not buying it - and the only costs he incurs are the cost of his oils and brushes. Yet I am quite sure that the happiness he derives from painting runs a lot deeper than the happiness of my friends who collect paintings.
of his pet cat.