Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If it makes you happy (it can't be that bad)

I don't have any citations to back me up, but I'm pretty sure it's a proven fact that a belly laugh from a baby is the most amazing sound on earth.

Anyway, I saw a great headline today, a classic "there's more to this story" moment:  "Sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion, study finds".  While I'm sure the headline made many a college student raise their hands with a "damn the man!", I was curious where this was all coming from.  What makes us happy is notoriously difficult (in part because the things that make us feel the best are paired with things that make us feel bad.....water tastes better if you're thirsty, showers are amazing when you're feeling gross, absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc)

This took quite a bit of searching around, as apparently this was not actually a published study, but rather a press release for a talk a postgrad is giving (or gave, Nov 14th) at the University of Cantebury.  It's a pity because I think the demographics of the survey population might be relevant, but I'll work with what I have.

The study itself seems pretty interesting.  While the headline is true, it really sells short what the authors were trying to do.  They were actually trying to capture how different actions effected people (in the moment) on four different levels....pleasure, meaning, engagement and happiness.   Sex was rated number one in all categories, but other ratings were more divided.  Alcohol/partying was highly rated for pleasure and happiness (2nd), but lower for meaning (10th).  The "kids" part was actually the activities of childcare and/or playing with kids....which I felt like covered a pretty broad range of interactions.  I mean, making my son laugh is the highlight of my day, but the time I spend changing diapers and calming fussiness?  Well, it's hard to put that all in the same category.  In the same vein "religion" was actually "religious activity"...which is slightly different IMHO.  Anyway, childcare and religious activity both rated high on meaning and happiness, and lower on pleasure and engagement.  

Basically, the point of the study was not to measure pervasive life effects of individual actions, but rather to quiz people (via text message) at random points in time on what they were doing and how it made them feel. The upside of this is it doesn't rely on people's memories of what made them happy, which could be influenced by later context.  The downside of course is that it is an action devoid  of context.  Drinking alcohol could make someone happier at the moment, but the rating does not include any potential consequences that might come in later.   What was most interesting to me about this study was the things people do regularly that they seem to know won't bring them happiness, meaning, pleasure or particularly engage them, most notably Facebook time.

In the end, the headline just neglected 3 out of 4 categories and reported the most sensational results.  That's not surprising.  I actually ended up finding the study pretty interesting, and I'd like to see it published somewhere with more details.  

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