Happy Days: Friends, Family and Tradition

A radio interviewer in Dublin recently asked me why, in my view, people in Ireland were no happier now that their booming economy had brought them a sudden tide of prosperity. In answering I cited longstanding data showing that once people leave the poverty level and are able to satisfy their basic needs, there is little to no correlation between earnings and happiness. Or, as the Beatles put it, “Money can’t buy you love.” Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist at Princeton University explains the paradox of the unhappy rich in terms of “the hedonic treadmill”: no matter how much more income we earn, it’s never enough to meet the escalation of desires as our material expectations ratchet inexorably upward. The treadmill of chasing ever-more expensive pleasures has no end. As a result, the rich end up needing more pleasure to be as satisfied than do those with less money and lower expectations.

For instance, in a 2004 article in the journal Science, Kahneman reported data showing that far more important than money in how satisfied people are with their lives is how rewarding they find their primary personal relationships. His conclusions dovetail with findings from the emerging field of social neuroscience, which studies how people’s brains operate during interactions with other people. Satisfying relationships, it seems, have powerful impacts on brain function, particularly our neural centers for pleasure.

The scientific case for the potency of relationships we savor comes from multiple lines of research. A bit of the biological spell of flirting was discovered when neuroscientists scanned the brains of men who were shown photos of different women. Only when a man both found a woman attractive and she looked him straight in the eye did his brain secrete a dose of dopamine, a neurochemical that delivers pleasure. If the man was not drawn to the woman, or when her eyes looked elsewhere, there were no molecules of joy.

The full text of this essay is available to subsribers to TimesSelect from The New York Times.

Further resources:

  • For more details on the neural basis of love, see Part IV, “Love’s Varieties” in Social Intelligence (Chapter 13, Webs of Attachment; Chapter 14, Desire: His and Hers; Chapter 15, The Biology of Campassion; also see the Epilogue, “What Really Matters”)
  • References for studies cited in the full New York Times article:
  • Daniel Kahneman et al, 2004, “A Survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method,” Science, 306, 1776-1780, p. 1779.
  • Andrea Bartels and Semir Zeki, 2000, “The neural basis of romantic love,” NeuroReport, 17, 3829-3834.
  • Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, 1997, “Oxytocin linked antistress effects: The relaxation and growth responses,” Acta Physiologica Scandanavica, 161, 38-42.

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