06 Jan 10 things science taught us about happiness in 2012
Last year’s most surprising, provocative, and inspiring findings on the science of living a meaningful life.
by Jeremy Adam Smith (HERE)
The science we cover here on Greater Good—aka, “the science of a meaningful life”—has exploded over the past 10 years, with many more studies published each year on gratitude, mindfulness, and our other core themes than we saw a decade ago.
2012 was no exception. In fact, in the year just past, new findings added nuance, depth, and even some caveats to our understanding of the science of a meaningful life. Here are 10 of the scientific insights that made the biggest impression on us in 2012—the findings most likely to resonate in scientific journals and the public consciousness in the years to come, listed in roughly the order in which they were published.
1. There’s a personal cost to callousness.
After people were instructed to restrain feelings of compassion in the face of heart-wrenching images, those people later reported feeling less committed to moral principles.
In March, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, published a study in Psychological Science that should make anyone think twice before ignoring a homeless person or declining an appeal from a charity.
Daryl Cameron and Keith Payne found that after people were instructed to restrain feelings of compassion in the face of heart-wrenching images, those people later reported feeling less committed to moral principles. It was as if, by regulating compassion, the study participants sensed an inner conflict between valuing morality and living by their moral rules; to resolve that conflict, they seemed to tell themselves that those moral principles must not have been so important. Making that choice, argue Cameron and Payne, may encourage immoral behavior and even undermine our moral identity, inducing personal distress.
“Regulating compassion is often seen as motivated by self-interest, as when people keep money for themselves rather than donate it,” write the researchers. “Yet our research suggests that regulating compassion might actually work against self-interest by forcing trade-offs within the individual’s moral self-concept.”
2. High status brings low ethics.
They may have more money, but it seems that the upper class are poorer in morality. In a series of seven studies, published in March in PNAS, researchers found that upper-class people are more likely than the lower class to break all kinds of rules—to cut off cars and pedestrians while driving, to help themselves to candy they know is meant for children, to report an impossible score in a game of chance to win cash they don’t rightfully deserve.
This line of research suggests not that the rich are inherently more unethical but that experiencing high status makes people more focused on themselves and feel less connected to others.
While the results surprised some, they didn’t come out of nowhere: They were the latest, if perhaps the most damning, in a series of studies in which researchers, including Greater Good Science Center Faculty Director Dacher Keltner, have looked at the effects of status on morality and kind, helpful (or “pro-social”) behavior.
Previously, as we’ve reported, they’ve found that upper-class people are less generous, less compassionate, and less empathic. (Many of these findings were summarized in a Greater Good article by Editor-in-Chief Jason Marsh, “Why Inequality is Bad for the One Percent,” published in September.) Considered together, this line of research suggests not that the rich are inherently more unethical but that experiencing high status makes people more focused on themselves and feel less connected to others—an important lesson in this age of growing inequality.
“The rich aren’t bad people, they just live in insular worlds,” study co-author Paul Piff told Greater Good earlier this year. “But if you’re able to reduce the extremes that exist between the haves and the have-nots, you’re going to go a long way toward closing the compassion and empathy gap.”
3. Happiness is about respect, not riches.
And there was other discouraging news for the wealthy this year. Research has long suggested that money doesn’t buy happiness; a study published in Psychological Science in July confirms that finding and goes a step further, changing the stakes of what we think of as high status: It turns out that if we’re looking to money, we’re looking in the wrong place.
Those who felt accepted, liked, included, and welcomed in their local hierarchy were happier than those who were simply wealthier.
Instead, the study found that happiness is more strongly associated with the level of respect and admiration we receive from peers. The study’s researchers, led by UC Berkeley’s Cameron Anderson (and again including Keltner), refer to this level of respect and admiration as our “sociometric status,” as opposed to socioeconomic status.
In one experiment, college students high in sociometric status in their group—their sorority, for example, or their ROTC group—were happier than their peers, whereas socioeconomic status didn’t predict happiness. Similarly, a broader, nationwide survey, which boasted people from a variety of backgrounds, income, and education levels, found that those who felt accepted, liked, included, and welcomed in their local hierarchy were happier than those who were simply wealthier.
“You don’t have to be rich to be happy,” Anderson told Greater Good, “but instead be a valuable contributing member to your groups.”
4. Kindness is its own reward—even to toddlers.
Several studies over the past six years have found that kids as young as 18 months old will spontaneously help people in need. But do they do so just to please adults? Apparently not: In July, researchers published evidence that their kindness is motivated by deep, perhaps innate, feelings of compassion for others.
Children just shy of their second birthday appeared happier when they gave away a treat than when they received a treat.
The researchers found that toddlers’ pupil sizes increased—a sign of concern—when they saw someone in need of help; their pupil size decreased when that person received helped. The kids’ pupils got smaller when they were the ones who helped—but also when they watched someone else help. These results, published in Psychological Science, suggest that toddlers’ kindness springs from genuine feelings of concern, not simply a concern for their own reputation.
This argument gains support from a study published around the same time in PLOS ONE. In that study, children just shy of their second birthday appeared happier when they gave away a treat than when they received a treat. What’s more, they seemed even happier when they gave away one of their own treats than when they were allowed to give away a treat that didn’t belong to them. In other words, performing truly altruistic acts—acts that involve some kind of personal sacrifice—made the kids happier than helping others at no cost to themselves.
“While other studies have suggested adults are happier giving to others than to themselves and that kids are motivated to help others spontaneously,” Delia Fuhrmann, a Greater Good research assistant, wrote in August, “this is the first study to suggest that altruism is intrinsically rewarding even to very young kids, and that it makes them happier to give than to receive.”
When a behavior is intrinsically rewarding like this, especially at the earliest stages of life, it suggests to scientists that it has deep evolutionary roots. Watch the video below to see one toddler going through the experiment…
…keep reading the full & original article HERE