Michael Plant | University of Oxford
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'Happy fingers'
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Michael Plant

'If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts: we try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house in a nicer area, and so on. A few of us think about trying to spend less time working, and more time on hobbies or with friends and family. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think. In fact, I don’t think this last idea even crosses most of our minds.'

What practical tips would you offer for how to live a happy life? 
If we want to be happier, I think the first place to start is looking at the available options and then working out which to pursue. The way I see it, there are only three avenues to take. We can change how we think, how we spend our time, or the external facts of our life.

If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts: we try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house in a nicer area, and so on. A few of us think about trying to spend less time working, and more time on hobbies or with friends and family. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think. In fact, I don’t think this last one even crosses most of our minds.

However, looking at the latest research on happiness, I think we basically get this the wrong way around: it seems much easier to become happier by changing how you think or spend your time, and actually quite hard to increase it by becoming rich and successful. I’ll explain why I’ve picked these in a moment, but my top practical suggestions are:

  1. Write down three things you’re grateful for each day.
  2. Practise mindfulness.
  3. Learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and use it.
  4. Track your happiness, then do more of what you like and less of what you don’t.

These are the things I think everyone could and should do if they want to be happier. They do require a bit of effort – you have to put some work into your habits – but they’re free and will likely have a bigger effort than almost any external changes. 

This might not be what you expected. Certainly it wasn’t what I expected when I started my research. To understand why I think these are the most important things, you need to know about the two key findings in happiness research.

The first is 'hedonic adaptation'. Simply: as a species, we are extraordinary good at getting used to things, such that very few events in life have a long-term impact on our happiness: births, marriages, deaths, promotions, demotions, etc can all occur to us or around us and typically, after 6 months, our self-reported happiness levels will be back where there were before. If you don’t believe me, think how annoyed you get when the WiFi doesn’t work, then consider that humanity existed quite happily without it for hundreds of thousands of years.

Perhaps the most important case of adaptation comes from the Easterlin Paradox, named after the economist who found it, which is that self-reported life satisfaction scores in the developed world have barely improved over the last 60 years (since we started asking these questions) despite massive increases in GDP. It’s not just that we’re collectively richer, we’re also healthier, living longer in safer societies with better technology than ever before. Even though we’re doing better on nearly every measure of progress, we don’t seem to be getting happier. We adapt just as readily to negative life events too, and studies find those who become disabled report partial to near total adaptation to their conditions. 

Of course this raises the question of why, if we’re so good at adapting, this isn’t something we all already knew about. Our inability to account for adaptation is explained by the second finding, our ‘failure of affective forecasting’ (‘affect’ is a psychologist’s term for emotional states). In essence, we’re surprisingly bad at predicting how we’ll feel in the future and we don’t even know how bad we are at it. It turns out we’re generally pretty good at guessing what our initial emotional response will be to changes, but we systematically overrate the intensity and duration of those responses. For instance, getting promoted will make you happier, but not nearly as much, or for as long, as you would expect.

There are a number of reasons we get these wrong but I’ll outline the main three. The first is that, when we think about the future, we tend to focus only on one aspect of the event and ignore the others. This is called ‘focalism’ or the ‘focusing illusion’. So if you ask people if they’d be happier living in California or the Midwest, most people say California. Actually the regions have comparable life satisfaction, but people say California because they think of the weather and fail to take account of other things, such as the fact that California is full of tedious hippies.

The second, called ‘immune neglect’, is that we are often unaware that we’ll adapt to the good or bad things that happen. For instance, studies show people expect their break-ups to be longer and more painful than they are, in part because we forget that our psychological immune system will kick in and we’ll decide we never liked the person anyway.

The third reason affective forecasting is tricky is that we rely on our memories to make future judgements, but our memories are pretty faulty. For instance, we tend not to remember the whole of an experience (‘duration neglect’) but instead remember the peaks and ends of our experiences (the ‘peak-end effect’). Daniel Kahneman famously showed people preferred longer, more painful surgeries with a less painful end to shorter, less painful surgeries because they couldn’t remember how they felt at the time. In other words, last night’s party was never as good as you think it was.

The biggest memory problem seems to be that we forget what our affective forecasts were, then when the future then arrives we wrongly assume that how we actually feel is how we expected to feel all along. In the context of a Super Bowl loss, a presidential election, an important purchase and eating sweets, studies show individuals mispredicted how they would feel and then misremembered their predictions. So we don’t learn from our mistakes because we don’t know that we’re making them!

Let’s say I ask you to imagine whether you’d be happier if you were Kanye West. You think of the money, the fame, the cars, the parties, and guess you’d happier. But what you would fail to take into account is that Kanye West will have adapted to those things and they’ll be ordinary for him. Because we focus on the differences, we don’t realise how similar much of his life is to ours: he gets up, gets in the shower, has coffee, gets stuck in traffic, has meetings, etc. Because our memories only remember the edited highlights, we can’t help but think all of these experiences are more fun than they would be in the moment. It’s possible Mr. West is happier than you but, if he is, it’s by far less than you think. One study asked people to guess how often rich and poor people would be in a bad mood, then compared that to what richer and poorer people said themselves. They found their predictions of how unhappy poorer people were ‘grossly exaggerated’.

As a result, there’s good evidence we should fight our intuitions about what we expect would make us happy because they mislead us. Our external circumstances have a surprisingly limited effect because we adapt and stop paying attention to them. If you’re already earning £35,000 then earning more won’t make you any happier day-to-day (although it will make you feel more satisfied with your life).

Instead, my advice is to change how you think and spend your time. In terms of changing how you think, I’d suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and positive psychology. For those unfamiliar with them, the basic ideas are that CBT teaches people to understand their thoughts and stop negative thinking patterns, MBSR helps people accept, rather than fight, negative emotions and so reduce the suffering they cause, and positive psychology trains people to find more positive emotions, such as by encouraging people to be grateful. 

Mindfulness is starting to become popular, but the other two are basically unknown. I really hope this changes: given how good we are at adapting these look like the best options for becoming happier over the long term. In just a few minutes a day, you can rewire the way your brain works.

Then, because our memories are so ropey, I’d suggest people start tracking their happiness, either with an app or with pen and paper. That’ll tell you what you enjoy and allows you to re-allocate more of your time to things you enjoy. You might be surprised at what really makes you happy: I used to be part of the Territorial Army (now known as the ‘Army Reserve’) and spent most of my weekends in cold, muddy puddles getting shouted at. When I looked back on the weekends, I’d somehow convinced myself that I’d had a great time playing soldiers. So I put this to the test and one weekend I decided to write down how I felt as it happened. I realised I hated it. That was my last weekend with the Army.

More generally, we seem happiest when we’re socialising with other people, outside or doing something that seems meaningful to us (on paper, the Army was a great idea). Will MacAskill has talked about finding purpose in your life through effective altruism, so he’s probably better placed than me to talk about that.

Curiously enough, there’s good evidence that being happy has other positive effects: happy people are more likely to get married, get promoted, earn more, have more friends, be healthier, live longer, etc. The basic explanation is that we like being around happy people, and this small difference has a long-term advantage. So, if you want to become richer, become happier. I stress being richer won’t do much for your happiness but it does mean, if you’re a high-flying executive and you think your colleagues will make fun of you for practising mindfulness and writing down three things each day you’re grateful, you could always tell them you’re just doing it to make more money. 

There are different kinds of happiness – describe them.
How long have you got? We use ‘happiness’ in lots of different ways in ordinary language, and getting straight on which concept we’re using can be tricky.

There are two main senses of happiness: we use the word as an evaluative term to describe what makes someone’s life go well for them, or as a descriptive term to refer to a set of psychological states. For the first sense, philosophers tend to use the word ‘wellbeing’  it’s equivalent to flourishing or ‘eudaimonia’, sometimes called prudential value. The second sense describes things that are more like enjoyment or contentment  and the opposite of suffering and pain. In other words, we can use ‘happiness’ either to talk about the meaning of life or about some sort of pleasant feeling. Following philosophical convention, when I talk about ‘happiness’ I’m only referring to psychological states, not wellbeing. 

When we look at happiness as a set of psychological states, we can talk about evaluations or experience of happiness. So I might ask you how happy, or satisfied, you are with your life as a whole, and that would be an evaluation. Or I could ask you to report how good or bad you felt today, what sort of emotions you were having, and you’d be telling me about your experiences.

I think it’s helpful to break up experiences of happiness into a ‘pleasure’ and a ‘meaning’ dimension. Time spent in the pub might be fun, but it’s not meaningful. Time working on an essay, or looking after children, may not be fun, but it might feel meaningful. It’s not clear to me if they are really the same thing – is ‘meaning’ just a form of ‘pleasure’? – but it seems helpful to talk about them differently. An important topic in the field of happiness research is working out exactly how happiness should be understood and measured, which is one area I work on.

In reality, you can evaluate your life differently from how you experience it: you could be miserable but proud of your achievements, or you could be joyful but think your life is worthless. Morally speaking, I’m much more interested in people having happy experiences. While we may make occasional evaluations of our lives, we don’t think about them as a whole very much. In fact, studies show these evaluations are much less stable that we would think, and can be influenced substantially by things like finding a planted 10p coin on your way to an experiment, or whether you’re asked about your love life before, or after, you’re asked how satisfied you are as a whole. In contrast, we live our lives day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, so the quality of our experiences seems more important to me. I want to help people feel happy in their lives, rather than feel happy with their lives, if there’s a choice to made.

When are people most happy? How does happiness play into the larger picture of our ‘wellbeing’ or ‘contentment’?
If you’re just looking at what activities people enjoy most when they are doing them, it seems that socialising, being outdoors and exercising are the most pleasurable. Work feels quite meaningful, but not nearly as meaningful as volunteering.

Interestingly, time spent with children is pretty neutral, time watching TV is fun but not meaningful, and commuting is neither fun nor meaningful. If you want to increase your experiences of happiness, either get a shorter commute or one you’ll enjoy, such as cycling.

‘Wellbeing’ is, just like ‘happiness’, a word with lots of potential meanings. Philosophers have a very tight way of understanding it, as I’ve explained above, but most people would think that was a really strange way of talking. Ordinarily, when people say they are after ‘wellbeing’ I think they tend to mean feeling happy, but also being healthy, feeling like their lives are going somewhere, and probably in some sort of balance.

I take being happy as just being in a mental state that feels good to the person feeling it (which may be a combination of pleasure and meaning). Contentment is a happy and relaxed state, and so you might see it as the opposite of elation, which is a happy and excited state. One is aroused, the other unaroused, but they are both types of happiness because both feel good.

You talked about different things people can get enjoyment from. Do you think some sources of happiness are more useful than others; gambling compared to job satisfaction, for example?
Let’s take two options: I can eat cookies for an hour, or I can go to the gym. Let’s say both give me X pleasure over that hour. My guess is that, even if their pleasures are equal at the time, the gym is the better choice for my long-term pleasure. I think what matters is how much happiness we feel over the total course of our lives, not just doing what makes us happy in the moment. So understanding the ‘fecundity’ of activities is important: working out which things are likely to produce more happiness overall.

There’s another sense in which we sometimes view pleasures as bad if they come from the wrong sources. The two arch-utilitarians Mill and Bentham famously argued about this. Bentham said ‘all things being equal, poetry is equal to push-pin push-pin was a Victorian pub game – and thought it didn’t really matter what the pleasure came from. In contrast, Mill said we have ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. This allows him to say poetry is better than pushpin. However, it’s not clear how his sense of higher and lower pleasures is supposed to work and later philosophers have given Mill a very hard time for it. I’m with Bentham on this one. I don’t think I mind what causes the pleasure and therefore we should resist our instinct to look down on certain things people enjoy. It’s not obvious to me that the happiness of Beethoven fans is greater, or deeper, than that of Justin Bieber fans.

Do you think that some of the things that we put effort into can be ultimately more rewarding?
Yes, I think it’s obviously the case that if you achieve a goal you’ve worked hard for, rather than one you’ve found trivially easy, you’ll feel better as a result. I also think tasks are more fun if they’re hard but still achievable.

That said, I want to caution against the idea that hard work is really important for happiness in general. We have this really charming and totally untrue illusion in society that happiness comes from success. The basic idea that you need to get your head down, work hard and make yourself unhappy now so you can be successful later. And when you’re successful later, then you’ll be happy, so wait until then. It’s true you might achieve success, but success isn’t the same thing as happiness. I’ve already said that we adapt to external factors like success. If you give up happiness now in the hope of getting it later, and you don’t get it later, then you’ve lost out twice, which seems like a pity. You might accumulate money, but you’re spending your time, which is the ultimate resource. I’m convinced many people don’t get the happiness they want because they don’t know about, or take account of, adaptation and affective forecasting.

Describe Hippo – the thinking behind it and what you hope it will achieve. 
I think there are lots of things people can do to be happier that they don’t know about or even consider. As a result, I’ve been working on an app that will bring some of these things to people and show them how to do them in a fun, easy way. With smartphones, there are new, exciting opportunities to put these into people’s pockets in a way that’s not be possible before. Nobody seems to be building, or has built, what I envisage, so I got to work trying to create it.

Currently, Hippo is a prototype only available on Android phones. At present, it’s a bit like a FitBit for the mind: it’s a happiness tracker and trainer. Eventually, I’d like to build artificial intelligence into it so that you put in what you’re doing, thinking and feeling and it gives you really useful, personal suggestions powered by the latest philosophy and psychology. That’s a long way away yet and at the moment we’re just trying to find some testers for an initial pilot. It’s at a very early stage.

What is your general research interest?
I want to know how to maximise world happiness. I’m sympathetic to the view that all that matters, in the end, is happiness, so my work focuses around trying to understand what the happiest world looks like and how we can get there.

Specifically, I work on what happiness is, how to measure it, what causes it and how to increase it. Eventually, I’d like to be able to give authoritative answers about how individuals can maximise their own happiness, and what governments and philanthropists could do to increase happiness for others.

Describe your journey up to this point.
I originally did philosophy at St Andrews (after Oxford rejected me the first time). I started as a generalist but gravitated towards moral philosophy and became a utilitarian. When I left St Andrews I went to work for an MP as a researcher/speechwriter in order to understand what governments could do to make the world happier. I concluded the answer was 'not much' and then did a postgrad at LSE to learn more of the science on happiness. After LSE I tried, abortively, to set up a happiness consultancy that would teach organisations how to ‘nudge’ their employees happy. I realised there wasn’t anything I wanted to do except philosophy – I wanted to get to the bottom of this happiness business  so applied for PhDs. 

What’s next? What would you like the ultimate legacy of your career to be?
Well, I’d like to do whatever I think I can do to maximise happiness – sounds corny, I know. At the moment I think the app, Hippo, is at least worth trying. If that doesn’t work I’ll try to soldier on in philosophy, work out some answers on happiness and try to convince other people to take them seriously. On a practical level, I think it would be smashing if the world viewed mental health the same as physical health and people spent 5 minutes a day doing mindfulness, or some positive psychology exercises, just like they do 2 minutes of tooth brushing. I’m convinced there’s quite a lot of avoidable unhappiness out there.

What gives you most job satisfaction?
Feeling like what I do may somehow, somewhere, help someone to lead a more joyful life.

What 3 works most influenced your academic thought?
J S Mill’s On Utilitarianism and On Liberty – can I take those as one? I believe Mill, writing in the Victorian era, got nearly everything right 170 years ago. I think he argues convincingly and beautifully for the importance of human happiness as the goal of morality.

Secondly, I’d say I find Epicurus’s argument about death compelling. In a line, it’s 'When death is here, we are not. When we are here, death is not.' Dying might be bad, but I don’t think being dead is. Through similar logic, I don’t think it’s good to be born: there is nobody who is worse off by not being born. So that focuses my attention on living people, rather than future people.

And Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, which I think Will and Jeff also chose. His thought experiments on personal identity are ingenious and counter-intuitive. If you buy his conclusion that the relationship between you and your later self is essentially the same as the relationship between you and other people, I think it leads you to be less self- and more other-focused.