Get updates via e-mail:

« Mac OS X Lion | Main | Redesigned Yomi Rulebook »

The Theory and Practice of Happiness

The subject I've researched the most and written about the least is the happiness. Instead of putting off the version of this that reads like a research paper with sources cited and so on, I will just tell you a rambling story. And for full disclosure, my own level of happiness from 1 to 10 is about a 7. I am currently below the US's average answer of 7.4. (Note that Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark are all above 8.0 averages).

A Crash Course in Happiness

For 100 years, the field of psychology was concerned with fixing problems in people, and the study of "happiness" was considered not a topic worthy of study. You couldn't even say the word happiness in an academic paper, you instead needed a jargony term: "positive affect." In more recent times, we now know that happiness is NOT the absence of misery. The absence of misery is being kind of neutral at best. People who have misery can simultaneously be very happy, even (more on that in a bit). The point is, even though last century's psychology was highly successful at curing various mental ailments, we now know that actual happiness requires more than that.

Happiness is in many ways a trap. It's evolutionary biology's way of making sure we keep going, and keep seeking. That is why happiness is so elusive; by its very design in our brains, it's something out there beyond our reach, something to strive for. Those of our ancient ancestors that were completely satisfied with what they had were less likely to go over that next hill in search of the greener grass and more resources, and thus less likely to win the competition of survival of the fittest.

Money is a big trap for many. One of the most consistent findings in this field is that money has zero correlation to happiness, except for the poorest people in the world. If getting more money will help you meet your basic biological needs for food, water, and shelter, then yes it will make you more happy. Beyond that, it won't, but it damned sure seems like it would, doesn't it? There's a corollary here that is especially relevant to American culture. Americans tend to work more hours than workers in other countries. Let's say you make enough money that you live comfortably. You get an opportunity for a promotion at work which means more responsibility, more hours, and more money. We are conditioned to believe this is a no-brainer of a choice: of course you take the promotion because more money is more happiness. But it isn't. If the job would be more personally fulfilling to you APART from the money, it could increase your happiness. But if it's not, then you're trading away more of your personal time in exchange for money that won't make you happier. You'd actually be happier if you worked LESS, rather than more, if it's a job that you aren't passionate about. 

More money lets you buy more material goods. A new TV would be nice. And a new clothes. And a new car, and so on. When you get that awesome new TV, the awesomeness of it wears off after a short time. You are going to be very bad at predicting that ahead of time (we all are). You're bad at predicting how much happier the TV will make you and for how long, at how a political election will affect your happiness, at how the death of a family member will affect you, your favorite sports team losing, winning the lottery, and just about anything else. In all these cases, the feeling you predict may very well become real, but it lasts a much shorter time than you would expect. The TV becomes just another thing very quickly. You bounce back from the death of a loved one, even if takes a month or a year, but when it happens the sadness seems like it will be permanent. One study compares the happiness levels of people who won the lottery with people who became paraplegics (can't use their legs) because of an accident. Although right after these events, the happiness levels are what you would expect, after one or two years they level out to be exactly the same across both groups. Yes, really.

The term "hedonic treadmill" is what psychologists use when talking about the process of getting used to things, so their effect dies out. Yeah that TV is cool, but now I need a new boat. And the boat is cool, but now I need an airship. The same hedonic treadmill process that happens with material goods happens with sensations as well. Sometimes you really want chocolate or sex or food, but these wants are fleeting. It feels like if only you had those things, you'd be happy, then you get them and you aren't. These sensation-based desires are collectively called "pleasures," and it's another trap to think that if only your life had more pleasures, you'd be happier. I know it seems true. It seems true to me even, but the research is in, and the answer is no. 


The study of happiness sometimes compares the different reactions of people to objectively the same situation. For example, if two people each lose $100 in gambling, even if their level of wealth is similar, they could have wildly different reactions. Some people who have terrible life situations are, for some reason, happier than those who seem to have advantages in basically every category. It was this phenomenon that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi noticed in concentration camps. Some people remained happy despite the terrible life situation they were in. This prompted his study of what we now call "flow." Flow is a sense of total engagement in some activity. It can be an intense activity such as mountain climbing, performing surgery, racing a motorcycle, or playing a sport at your peak performance. What surprised some is that it can also apply to almost any activity. You can experience flow in gardening, knitting, designing card games, or writing articles. It is the experience of being so engaged in a challenging activity that you are pushing yourself. You lose track of time and your brain's processing power has no room to spare to run the program known as "you," your ego. Instead, all self-consciousness fades away and there is only the activity. That is what zen archers mean when they say, "become one with the arrow." Professor Csíkszentmihályi found that even prisoners in a concentration camp were experiencing flow through mathematics, writing poetry, and other pursuits. 


The happiness from the pleasures is fleeting, but the kind of happiness you get from flow is sustainable. Perhaps it's a lower intensity of "happiness" but at least professor Csíkszentmihályi says that there is strong correlation between overall happiness and the amount of flow activity a person participates in. That said, there is another layer on top of that. Imagine your job is to coordinate the routing of many passengers on trains across the country. It's a very difficult problem how to do this in an efficient way and you could certainly experience flow in working on such a task. I'm butchering the story by forgetting the name, but there was a man in Germany who had this exact job, and he loved the logistical challenge of it. Would the flow experience from a challenging job like this increase your overall happiness? What if I told you that the "passengers" were Jews who were to be executed in concentration camps? The math problem of optimizing transportation is the same either way, but with this new information, the job is likely to make you miserable. If the German gentlemen genuinely hated Jews and believed they should die, it probably would have been a very fulfilling job. (Yes it's terrible, I'm just saying.) The point is that ONLY looking at whether you are participating in flow activities does not tell the whole story. If the activity also expresses and aligns with your personal values, it triggers a deeper kind of happiness that Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, calls "Authentic Happiness."

Seligman also talks about a person's biological set point of happiness. That's the level you are kind of hardwired to return to. Some people have higher set points than others. Whatever that level is for you, after you win the lottery and wait a while, you'll probably get back to it. After you lose the use of your legs and wait a while, you'll probably return to it. After you get a promotion, or break up with your girlfriend, etc, etc. This lines up with the concept of the hedonic treadmill that we talked about earlier, and leads to a curious thing: the best judge of how happy you will be in the future is how happy you are right  now. In one study of nuns, their happiness levels were tracked and compared. It's a great type of environment for a case study because the lifestyles of the nuns are all the same. They eat the same food, live in the same surroundings, perform the same activities, and so on. In the search to find correlations, there were two strong ones found: 1) The happier a nun was, the longer she lived and the healthier she was and 2) the best predictor of how happy any particular nun was to look at the content of the essay she wrote when she first became a nun and score it for positive-outlook language. In other words, the ones who were happy at 18 were happy several decades later, and the ones who weren't, weren't.

That's also pretty grim. It sounds like there's nothing you can do, but even Seligman says there is. There is a range that surrounds your natural set point and you can be at the bottom of it or the top of it depending on the life choices you make. You can affect that level to an extent. Some believe you can go even beyond the point or two surrounding your natural set point, though doing so would be very difficult.

Creators and Makers

There are times in my life when objectively speaking, I was doing very well. I had just accomplished whatever thing I had worked hard on. I don't know if any of those things ever made me happy. I am always thinking about what could be better, what the next version should be, or what the next project should be. This sort of reminds me of an experiment that actor Alan Alda showed on his show Scientific American Frontiers. In one episode, he visited a lab that was studying how people react to things that are "cool" or "not cool." They hooked him up to a brain scanner and showed him a series of pictures of various consumer items. Some sunglasses, some pants, an iPod, a car, some laundry detergent, and so on. He rated how cool or uncool each one was. The real point of the test was actually to see which parts of the brain light up to cool things, and which part to uncool. The researchers found that those who were considered fashionable people had different reactions from the rest. One group's brains really lit up when they saw COOL things, but had a more mildly negative reaction to uncool. The other group's brains lit up to UNCOOL, but had a more mild reaction too cool things. Perhaps surprisingly (?), it was the fashionable people who had the more mild reaction to cool. They just really hate uncool stuff.

I am not fashionable at all, but I think the same thing applies to makers and creators. In my work, I am constantly annoyed by the things that aren't right. If some drop shadow on a corner of something is the wrong kind of shadow, I just can't stand it. The strength of my negative reaction to a slightly wrong dropshadow is stronger than my positive reaction to the best looking things I've created. Yeah of course it's important to know what is cool and to put that into product (and art, etc), but I think it's the lot in life of creators to be the types who are constantly unsatisfied. Being constantly unsatisfied is the impetus to fix things and make better and better things. 10 out of 10 happiness seems incongruous with such a pursuit.

What Actually Helps?

Some things actually do affect your happiness level. Friends, family, and a sense of belongingness affect it. Those things lead to higher levels of oxytocin in your body, the same chemical you get from being physically touched (touched in a good way, that is). Forgiveness also helps. If you carry around hate for people, you are a hateful person. Gratitude helps too, because it counter-acts the hedonic treadmill. If I took the time to really think about the success of whatever my latest project is, to appreciate that and be consciously thankful for it, that counteracts the treadmill of thinking only about the next, next, next project. The same goes for gratitude toward people. Sincere gratitude is an overwhelming force, as Seligman's students well know (but that's another story). Autonomy also helps. That is, the ability to dictate what you will work on, how you will work on it, and when. If you can find a way to let your employees have more control over their piece of the puzzle, that usually leads to more happiness and more productivity.

Two Examples

Two girls I have known seem relevant to our discussion. I'll call them Mary and Penelope. They are each unusual, though in somewhat opposite ways.

Mary is unusual in that her biological set point of happiness seems to be at least 9, if not 10. I don't know if you know anyone like that and it might not be what you're thinking. There's that kind of fakey happiness that a salesman or Walmart greeter puts on, like a mask. Mary's happiness is actually genuine though. She views set backs as temporary things that can be overcome. She sees the best in people, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. She is easy-going in that she has an openness to experiences. If someone says, "Let's do thing X," others might say "but thing X sounds terrible," while Mary would say "ok!!!" She lets things happen, and enjoys whatever those things are. Her enjoyment probably makes you enjoy it too.

Penelope was dealt different cards in life. As a child, her grade school teachers treated her terribly and thought she was stupid. Actually, she was learning English as a second language at the time, and it was a language difficulty, not an intelligence difficulty. She probably felt isolated and inferior. She suffered other personal tragedies and I think she saw things that people shouldn't have to see. Later in life, she suffered from depression, and couldn't get out of bed some days. I think these are fairly shocking things, if you were ever to actually meet her. What you would find is a strong, confident woman who is the master of her own life. A woman with remarkable empathy, and yes, with happiness. The difference here is that she didn't come pre-packaged that way, she had to work at it with therapy, introspection, and effort. While Mary allows things to happen, Penelope calls the shots. She's in control, she gets what she wants, and I think that kind of autonomy is exhilarating to her.

Nature and nurture are both factors here, clearly. Your biological set point is an anchor, but not an immovable one. If you're going to make some changes, maybe don't shoot for a 10 though, or you might lose some of your drive.

Reader Comments (13)

Great article and a worthy introduction. One of the the things that Csíkszentmihályi found is that critical to maintaining a sense of flow is the the activity must be capable of improving at, but never really mastering. Whether playing chess or go, practicing tai ji, or whatever. If you can't improve because it's too hard, then the frustration pulls you out of flow. Likewise if you plateau or max out your skills, then the task becomes routine and your brain has enough spare power to run the Ego program.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin H.

Very good overview. I'll confirm it is possible, with some effort, to be a happier person.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWill Culpepper

I often ask people if they would rather make twice as much money as they do now, or make the same amount but work half as many hours. So far I'm the only person i know who has picked the latter.

People seem to really like money for happiness

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Walko

Someone who I don't remember the name of said that art comes from demons. In other words, that most creative expression is driven by dissatisfaction, or by the emotional red tape that the artist has built up over his or her life that gets in the way of feeling happy and worthy. Instead of bringing those anxieties to a therapist, they bring those anxieties into their medium, and it does seem to give them an edge; a lot of our most acclaimed novelists, painters, musicians, etc., had pretty troubled lives. Yes, the 'tortured artist' may be a stereotype, but most stereotypes have a measure of truth to them.

As for almost never being able to go back to your finished work and appreciate it, you're not alone. Leo Tolstoy apparently never went back and read one of his novels after it was published. He would feel the drive to make it even better all over again, and knowing that he couldn't was agonizing.

It seems a cruel irony that happiness and improvement fall on different sides of the coin, doesn't it? If we feel 100% happy and satisfied, we see no need for change or improvement, and that could stagnate our life experience. If we feel 100% driven to improve, then we can never stand still long enough to look back and appreciate how far we've come.

Is there a happy (no pun intended) medium, some everything-in-moderation approach that offers the best of both worlds? I actually think that moderation is its own extreme, a third point on the extremity triangle. The real golden mean is somewhere in the middle of those three points, an amalgous, undefinable, and ever changing position, like the location of an electron within an atom's electron cloud at any given instant. We can know that it's somewhere in there, but can't know where exactly. It may never even be in the same place twice during our lifetimes. A 'can't be found by seeking, but only seekers shall find it' situation, to use the opening quote of your book.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDredNicolson

How do we apply this to, say, the search for a mate?

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFry

Great post Sirlin, I was beginning to really miss these non-business / teaching journal entries!

I think your section on 'Flow' pretty well explains why I like Minecraft so much. "... all self-consciousness fades away and there is only the activity." I will have to investigate this feeling more next time I play.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZeen

Great post. Basically sums up my feelings on happiness. I still wish for 4 hour work days and 20 hour work weeks with enough pay to get what i want out of life.

My mother recently got this new job, and shes all happy because shes making almost twice as much. But shes gonna have to work harder. And i have no idea what she would spend that extra money on. I hope she isn't misguided and hope the best for her.

July 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJazzy

The last time I experienced "flow" was in the finals of a Yomi tourney. After the match, I remembered that I was a living person. Cool stuff (and a great read).

July 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAphotix

Great post!
I'm greatly interested in this subject and would like to read more.
Would you perhaps have the references for the studies you quoted?

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJip

"If you're going to make some changes, maybe don't shoot for a 10 though, or you might lose some of your drive."

So? You'll be really, really happy. What will more "drive" do for you?

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermatt

An interesting article.

Does flow really create happiness? It sounds more like contentment to me, and/or maybe a source of pleasure. When I have something which is challenging and enjoyable which envelops me entirely am I really happy? I would argue no. I am not unhappy, but really I am not happy, I am in a null state because my Ego is not engaged. When I exit the flow my Ego can react to what has happened, I can be happy that I have done something done it well, spent my time productively, done the best I can. This gives me happiness.

The flow just gives me an emotional oblivion, where my intellect my physical or mental skills or both can be engaged fully, it removes me from the worries of whatever is happening. It’s like a mental drug, a way to introduce a period of time where you don't care or worry, like being alcoholic or taking drugs to avoid reality.

Ultimately the flow will end, and the happiness will be fleeting, your choice is to re-enter the emotional oblivion of the flow or find a way to exist outside the flow.

My general feeling is that each person should know themselves, be aware of how you are acting. Is it healthy; is it good, is it making you happy? Hiding in the flow, is as bad as hiding with drugs, it means you are avoiding something, something you don't like, something that makes you unhappy. If you can see the flow for what it is, a useful mechanism, and use it, rather than abusing it as a coping mechanism to escape, that’s great.

Working harder, say for more money like taking a promotion which is twice as much work twice as much pay. That is taking a flow decision. You will have less time outside of the flow to really experience happiness, but also less time to experience unhappiness.

The danger is if you use the flow to avoid everything else, the better way is to find what is wrong and a way to deal with it without avoiding it. Part of that may be finding a way to be happy without any tricks or coping mechanisms, but to truly find a way to be happy whatever you are doing.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMescale

@ Mescale

I think flow does create happiness in a way, as your said its not the only tool, but flow will be more sustainable than drugs or other pleasures because of that "emotional oblivion", drugs will fade out in effectiveness, you keep eating chocolate and next thing you know, chocolate is pretty ordinary. Flow activities are different because they wont dull in effectiveness.

It's not a flow activitity anymore if you have now instinctually mastered it. Thats what a common thing that happens is, is that you get good enoough at that thing that was hard, that did require your total concentration, that you no longer need to concentrate hard to do it, it is therfore no longer a flow activity. Take my past time, gaming, flow doesn't happen if im playing a weaker opponent, im not mentally coming up with solutions, im on autopilot, I could be thinking about what im gonna eat for dinner. But if its an opponent better than me, or if its an equal, then my mind doesn't think for a second about other things, that is a flow activity. That is why activities that used to be flow activities, are now "pleasure" rather than a flow activity.

Also, the difference in pleasures over flow activities, is that pleasures are inherently instinctual alot of times, theres no depth. Chocolate is good because you are hard-wired to think chocolate is good, as well as sex, or getting something "cool". You are hardwired to think that these are good. With flow, that isn't the case, your aren't hardwired to think that writing poetry is awesome, possibly conditioned, but never hard wired.

This gets at the point you were making "introspection", theres this thing wierd about the world that I have noticed. Confident people are happy, often times confident people dont question whether something is good or bad or healthy. Constantly second guessing yourself is not the way to go about things, hell, an old girlfriend of mine did that and she seemed to be the most miserable person alive. I do think that sitting back and saying hey "im not happy" and then finding solutions is fine. But such an introspective look at yourself I feel will not help someone.

the "working harder" choice I don't think is a flow decision, it is at first, because you will be handling all the craziness, all the extra workload, but then it will go out, because you get used to it. I think very few jobs are flow activities at all. How many times do people work so hard that they don't even have time to look at the clock? Id say very few, often times people think there job is difficult they have other issues. It's not that they working hard, its that you don't enjoy what your doing at all, and many times people confuse these. Very few activities in daily life are flow activities, and not a single person in my office probably participates in a flow activity for more than 10-20 minutes, most probably don't do it at all, even though they have a high stress job. It's not because they are mentally being pushed, its because they are dealing with other peoples problems, or they don't dictate the situation. That allows you time to get your ego bitching, disliking your job, etc.

I don't think most people "hide in the flow", because so few experience having flow regularly.

My flow = gaming
friends flow = gaming/ poetry
another friends flow = programming
another friends flow= nothing
Father's flow = construction around the house/ gardening
mom's flow = none
ex's flow = none
boss's flow= none

The ones that are happier are the ones that participate in a flow activity regularly, the more that someone seemed to do the flow activity, the happier they seemed. Personal experience doesn't account for jack, but I feel that alot of people don't experience flow that much. Actually i left a game because all the top competition left from it and I was one of the better players and it was hard to find people of equal skill, at that point i played it because it was one of my favorite games, not for the competition like I used to. But it was no longer a flow activity, cause the players i was playing were just roll overs.

Alot of flow activities are fleeting too, hopefully you can find one that isn't.

August 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJazzy

I think trying to define what makes people happy is completely impossible. Even though you can identify which things are the most common, it won't apply to everyone, and the individual person usually knows more about what makes them happy than a psychologist will! But that doesn't mean the research is pointless or anything, it's actually very interesting.

Anyway, I decided to think back to the things that make me happy, and they all seem to fall under three groups:

1) Making other people happy. This is probably the reason I'm into game design, since I can make lots of people happy at once.
2) "Flow" as you said, although it doesn't happen very often. It's usually with programming or occasionally gaming.
3) Cuddling with people. Maybe related to point 1? Just being peaceful and relaxed with someone else does wonders, even if there's no physical contact (although that helps). The only problem is that some people assume I want sex just because I like cuddles, heh. (Even though I'm not actually physically capable of that, but that's another story entirely)

Sirlin, I really like all your game design articles, but your random posts about things you researched are nice too! And for everyone else: remember that cuddling is great!

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAzure Lazuline
Comment in the forums
You can post about this article at