The Key to Happiness: What Researchers Say

By Dori Meinert Nov 11, 2011
Reuse Permissions

What makes people happy? Many people, including HR professionals, spend their lives trying to find the answer.

But their brains play tricks on them when they try to imagine what the future holds, said Harvard University psychology professor Dan Gilbert, who gave the closing address Nov. 10, 2011, at the Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond conference held in Washington, D.C.

The conference was sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.

In ancient times, humans spent their days simply trying to survive. Today they have more time and resources, but they still aren’t happy. “That must mean we’re aiming for the wrong thing,” said Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness.

Why are people frequently disappointed? When imagining the future, our brains leave some things out. “The tendency to do this is the reason why every American thinks they would be happier living in California,” Gilbert joked. People envision a life of sun and surf, but forget about the rush-hour traffic and other omnipresent problems.

In making decisions, people should ponder what they are leaving out of their vision for the future. What they’ll find is that good things aren’t as good as they are imagining. But “the good news is that the bad things aren’t as bad as you are imagining,” he said.

Studies have proven this. Only 25 percent of people who have experienced a traumatic event are devastated by it or undergo a continuing decline in their emotional well-being because of it. “The fair majority of people who face trauma do not get put down by it and certainly don’t stay put down by it. Why? Because we’re awfully good at finding what’s good about the bad things that happen to us,” Gilbert said.

“In essence, we don’t know our own strengths,” Gilbert said. “Us normal folks have human resources too—human resources that we don’t seem to know much about.”

Mothers often tell their children they’ll be happy if they find a good job, get married and have children. But scientific data show only part of that to be true, Gilbert said. Married people are statistically happier. And money also has a high correlation to happiness, to a point. After about $50,000 a year, additional income buys a diminishing return on happiness, he said.

However, contrary to parental advice, numerous studies show that having children is not highly correlated with happiness, at least until they leave the nest. Parents think they are happy because young children so dominate parents’ lives that they become the primary source of happy moments, and because raising children is so expensive that parents play up the rewards to justify them, Gilbert said.

“Nature doesn’t care if you are happy. Nature cares if you do two things: survive and reproduce,” he said.

“If you want to be happy, you cannot simply be the creature of habit that evolution created,” Gilbert said. “If you want to stumble on happiness, you have to stop listening to your brain and at least with half an ear stop listening to your mother.”

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.

Related coverage:

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits Discipline

SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page

Sign up for SHRM’s free Compensation & Benefits e-newsletter

Reuse Permissions


The application deadline is November 11

Apply Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect