NYT: Why fame, money, and sex don't make us happy

Mother Nature's 'cruel paradox'

Writing in the New York Times, Arthur Brooks notes one of life's "cruelest ironies": Humans are wired to seek fame and fortune, but many of the world's highest achievers tend to be unhappy.

Brooks—president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute—has extensively studied and written on happiness. In his piece for the Times, he dispels one myth: That Americans tend to think happiness is the "opposite" of unhappiness, and feeling one emotion should cancel the other out. As Brooks points out, brain scans and personality tests show that the two moods are related, and it's actually common to feel both happier and unhappier than average.

Brooks also investigates the deeper paradox of why many people who achieve their ambitious goals often end up feeling disappointed: Blame human biology, he concludes.

  • "From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety," he writes. And given those internal drivers, many people assume that achieving their ambitions will reduce their unhappiness. 
  • Instead, psychologists have discovered that Americans who rated "materialistic goals" as their top priorities tend to be more depressed and anxious than Americans who set their sights on "intrinsic goals," like living a moral life or raising a family. 
  • Studies also have found that respondents tend to be happiest when they are in monogamous relationships, rather than seeking multiple sexual partners.

"That is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax," Brooks adds. "She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy—she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material." 

Brooks advances a cure: Have a "deep skepticism" of our impulses, and whether they will actually make us happy. 

"Of course you are driven to seek admiration, splendor and physical license," he writes. "But giving in to these impulses will bring unhappiness."

Brooks also notes that researchers have investigated the smaller drivers of happiness and unhappiness, such as which daily events contribute to our moods. For instance, Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleagues have studied how routine interactions at home and at work are linked with a bad mood.

"They found that the No. 1 unhappiness-provoking event in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss," Brooks writes. "Which, as a boss, made me unhappy to learn" (Brooks, New York Times, 7/20 [subscription required]).


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