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December 3, 2004 2:00 am

Happiness in life's minutiae

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Income and marital status have little to do with how much people enjoy their lives, according to a study released today by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, who hopes to establish an official measure of national well-being in the US akin to gross domestic product, the economic metric.

The claim contradicts a large body of research that shows people in the upper echelons of society rate themselves higher on the happiness scale than those lower down. The reason for the discrepancy, according to the research, may be that circumstances such as having a successful career are too abstract to have a consistent effect on our sense of contentment throughout the day.

People consider big factors when asked to measure their happiness in surveys. Yet at any given moment, humans tend to focus on minutiae. The amount of enjoyment we get out of a day, therefore, depends on seemingly unimportant things such as how well we sleep and the length of our commute to work.

Researchers have long believed that a real-time assessment of a person's happiness, running through days and weeks, would yield a more accurate picture of well-being than answers to a general survey. But such assessments can be cumbersome and expensive.

Dr Kahneman and colleagues have used a new method, called the Day Reconstruction Method, to overcome this challenge. The researchers asked 909 women to reconstruct their day by thinking of it as scenes in a film. Next, they asked the women how they felt during those scenes.

The research yielded an "enjoyment scale" of different activities. At the top was relaxing with friends, followed by lunch with co-workers, watching TV alone, shopping with a spouse and cooking alone. At the bottom were spending time with a boss and commuting alone.

Sleep had a large impact on life enjoyment. People who slept poorly, on average, enjoyed their entire day as little as people enjoyed commuting. Time pressure at work was also highly detrimental to people's enjoyment. Aspects such as marital status and salary made a difference only when people thought about them, something they spent little time doing.

Erasmus University Rotterdam runs a World Database of Happiness, and the tiny country of Bhutan has established a Gross National Happiness metric. These methods, however, tend to rely on measures such as health, leisure time, and spending on the arts.

"Measures of wealth or health do not tell the whole story of how society as a whole or particular populations within it are doing," says Dr Kahneman. "A measure of how different categories of people spend their time and of how they experience their activities could provide a useful indication of the well-being of society."

Scientists and economists have made many attempts to probe the sources of human happiness. It remains a mystery, however, that while living standards have risen, there is little evidence that such improvements make us more content. Some research has suggested that our perception of our social standing determines our sense of well-being. According to the Kahneman research, happiness on a day-to-day basis is both more complex and more mundane.

The paper, by economist Alan Krueger and psychologists David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz and Arthur Stone, appears in today's edition of Science. www.nia.nih.gov; www.aaas.org

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