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Author, psychologist Daniel Gilbert reveals the science behind happiness

The best-selling author and Harvard University professor of psychology headlined Elon's annual Spring Convocation on March 30. 

Best-selling author and Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert delivering the 2017 Spring Convocation address. 

​Think Mom can pass along the secret to a happy life? Maybe she can, but the better bet for happiness advice is a scientist, said best-selling author and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert during his address at Elon's 2017 Spring Convocation on Thursday. 

"Rather than turning to our mothers for wisdom about where happiness can be found, or at least in addition to what she has to tell us, we should be turning to science," Gilbert said to a crowd filling Alumni Gym during the March 30 event. "I really do believe that the more we learn about the true causes of happiness, the more of it we can get for ourselves and for others in our communities."

Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, generated widespread buzz with his 2006 TED Talk that explored a scientific examination of that makes people happy and followed that the next year with his best-selling book, "Stumbling on Happiness." During his Spring Convocation address, Gilbert returned to those themes, offering a look at what the data says about how three major components of life — marriage, money and children — can impact the happiness we derive from life. 

​Gilbert framed his comments within advice he received from his own mother, that getting married, getting rich — or at least "comfortable" — and having children were the true path to happiness. It's advice that's delivered by mothers around the world and across cultures, Gilbert said. 

As for marriage, Gilbert explained that research has shown that the institution of marriage itself can be a source of happiness, rather than just an expression of happiness, or something that draws naturally happy people. Those who are married typically make more money, are healthier and live longer, he said. However, divorce can also be a source of happiness, Gilbert said, again pointing to survey data to argue the point. 

"If people get happy when they get married, and people get happy when they divorce, that tells us that it's not just the 'I do' that matters," Gilbert said. "It's being in a marriage that's good."

Many who are asked whether money can buy happiness will commonly say it won't, but that's not what research has revealed. Money will buy happiness — but only to a point, Gilbert said. More specifically, a person's happiness increases sharply as annual personal income rises, but at about $65,000, additional income begins to have just a marginal impact. 

"By the time you get more dollars, money isn't hurting you, but it's not buying you you much more happiness," Gilbert said. "The amount of happiness money can buy levels off."

Part of the reason higher incomes might not translate directly to happier lives is that some people invest in things rather than experiences, he said. For instance, a new car will depreciate in value to the point that someone will sell it to buy a new one, but that same person would never part with a photo album of a three-week trip to Paris. Additionally, money spent helping others typically generates more happiness than that spent on yourself, he said.

"Doing good things for others makes us feel good," Gilbert said. 

Elon President Leo M. Lambert speaking during 2017 Spring Convocation. 

​Turning to children, Gilbert challenged the conventional wisdom of many by pointing to surveys revealing that having children is statistically more likely to decrease a person's happiness — an idea many parents might shrink back from. Research has found the impact of children is more drastic for those who are single parents, and that being a parent is more likely to negatively impact women than men. However, for widowed parents, having children can be a great driver of happiness, Gilbert said research has shown. 

"What this tells us is something that parents all know — that children are hard work," Gilbert said. "Children are a source of stress and so as a result, they are hardest on people who have the fewest resources to deal with stress."

Gilbert's book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” spent six months on The New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into more than 30 languages and was awarded the Royal Society’s General Book Prize for best science book of the year. Gilbert hosted and co-wrote the award-winning PBS television series “This Emotional Life,” which premiered in 2010 and was watched by more than 10 million viewers.

He is a contributor to Time, The New York Times and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He has been a guest on numerous televisions shows, including “The Today Show,” “Charlie Rose,” “20/20” and “The Colbert Report.” In 2014 Science magazine named him one of the world’s 50 most-followed scientists on social media.

Elon’s Spring Convocation is an annual event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, the upcoming graduating class and members of the Elon Society, the premier annual giving group at Elon.


Owen Covington,
3/30/2017 3:10 PM