Reaching for Happiness

Phil Brickman could be a funny guy, but he was not a happy one. Let’s start with the first words he said when I defended my Master’s thesis. Phil was one of the examiners, a member of the small panel passing judgment on whether I met the degree’s requirements.

All the committee members had signed off on my research proposal. Once finished and written up, they’d read the account I gave them of my efforts.

The group of three talked for a few minutes before asking me to enter the room. The 23-year-old version of GS inhabited a state of controlled anxiety typical of graduate students in such situations.

The questioning began. Phil spoke first:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Those were not the words I’d wished for. Fortunately, I carried no sharp objects with me. I waited as my brain began to dissolve. While my imagined dead-end future passed before me, the same gentleman said more.

Philip is spelled with one (lower case) L.

Philip was calling attention to how his name appeared in the Acknowledgments section of my long paper.

It read, “Phillip.


I don’t recall what happened next. My guess would be laughs, my apology, and relief. Or maybe my leaping across the desk (I can see it now) and throttling the man. No, I’ve never been one for rashness or battery.

Young Assistant Professor Phil wasn’t a popular guy, as you might have guessed. He didn’t fit well with people, including those of us who called him a teammate on our Northwestern Psychology Department softball team.

Everyone recognized Phil’s intellect, however. Indeed, Doctor B become famous in his field, and his research continues to be cited and discussed.

One of Brickman’s major contributions to our profession is an idea called “the hedonic treadmill.Simply put, the notion consists of this: we adapt to events in our lives, and our elation or dismay tends to fade. As time passes, we return to where we started in terms of mood.

Here is an example of the idea (co-created with Donald Campbell in 1971).

Imagine you get a happiness boost by achieving some goal you’ve long been shooting for. You feel great, but the pleasurable dose of enhancement diminishes with time. The set-point — your usual level of high spirits or unhappiness — returns.

Don’t despair; welcome news is coming. Your set-point doesn’t control everything about your emotional state. One can still reach a condition of well-being: a satisfying life with an often positive and seldom negative mood.

In 2005, long after Philip died, other social scientists took his idea further. A study involving over 2000 twins, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade estimated that 50% of your life satisfaction derives from inborn temperament — your genetic inheritance. Another 10% comes from life circumstances, with 40% determined by personal outlook and life-altering thoughts and actions.

The encouraging development is that various empirically validated forms of psychotherapy emerged since Phil’s work ended, concentrating on the 40% of our well-being we can enhance and the 10% of life conditions we can sometimes change. Although our genes can’t be altered, we can find ways to move through life at a higher altitude.

Therefore, the patient and therapist’s job aims to boost the things over which we possess some influence.

The irony of Phil Brickman’s life, one he took at age 38, was that his research led to improvements in many other lives, though he never achieved this for himself.

A story by Jennifer Senior from The New York Times (NYT) of November 24, 2020,  focuses on the tragedy, but I prefer to remember this man in a brighter light.

Think of someone who throws a stone into the ocean and then walks away. The ripples continue long after his departure. Many others, years after the missile touched the water, watch the surge catch the sunlight. The beauty of the reflection benefits all of them and those around them.

The cause of the tiny waves is a mystery to many whose lives thereby were enriched. Even you, dear reader, might be one who Dr. B’s distant hand helped to lift.

Now you’ll remember his name and the proper spelling of it, too:

Philip Brickman.

One L.

The top image is Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari. The second photo shows Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. After the University of Michigan picture of Dr. Brickman, comes a 3D Graph That Shows a Rippling Pattern, the creation of Mr. All but the photo of Phil come from Wikimedia Commons.

A Man with the Key to Happiness

Is a gold medal the key to happiness? The man in the picture won one, but I’d not suggest you aim for something similar. Happiness is not in the precious metal medal. In fact, Steve Henikoff — the happiest man I’ve ever known — never strove to win it.

I had a Thursday dinner with Steve. He was in Chicago to receive the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to the field of genetics in the last 15 years. The award itself takes the form of a very heavy, circular, gold paperweight inscribed with his name.

Steve and I go way back, to sixth grade or so. He was a curious kid, interested in many things: from photography to music, from chess to skiing, from crossword to jigsaw puzzles. Even Mad Magazine. And he was a passable softball and basketball player, just one of the guys you wanted to be around and who wanted to be around you. But Steve had a greater gift that went unnoticed at the time: to enjoy whatever he was doing.

He hasn’t lost it.

Sounds simple. Try it sometime and you’ll find it isn’t so easy.

Dr. Henikoff’s research has moved the entire field of genetics forward through a combination of technical innovations and fundamental discoveries,” said Dan Gottschling, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Division of Basic Sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “His selection as the recipient of the GSA Medal is a fitting honor to a scientist who inspires so many of us in so many different fields.”

Please understand, Steve was delighted to receive the award, but that is not the secret to his happiness.

If you read the rest of the GSA’s press release, you will note words like “visionary,” “influential,” “landmark research,” “inspiring,” and “generosity.” Yet, none of this high praise has much to do with happiness either, except the last of those words: generosity. Steve loves to collaborate with others and mentor young scientists. Like nearly everything else about his vocation, those activities are unselfconscious and fun.

The hitch in achieving moment-to-moment happiness is something called “hedonic adaptation.” We are built to quickly return from a high or low point — a great achievement or a heartbreak — to our relatively steady state of emotional functioning. Put differently, we live on a “hedonic treadmill,” only temporarily able to get higher than our own “normal” mood. The new car smell doesn’t last, the raise in salary is yesterday’s news, and the thrill of a better job title is pushed aside by growing ambition and a bigger goal.

That’s where Steve’s model is instructive. He was thrilled to win the award, but you can’t win gold medals every week. What then? Must you work into the dead of night figuring out how to boost your well-being?

I doubt the good Professor thinks much about being happy. Indeed, I suspect not thinking about it is one of the most important reasons he enjoys himself most of the time. Steve probably wouldn’t say this, but here is his secret:

He doesn’t meditate about life satisfaction, he lives it. His high-powered brain does not over-think.

Dr. Henikoff is at ease with himself, having fun — yes, fun — in the full-immersion joy of invention and discovery. SH loves to think about his research, talk about it, solve scientific puzzles, write about the work, and discuss his findings with others. Steve thrills to spark the minds of young scientists. He lives in the moment, having the kind of good time we all once did — when we were preschoolers playing games, learning new things, and exploring a world where everything was fresh. All before we began to worry about what others thought about us and punish ourselves to succeed.


Steve Henikoff has not lost the childlike wonder of a new day. He cannot wait to get to his lab and do work that is not work, but play.

The Professor doesn’t puzzle much about philosophical stuff. He is pleasantly busy with those tasks he has identified as the most important in his life. He achieved success not because he strove for it, but because the involving and enjoyable work was so well done, it caused others to notice. Had you given him enough to eat, a decent place to sleep, and a lab to work in, I believe he’d have been just as pleased on a daily basis even without recognition. Oh, yes, he might have required some clothing, too!

I must mention his comely and compatible collaborator and wife, the brilliant Jorja. Both his happiness and his work — their work — are completed by her presence. A woman he knew, after only six weeks, was perfection. A young lady he married in just that time, over 40 years ago.

Steve creates for the love of it. He is content learning, doing, and mentoring. It is not as though he has avoided losses, including those dear to him. But Steve’s attitude is simple. Loss is in the nature of things. There is nothing to do but accept it and, before long, jump back into the pool of life.

The water in which my friend swims is not untroubled. The academy is a competitive pond, full up with sharks. But Dr. H. has the gift of buoyancy. Moreover, he does not add the unnecessary weight of hoping for a bigger home or fancier clothes.

Little thought is spent on those concerns that might distract and destroy this scientist’s equanimity. He doesn’t have to screen them out. At “work” they are simply absent.

Look at Steve’s smile in the top photo. Why is Dr. H. so happy? For him it was just another day at the office, doing the magic he was made to do. Who among us could wish for more?

The top photo is of Steve in his lab. The second image is a 1974 snapshot taken in Boston. From left to right: Steve and Jorja Henikoff; my wife, Aleta; and yours truly.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.