The Science Of Happiness & The MPI Philosophy

MPI & Science

Now that we have laid out the framework of the MPI philosophy we will test it against the available science.

Happiness and money

A frequently cited study (1.1) aimed at researching happiness was published in the 1978 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers compared the winners of the Illinois State Lottery with non-winners and with people who had suffered an accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic. People in each category answered questions designed to measure their level of happiness. 

The results indicated that the overall happiness levels of lottery winners increased temporarily after winning then subsided to initial levels after a few months. When measuring overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-winners. The accident victims also appeared to have the same level of happiness (although it did drop very slightly). The study indicates that most people have a certain level of happiness and they seem to return to that level of happiness even after life-changing events (good and bad). 

Synthesis of happiness

Dan Gilbert is a social psychologist at Harvard University and author of the book “stumbling on happiness”. He says (1.2) that there is research indicating that if an event that happened more than three months ago it generally has no impact on your happiness. He says that humans have a “psychological immune system” that works by helping humans to change their view of the world so that they can feel better about the new circumstances in which they find themselves. 

He cited an example of a man who was in prison for his entire life then was found to be innocent and released and said that he has no regrets. Gilbert also uses the example of the original drummer in the Beatles (he was kicked out and replaced with Ringo Starr) who says that he would have been less happy with the Beatles. Another example from Gilbert is a former Speaker Of The House (the leader of the United States Congress) that was fired after doing a shady book deal. All of these people responded by saying that they have no regrets and that the scenario that they ended up with was better than the scenario that they would have ended up with. Gilbert says that our usual response when hearing people in these situations make these comments is that we think they really do have regrets and we don’t believe them. 

Gilbert decided to do an experiment where he presented a group of people with six different Monet prints and asked them to rank them from most liked to least liked. He told them that he will give them one of the prints to take home and it will be the third or fourth ranked print then asked them which one they prefer. Most people asked for the third-ranked print because it ranked ahead of the fourth. After some time has passed, ranging from 15 minutes to 15 days, the same people were asked to rank the same six pieces again. This time they ranked the piece that they received as the best (or at the very least better than its previous rank). Gilbert reminds us that this experiment has been replicated many times. Further, in order to validate the results, he did the same experiment with people that have amnesia. They also ranked the one that they own higher the second time around even though they didn’t know that they owned it. In this case they cannot be just saying that they like it because they own it because they have amnesia and don’t know that they own it. 

Gilbert conducted another experiment at Harvard where students would be allowed to learn how to use a darkroom to develop black-and-white photographs. The students took some pictures and selected the the pictures that were most meaningful to them. Then the students were asked which one they would like to give up. Half of the students were told that they could change their minds within four days. The other half were told that they must make a final decision now. The results showed that the students that were stuck with a picture and could not change their mind ended up liking that picture a lot. The students that were given the opportunity to change their minds did not like the picture. Why? Gilbert reasons that it is because the irreversible condition is not conducive to the “synthesis of happiness”. 


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, focusing on human strengths such as optimism, motivation and responsibility. He’s the director the the Quality of Life Research Center there. He has written numerous books and papers about the search for joy and fulfillment.

The graph above shows that the percentage of Americans that are very happy has been steady at approximately 30% for several decades despite the fact that the inflation adjusted average income is almost tripled. 

Csikszentmihalyi  (1.3) commenced his research by studying creative people including both artists and scientists. The first one was a composer that described his state of flow as follows. “You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And the music just flows out of itself.” He describes an ecstatic state. In Greek ecstasy means to stand at the side of something. Ecstasy is stepping into alternative reality. 

He says that our nervous system is not capable of processing more than approximately 110 bits of information per second. In order to listen to somebody speak and understand what they are saying you need to process approximately 60 bits per second. This is why you cannot understand more than two people talking to the same time. However, when you are completely engaged in the process of creating something new it consumes all of the available processing power and there’s nothing left to allocate to thinking about other problems in your life. Your body and identity disappear from your consciousness. 

Csikszentmihalyi says that existence is temporarily suspended. 

Csikszentmihalyi  also interviewed a poet that said “it’s like opening a door that is floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the handle and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can’t particularly force yourself through it. You just have to float. If there’s any gravitational pull, it’s from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.” This describes the same effortless and ecstatic feeling that you get when you enter into this state of flow. 

Csikszentmihalyi also interviewed Masaru Ibuka. At the time he was establishing Sony. Before they had any money on products, he said that he wanted to Sony to be a place that would “establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their hearts content.” 

Csikszentmihalyi has done numerous studies to determine how it feels to be in a state of flow and has discovered seven conditions that he says are required in order to be in a state of flow:

1. To be completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrating, a sense of clarity. 

2. A sense of ecstasy – being outside everyday reality.

3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing it.

4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.

5. A sense of serenity – not worrying about oneself and the feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.

6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to go by in minutes.

7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

When these conditions are present the thing that you are doing is worth doing for its own sake.

The graph shows skills on the X axis and challenges on the Y axis. It’s likely that you will be in flow when you are challenged and your skills are also high. This makes sense because we all know what it’s like to do something that requires an enormous amount of skill. This graph also shows how and why people will feel arousal, anxiety, worry, apathy, boredom, relaxation, control with different combinations of skill and challenge. Apathy is the state that usually accompanies watching TV because the challenges low and the skills required are low. However, Csikszentmihalyi says that it’s people can be in flow for approximately 7 or 8% of the time while watching television. It obviously depends on what you’re watching and how interesting or important it is to you.


Nancy Etcoff PHD, a Massachusetts based Cognitive researcher (1.4), says that we have a positive and a negative emotional system and the negative system is extremely sensitive mostly because it exists to protect us from danger. Her research has showed that people hate to lose more than they love to win. She cites the 5:1 marriage ratio where it takes five positive remarks to be the equivalent of one negative. She says that emotions are short-lived, intense responses to challenge and opportunity and that emotions are not just feelings but also cause us to make certain memories, perceive things a certain way and or become alternative versions of ourselves to deal with various situations. 

Etcoff says that “happiness is not simply the absence of misery” and deconstructs happiness as follows: sensory pleasures, amusement, contentment, relief, excitement, wonder, ecstasy, elevation, gratitude, compassion, accomplishment of a challenge, pleasure in the misfortune of others, pride and joy in one’s children. She says that we are born pleasure seekers. 

Etcoff reminds us that more people in the United States visit zoos that visit all sporting events and that this says something about humans’ need to be close to nature. She says that there are studies that found that people recovering from surgery with a window facing a brick wall had more complications, needed more medication and were in hospital longer than people that had a window facing nature. 

Etcoff also says that emotions are contagious and humans imitate other humans. This is why yawning is contagious and why positive and negative energy from other people is contagious. She says that there is research research indicating that cooperation among humans lights up the reward centers of the brain. 

Etcoff also says that people are happiest when: they are in flow and absorbed, with other people, active, engaged in sports, focused on a loved one, discovering, learning, having sex. People are not happiest when they are by themselves for extended periods of time. 

The pleasant, good and meaningful life

Martin Seligman, a Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania‘s Department of Psychology, works on what he calls “positive psychology” – being concerned with psychological strength as well as with psychological weakness, building strength as well as repairing damage.  He says (1.5) that positive psychology is also concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling and with nurturing high talent like genius as well as healing pathology. He says that this is the beginning of the science of positive psychology or as he calls it the science of a life worth living. 

Seligman wanted to measure different forms of happiness. Instead of just focusing on miserable people and how they differ from everybody else he started focusing on happy people and how they differ from everybody else. He discovered that they were not in better shape, didn’t have more money, weren’t better looking and didn’t have fewer bad events and more good events in their lives. The one way in which they did different was that they are extremely social. They were more likely to be in relationships and have friends. However, he qualifies this by saying that this reference to happiness is a reference to “being in a good mood and cheerful” and there is obviously more to happiness than that. He says that there are three different happy lives: 

1. The pleasant life – this is a life where you experience as much positive emotion possible and learning the skills required to amplify them. However, the pleasant life has drawbacks. The ability to feel as much positive emotion as possible is 50% heritable, not very modifiable and it dissipates. He says it’s like ice cream – the first taste is great but by the time you get to the end you are not experiencing anything. 

2. The good life – this is a life of engagement (in your work, parenting, love, leisure where time stops). Seligman reminds us that pleasure and flow are not the same thing. Pleasure as a raw feeling while someone in a state of flow can’t feel anything. 

3. The meaningful life. Knowing what your highest strengths are and using them in the service of something larger than you.

The next question he asked was, to what extent does the pursuit of the three lives above contribute to life satisfaction. It turns out that the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest and the pursuit of engagement is second. Seligman says that, if you have meaning and engagement then pleasure is meaningful in the sense that it is the cherry on the cake. The next question he asked was whether these results are reflected in health and longevity. He found that the answer is yes.

Next article in this series: “Regrets Of Dying People”

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