07 October 2002 16:46 BDST

Lewis Wolpert: The quest for happiness

Can happiness really be assessed as if there were a sort of joy juice whose quantity in a person can be measured?

07 October 2002

A manager who had just made £26m from the sale of his firm was reported in The Independent as saying that he was a little sad as he would have liked to have stayed on longer. This is but one example showing how difficult it is to understand happiness. But it is an important problem; so much so that economists need to measure happiness to determine policy. So, I was happy to be invited to a meeting on happiness at the London School of Economics.

One thing I learnt was that money can buy a reasonable amount of happiness - there is a statistically strong link between income and a reported feeling of well-being - and those with the lowest incomes in Europe and the USA show much higher dissatisfaction with life. Lottery-winners do feel happier, and calculations suggest it would take about £1m to change someone from being very unhappy to being very happy. Studies on civil servants found that there is increased satisfaction and health the greater the control individuals have over their work. Envy can be a serious negative factor. We are also, apparently, not very good at determining just what experience will actually increase our happiness. We tend to expect a future event to have a greater impact than the same event actually has had in the past.

A nice analysis was made of mountaineering, which can involve severe discomfort, danger and misery. Why do it? The answer may lie in self-esteem, goal completion, praise by others and mastery of the situation, all of which are probably among the many behaviours that lead to happiness.

Friendship is a key feature. There are reports that happiness is correlated positively with marriage and negatively with being divorced. A study looked at couples in the years preceding and after divorce. Around the time of the divorce couples get quite large psychological benefits, and so do the children; however, if one compares two years before with two years later, those with children show no significant rise in well-being. One must be careful in measuring happiness as the instantaneous feeling. Indeed, it is a characteristic of happiness that the initial reaction is strong, but reduces with time. People believe that becoming a paraplegic is much worse than paraplegics themselves find their own condition.

Can happiness really be assessed as if there were some sort of "joy juice" whose quantity in a person can be measured? I am unpersuaded, as the causes of happiness and unhappiness seem so varied. Is the happiness of recovering from illness related to sexual pleasure? Don't know. But there may be a common pathway; studies show that the pleasure in approaching some goal is associated with increased activity on the left side of the brain, while the pleasure of having achieved it is associated with the right. Also, the immune system works better if an individual is happy. Perhaps one day neurobiologists will be able to measure happiness, but at present it is easier to focus on the causes of unhappiness, just as ill health is easier to study than health.

For governments, the quest for happiness plays a major part in policy-making on spending. But how does one assess the happiness associated with good health, transport and education? Mental health should be at the top of politicians' lists, but it is not. It is votes that make them happy, not the relief of the personal misery of their constituents. An unhappy truth.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London