Science behind the smile

AMHERST – Why is the United States never in the top 10 in worldwide surveys of happiness?

Can money buy happiness? And what is happiness?

Maria Sanders, who teaches philosophy at Plymouth State University, has been tackling those weighty questions for years. The “Quest for Happiness,” the name of her recent talk at the Amherst Town Library, has been at the core of philosophical studies for 2,500 years.

That was especially the case among the ancient Greeks. Socrates taught that it was a byproduct of wisdom. Aristotle thought it had to do with moderation. Sanders showed a “moderation cup” like the kind the Greeks invented that is designed to overflow if filled too much.

But only recently have scientists turned their attention to what makes human beings happy, and the results of these studies are now being used in good ways, Sanders said, as well as ways we should watch out for.

Coca-Cola, for example, is well aware of the research studies. The company has been sending its trucks to places such as Cuba and the Philippines with a simple marketing ploy: On each truck is a big red button to push, and out comes a bottle of Coke, or a surfboard, or an electronic device. The aim is to link happiness with Coke.

But happiness isn’t pleasure, and Coke “has clearly confused the two,” Sanders said. “Pleasure is not sustainable. It’s like a drug. You need more and more. … These are not wellness-based products.”

Closer to the mark is the idea of happiness as a “flourishing life,” she said, a concept from the ancient Greeks that takes the future into account, and is “founded on conscious choices.”

And the ways we use our time is directly related to our happiness, she said.

“In the United States, we are a work-driven culture, and those who spend a lot of time on leisure activities are considered lazy,” Sanders said.

Yet, leisure devoted to the arts can pay big dividends in happiness, she said, urging her audience to create pie charts to track the number of hours spent on work, household tasks and other activities.

The next step is to brainstorm: Figure out a typical day and an ideal day and compare the two.

“Compare the life you’re living with the ideal,” she said.

For today’s college students, such an exercise can be eye-opening because of all the time they spend with their devices, Sanders said.

Today’s 18- and 19-year-olds have completely grown up with technology and have lost their ability to focus, she said.

“Their heads ache,” Sanders said. “They lack the ability to synthesize ideas” and engage in critical thinking.

Fortunately, happiness is attainable for most people, she said, displaying a chart showing 40 percent comes from our own thoughts and actions, 50 percent is genetic and only 10 percent is attributable to external circumstances, such as money.

On the other hand, money can buy happiness to a degree, Sanders said. Studies find that as paychecks go up – up to about $75,000 to $80,000 a year – we get happier. But beyond that, there’s no boost in happiness with more money.

And what we do with the money matters a lot, she said. Buying cars and other objects doesn’t do the trick.

Buying experiences, like traveling or spending time with friends – “That’s the way money buys happiness,” she said.

Sanders will be attending a global happiness conference this summer in Ireland, and is currently leading a townwide happiness project in Plymouth.

She is also a musician, painter, lawyer and the mother of four children.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or