The early 1970s was by all accounts one of the worst periods in American history, but by 1974 the country began to recover from its bad trip. One way to measure the turnaround was a revival of the subject of happiness, an emotion that was for many in short supply over the previous few years. The greater interest in happiness as a dedicated field, and the growing number of experts offering advice on how to achieve it, however, belied the general lack of understanding of the subject. Most people could tell you when they were happy and when they weren’t, but defining or even describing the emotional state was not easy.
“Everyone is sure that happiness is desirable,” wrote Paul Cameron in Psychology Today in 1974, “but no one seems to know exactly what it is.” A good number of social scientists believed that being happy in one form or another was our most fundamental drive, making it all the more puzzling why it was so difficult to put the experience into words. Beliefs about the distribution of happiness in the United States remained heavily informed by cultural stereotypes and prejudices. Happiness was popularly considered to be more prevalent among young, male, white, affluent, and non-handicapped Americans, a reflection of deeply embedded biases regarding age, gender, race, class, and physical and mental ability. But were any of these generalizations true? More researchers were beginning to ask, thinking there was much more work that had to be done given how central happiness was to the human, and especially American, experience.
Over the next few years, a flood of research devoted specifically to happiness, some of it scientifically grounded and some of it considerably less so, poured forth. Surveys, questionnaires, and polls peppered popular magazines in the latter 1970s as researchers tried to determine which Americans were happier than others and why. Happiness was clearly riding on the still booming self-help movement, in which many Americans were expending much time, energy, and money. At no previous time in the nation’s history had there been such a focus on the individual and such a profound belief that one could and should claim his or her inalienable right to happiness. “Americans seek happiness with a fierce determination that is matched only by our passion for privacy and independence,” wrote the editors of Psychology Today in 1975, defining the emotional state as “an unflagging, unsagging state of mind.” Driven in part by baby boomers’ competitive ethos and urge to succeed in all aspects of their lives, there appeared to be higher expectations for fulfillment in both one’s career and relationships. Work and play each offered much opportunity for happiness, the media told Americans, the challenge of course being how to find it.
Putting their money where their mouth was, the editors of Psychology Today decided to collaborate with the psychology department at Columbia University to learn what made Americans happy. By asking its readers “what happiness means to you” — specifically, “when you feel it, what you think will bring it, why you do or don’t have it, and how it relates to personality and past,” the magazine’s staff was confident that the boundaries of the subject would be significantly expanded. A questionnaire consisting of no less than 123 questions developed by two Columbia professors along with nine graduate students was included in the October 1975 issue, with readers asked to anonymously mail their completed surveys to the university’s psychology department. A full report of the results would be published in a future issue, the editors told readers, adding, “Your candid and thoughtful replies will help us to understand what the pursuit of happiness is all about.”
Ten months later, Psychology Today delivered on its promise. More than 52,000 readers ranging in age from 15 to 95 had completed and returned the magazine’s questionnaire, this itself an indication of the significance of happiness in Americans’ everyday life. Happiness was “that elusive mood in your mind, a delicate balance between what you wanted in life and what you got,” according to Phillip Shaver and Jonathan Freedman, the professors who had led the survey. Interestingly, most people who took the time to fill out the six-page questionnaire, stick it in an envelope with a 10-cent stamp, and pop it into a mailbox fell into two very different groups: Happiness was one group’s normal condition, with sadness or anguish a rare interruption of their positive state of mind. For others, however, the very opposite was true, with sorrow and struggle the norm. Dividing respondents into two polarized groups was a simple but revealing means of breaking down what was by all accounts a complex subject. There were happy and unhappy people, this research suggested, with all kinds of factors including one’s childhood, relationships, job, and spirituality contributing to which group one fell into.
Within this overarching framework of the results of the 1975 Psychology Today study were more detailed insights into the dynamics of happiness in America. (The editors made it clear that the readers of their magazine were younger, more affluent, better educated, and more liberal than the average American, and that respondents were likely to be more interested in the subject than others.) Still, there were key findings related to happiness that went far beyond the splitting of the population into two segments: “We discovered that happiness is in the head, not the wallet,” Shaver and Freedman wrote, meaning that making more money in order to buy more, or more expensive, things was not a good way to become happier.
Beyond concluding that happiness was not for sale, the professors discovered a number of other surprising findings, such as that unhappy children typically became happy adults, sexual satisfaction was a function of quality versus quantity, and that there was no significant difference in the level of happiness between atheists and the religious, homosexuals and heterosexuals, and urbanites and country folk. Most important, working towards a recognizable, achievable goal was an excellent path to finding happiness, with the taking of progressive, incremental steps far more fulfilling than aspiring to some externally defined measure of success. “Happiness has less to do with what you have than with what you want,” the pair added, recommending that those striving to be happy set their own standards versus pursuing those established by others.