Can You Predict Whether Someone Will Be Happy in the Future?

How to be happier.
March 30 2009 6:29 AM

Can You Predict Whether Someone Will Be Happy in the Future?

I recently finished a terrific novel, Sarah Dunn’s Secrets to Happiness . (How could I resist that title?) One scene caught my happiness-project attention. Betsy is on a blind date with Alan, and they’re both in the mode of sizing up marriagability on the first date.

Alan asks Betsy, "Do you consider yourself a happy person?" In response to her vague answer, he says, "My uncle always said … the secret to being happy in a marriage is to marry someone who was already happy ... [And] the older I get, the more I see that my friends who married happy women are happy, and the ones who didn’t have all sorts of problems."

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"You can’t blame that on the wives," Betsy answers.

"Yeah, but I think what he meant was, it’s hard to make an unhappy woman happy … a house can only be as happy as the least person in it." (His rationale would apply to husbands, too.) Alan never asks Betsy on a second date, and the clear implication is that he decided that she seems unhappy and so would likely be unhappy in marriage.

Now, this reminded of studies—as discussed in Daniel Nettle’s Happiness —that show, as Nettle sums up, "that the best predictor of how happy people are at the end of the study is how happy they were at the beginning. It is as if happiness or unhappiness stem in large part from how we address what happens in the world, not what actually happens." (p. 92)

This tidbit has always struck me as singularly unhelpful for someone working on being happier—like telling someone that the best way to avoid being overweight was to have always been thin.

Alan was using that information not as a guide to thinking about his own happiness, however, but to evaluate the likelihood that someone else would be happy—someone whose happiness would matter a lot to him, if they married.

This got me thinking. Betsy was unhappy, in large part, because she was worried about getting married and having children. Presumably, then, she’d be happier once she was married with a family, so it seems unfair for Alan to presume she was permanently unhappy.

But in real life, how does this work? Are some people basically happy or unhappy, and don't try to change , so that something like finally getting married wouldn’t make such a difference? Or would it? The arrival fallacy holds that we generally aren’t made as happy by that kind of "arrival" as we expect. On the other hand, the First Splendid Truth holds that feeling right is very important to happiness, and if your life doesn’t reflect your dreams and values, it’s hard to be happy.

That question aside, Alan’s way of thinking struck me as both helpful and harsh.

Helpful because sometimes it might well be worth considering someone’s happiness level. If you’re interviewing for a job with a boss who seems very dissatisfied and angry, you might decide that he wouldn’t be happy with you (or you with him). If you’re thinking of sharing an apartment with someone who lives under a dark cloud, you might want to choose a different roommate.

Harsh because it prompted Alan to turn away from Betsy, who was a nice person, and because this kind of analysis would push people away from less-happy people, who need friendship and consideration. (Spoiler alert: In the end, Betsy gets married to a terrific guy.)

What do you think? Have you ever made a similar analysis about someone else's happiness? Is it true that a house is only as happy as the least happy person in it?

* Special message for the Superfans :

Hey Super-Fans!


Thanks so much for volunteering as a superfan. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. The designers report that the Web site will be ready to test on April 6. We’ll see—such dates often slide—but it shouldn’t be too long. I’ll send you an e-mail with all the information. (If it turns out you don’t want to participate in the test, don’t worry about it, of course.)

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