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Things That Don’t Make You Happy

Coursera is a great online tool for learning; it offers up a world of learning to people who cannot afford a college education, and it provides ongoing learning opportunities for people who do have college degrees but want to expand their range of personal and professional interests.  The information found below is compiled from Yale University’s The Science of Well-Being course, taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, and gives you a taste of the great information found on Coursera.

We are all seeking happiness.  We want things that make us happy, and we strive to put ourselves in situations that we think will make us happy.  As it turns out, a lot of things that we think contribute to our happiness actually do not do so, or at least not in the ways that we think.  Dr. Laurie Santos outlines in her Coursera course, The Science of Well-Being, the things that don’t make us happy in the ways that we think they do.

Great Jobs or Great Grades

Because this is a real course taught to Yale University students, Dr. Santos focuses on grades, but receiving great job offers is included in the list of things that don’t make us as happy as we think.  Studies have taken both students who are concerned about grades and adults who are concerned about job offers and had them rate their perceived drops in happiness, just imagining that they will receive a lower grade than they would like or the job offer will go to another candidate.  What the research shows is that when this happens, the drop in happiness is not nearly as drastic as the subjects predicted it would be. Similarly, when you do receive the great grade or the great job offer, while you do receive a bump in happiness at the time, it’s not drastic, either – showing that the presence or absence of prestige markers like great jobs or great grades don’t affect us the way that we think they do.


Money is a big one.  The reality is, we need money or some form of currency or trade to exist in this world, because we have needs like water, food, and protection from the elements.  Research conducted by Sir Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman shows that there is a cap to happiness that comes to money; there is no bump in happiness once you’ve hit an income of $75,000 (a figure that may fluctuate in the future based on inflation).  This is because for the average American, once you’ve hit that number, you’re able to take care of all your basic necessities, and then some.  

Fancy Stuff

Cars, boats, electronics, designer clothing, jewelry, etc.  Whatever interests you, it’s not going to bring eternal happiness.  Dr. Santos compares survey results from the 1940s to current data, showing that people in the 1940s had similar (if not slightly higher) ratings of happiness, yet only two-thirds of houses had indoor plumbing at the time and many people didn’t have a lot of fancy stuff.  She also explains that research is showing that having a materialistic attitude and actively thinking about acquiring nice things can make us less happy than we would be otherwise at baseline.

Perfect Relationship

There’s no denying that having happy, loving, caring relationships with people in your life contributes to your well-being and adds value and happiness to your life.  However, finding a “soulmate” or seeking a perfect relationship and having the Disney fairy tale fantasy come true doesn’t make you happier than anybody else. Research shows that during the first year or two of married life, married individuals do report an increase in happiness; however, after that time, they return to their baseline level of happiness.  So while a loving marriage is great and contributes to personal happiness, it doesn’t make you happier than you would be otherwise.

Perfect Appearance

The elusive perfect body and beautiful face is what is marketed to us as a prerequisite to happiness.  Luckily, the ads and the media aren’t true. A study with obese individuals showed that there was no increase in happiness if the individuals lost weight (and came with increased unhappiness, actually), and studies with people who get plastic surgery show that measures of well-being worsen after the plastic surgery.  So, again, having a perfect appearance (whatever that means to you) isn’t going to make you a happier person.

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