First the bad news: Good-looking people really are happier. When Diener got people to rate their own looks, there was a “small but positive effect of physical attractiveness on subjective well-being.”
Perhaps the explanation is that life is kinder to the beautiful. Or it could be more subtle than that. The most attractive faces are highly symmetrical, and there is evidence that symmetry reflects good genes and a healthy immune system. So perhaps beautiful people are happier because they are healthier.
You may be able to cash in on beauty’s emotional high even if you aren’t gorgeous — if you believe you look great. Unfortunately, studies show that women tend to think they are too fat and men worry about being puny.
It is hard to imagine a more pitiful existence than life on the streets of Calcutta or in one of its slums, or making a living there as a prostitute. Yet despite the poverty and squalor they face, people with these lives are much happier than you might imagine.
Diener interviewed 83 people from these three groups and measured their life satisfaction using a scale for which a score of 2 is considered neutral. Overall, they averaged 1.93 — not great, but creditable, compared with a control group of middle-class students in the city who scored 2.43. And the slum dwellers, who were happiest of the three disadvantaged groups, scored 2.23, which is not significantly different from the score the students had.
“We think social relationships are partly responsible,” says Diener. He points out that all three deprived groups got high satisfaction ratings in specific areas such as family (2.5) and friends (2.4). Slum dwellers did particularly well, perhaps because they are most likely to be able to cash in on the social support that arises from the importance of the extended family in Indian culture.
In an analysis of reports from 42 countries, U.S. researchers found that married people are consistently happier than singletons. The effect is small, but that still begs the question: Does marriage make you happy, or are happy people simply more likely to get married?
Both answers may be true. In a study that followed more than 30,000 Germans for 15 years, Diener and his colleagues found that happy people are more likely to get married and then stay married. But anyone can improve his or her mood by getting married. The effect begins about a year before the “happy day” and lasts for at least a year afterward. For most people, satisfaction levels do return to their baseline, but the researchers say this conceals the fact that a good marriage can have a permanent positive effect. Furthermore, people who are less happy to begin with will get a bigger boost from marriage.
And it seems there’s something special about signing that piece of paper: The research shows that you can’t get as much benefit from simply cohabiting. “My hunch is that cohabiting couples lack the deeper security that comes with the formal band of gold, and that is why they are not quite so happy,” says Oswald. “Insecurity, we know from all data, is bad for human beings.”