Updated: Jan 12
There are certain fields in psychology that interest me more than others. Up to this point I was fascinated by psychopathology, neuroscience and behavioural psychology the most. All of these provide enough material to keep learning for a lifetime and a half.
Last week, however, I have started diving deeper into a new field: positive psychology. My masters degree covered the topic of psychological safety, which I consider to be construct generally researched in the field of behavioural psychology but also in positive psychology. Beyond that I was not aware of what else is being researched in the field of positive psychology. According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) - which are considered to be the initiators of positive psychology - it...
"[...] at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom." (p. 5)
In more practical terms, research in positive psychology focusses on the healthy aspects of the mind, such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and mindfulness - all of which I want to cover in future blogs or have already written about before. Nevertheless, in this week's blog I want to focus on happiness. What is happiness - and how can it be studied?
Key Aspects of Happiness
Some people, especially those who are committed to their religious faith, view happiness in ways that emphasize virtuosity, reverence, and enlightened spirituality. Others see happiness primarily as contentment: the inner peace and joy that come from deep satisfaction with one’s surroundings, relationships with others, accomplishments, and oneself. Still others view happiness mainly as pleasurable engagement with their personal environment: having a career and hobbies that are engaging, meaningful, rewarding, and exciting. And yet, these differences are merely differences in emphasis. Each of these views, in some respect, captures the essence of happiness.
But if you study the construct of happiness, it is necessary - as it is for all major constructs in every field of psychology and other sciences - that you find a practical and precise definition. If it is not one thing you can point out, the definition should at least cover the key aspects which can be - for practical purposes and empirical analysis - a combination of different, measurable elements. Some psychologists have suggested that happiness consists of three distinct elements: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life (Seligman, 2002; Seligman et al., 2005). In other words: Happiness is an enduring state of mind consisting of joy, contentment, and other positive emotions, plus the sense that one’s life has meaning and value (Lyubomirsky, 2001), which leads to something that can be called the full life.
The pleasant life is realized through the attainment of day-to-day pleasures that add fun, joy, and excitement to our lives. For example, evening walks along the beach, a good meal or a fulfilling sex life can enhance our daily pleasure and contribute to the pleasant life. The good life is achieved through identifying our unique skills and abilities and engaging these talents to enrich our lives. Those who achieve the good life often find themselves absorbed in their work or their recreational pursuits. The meaningful life involves a deep sense of fulfillment that comes from using our talents in the service of the greater good: in ways that benefit the lives of others or that make the world a better place. In general, the happiest people tend to be those who pursue the full life - they orient their pursuits toward all three elements (Seligman et al., 2005).
The Study of Happiness
Why is it important to measure and study happiness? In general, it seems that overall happiness is declining. Several years ago, a Gallup survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that 52% reported that they were “very happy". In addition, a little more than 8 in 10 indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their lives (Carroll, 2007). Though a more recent poll of 2,345 U.S. adults surprisingly revealed that only one-third reported they are “very happy".
Therefore it seems necessary to understand what influences happiness. It is, indeed, influenced by combination of many different factors:
Family and social relationships as strongest predictors of happiness (Myers, 2000),
Money - with several caveats and only up to a yearly income of $75,000 (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010),
Education and employment and their effect on a purposeful and engaging career/life,
Religiosity and spirituality - especially under difficult living conditions.
By the way, parenthood and physical attractiveness do not contribute to happiness. Some of these findings might seem implausible at first, especially the money part. After all, higher incomes would enable people to indulge in luxury vacations, prime seats at sporting events, expensive automobiles, and expansive new homes. Yet, higher incomes may impair people’s ability to savour and enjoy the small pleasures of life (Kahneman, 2011). Indeed, researchers in one study found that participants exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth spent less time savoring a chocolate candy bar and exhibited less enjoyment of this experience than did participants who were not reminded of wealth (Quoidbach et al., 2010).
Measuring happiness and well-being at the societal level over time may assist policy makers in determining if people are generally happy or miserable, as well as when and why they might feel the way they do. National happiness scores (over time and across countries) relate strongly to six key variables: per capita GDP (which reflects a nation’s economic standard of living), social support, freedom to make important life choices, healthy life expectancy, freedom from perceived corruption in government and business, and generosity (Helliwell et al., 2013). Investigating why people are happy or unhappy might help policymakers develop programs that increase happiness and well-being within a society (Diener et al., 2006). Resolutions about contemporary political and social issues that are frequent topics of debate - such as poverty, taxation, affordable health care and housing, clean air and water, and income inequality - might be best considered with people’s happiness in mind.
Recent findings about happiness suggest that real changes in happiness are possible. For example, thoughtfully developed well-being interventions designed to augment people’s baseline levels of happiness may increase happiness in ways that are permanent and long-lasting, not just temporary. These changes in happiness may be targeted at individual, organizational, and societal levels (Diener et al., 2006). From my personal experience, which is also backed by scientific research, writing down three good things that occurred each day can lead to increases in happiness that lasted over six months (Seligman et al., 2005). You will also find that the practice of keeping a "gratefulness journal" and writing down the three main things that you are grateful for each day is one of the main tools suggested by current self-help and -improvement literature.
With all this in mind, I want to leave you with a couple of questions: What makes you happy? What have you done today to improve your happiness? What are three things that you are grateful for today?
Don't worry, be happy.
This blog has partially been based on OpenStax content. Access it for free at: https://openstax.org/books/psychology/pages/1-introduction
Carroll, J. (2007). Most Americans “very satisfied” with their personal lives. Retrieved from Gallup website: http://www.gallup.com/poll/103483/Most-Americans-Very-Satisfied-Their-Personal-Lives.aspx
Diener, E., Lucas, R., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61, 305–314.
Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (Eds.). (2013). World happiness report 2013. Retrieved from United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life, but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 107, 16489–16493.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others? The role of cognitive and motivational processes in well-being. American Psychologist, 56, 239–249.
Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55, 56–67.
Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E. W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science, 21, 759–763.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. AmericanPsychologist, 60, 410–421.