An introduction to happiness
With these words, Chris Anderson opened TED’s 2004 conference, "The Pursuit of Happiness," aimed at exploring how our understanding of happiness shapes our individual and collective well-being. TED speakers since that time have continued this quest, probing how happiness plays out in personal relationships, business management, economics, international relations and other arenas.
The reason for this sustained attention to human happiness? Says Anderson, "The exhilarating part was this...maybe, just maybe, we could discover a deeper, longer-lasting, more profound form of happiness. Maybe we could even do this before we ended up mangling our personal relationships and destroying our planet."
We're currently working through a period with a real sense of change. Priorities are being reviewed in light of the global financial and environmental challenges and there is a growing demand for a 'new economic paradigm' with a focus on well-being and sustainability. Endless growth as the measure of our success appears increasingly inadequate, not to mention unrealistic given the available resources. Instead there's a desire to focus on leading enriched, fulfilled lives. At the same time we also need to dispel the myth that happiness and high performance are mutually exclusive.
Interest in happiness at a personal level is ever present, but now we're seeing it on a national and international level too. Countries including, for example, the UK, France and Costa Rica have been taking steps to understand the well-being of their nations in order to inform policy. Bhutan began exploring this area back in the 1970s. On the international scale happiness and well-being is now high on the UN agenda, as the Secretary General said at a recent event "We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness." This operates in line with a growing recognition that GDP is not sufficient for measuring success and progress.
Although momentum around this has certainly been gathering more recently, the idea is obviously not a new one, as evidenced by Senator Robert Kennedy's sentiment in 1968:
What we mean by happiness (and well-being)
Even as happiness works its way up the list of goals, defining the term is still not always easy. Happiness is obviously individual and subjective, which can cloud understanding of how to measure and to increase it. To really get to grips with the topic we need to recognize that happy does not only mean smiley; and contrary to the belief of most children (and probably too many adults), getting everything you want is not the key to true happiness! This is illustrated well by the distinction between hedonic and eudemonic happiness. The former relates to pleasurable experiences, but these alone are not enough — even paradise would become boring after a while! Eudemonic happiness comes from achieving something that we feel is worthwhile, and requires a sense of purpose and drive. Happiness can be also be defined or influenced by a number of life factors — relationships, money, work, health; altruism is also closely linked to 'real' happiness.
Happiness can perhaps be more usefully considered using the term well-being. Although less recognizable than happiness, well-being is often preferable in discussions of collective happiness as it is more objective and can therefore be more readily measured and inform policies for improvement. It is also worth noting the meaning of familiar words such as mood, emotion and personality need to be understood in their more technical definitions.
Brief history of happiness science
Traditionally psychology was preoccupied with curing our ills. More recently, as TED speaker Martin Seligman tells us, much progress has been made towards this goal (although the impact of the rise in medication comes with its own warnings). More recently, the focus has broadened to include making improvements even when there are no problems — the opposite of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it!'. The concept is known as positive psychological well-being, and as a field it is increasing our understanding of how we can generate happiness. The following quotation gives an insight into the earlier perception of happiness:
We now have a much better understanding of where our individual happiness comes from, and most importantly that these factors can be influenced. In her TEDTalk, Nancy Etcoff notes that 50% is genetic and personality based — and therefore relatively difficult to change. But 40% comes from our activities and relationships and the final 10% from income and environment, meaning there is in fact considerable scope to improve how happy we are.
We also understand that happiness is not, as was once thought, a spectrum. Less misery does not necessarily mean more happiness. This realization is actually quite instinctive but until relatively recently has been ignored by those exploring happiness science but has a fundamental impact on how we approach the issue.
It's important to note the scientific nature of the study of psychological well-being, which includes understanding of the structure of the brain, the chemical reactions involved and how various systems are interconnected. Happiness at this level really has become a science, with assertions made based on evidence from sound methodologies. This is not to say there isn't still some way to go, but this should no longer be perceived as a 'soft' subject. Unfortunately, positive psychology is often mistaken for positive thinking movement, which lacks scientific evidence for its claims but is a more familiar concept for many. Hopefully as scientific progress continues to be made and broadly understood, this trend will reverse.
Crucially, the knowledge and evidence we have been acquiring means we are now equipped to take positive action. We can, in effect, create happiness by arming others with this knowledge and with the skills required to live enriching lives, in an environment that supports them to do so.
So can we actually 'grow' happiness? Well, the jury has been out on this, but yes, it's now generally accepted that steps can be taken to increase individual and collective happiness; several of the TEDTalks included in this course identify research-based strategies for doing so. Also, it's worth noting that for all this talk of GDP not being a satisfactory measure, we're not suggesting that economics and personal finances will not affect our happiness. If nothing else they will influence the 'situational' 10% that is mentioned above. Individuals do seem to get 'happier' as money increases, but not indefinitely. After a certain point it stops having an impact. Beyond the point where needs are satisfied, it seems that happiness and materialistic society are increasingly incompatible, as the pursuit of money and material goods can come at the expense of the more fundamental pleasures in life that bring us happiness.
There are some more pessimistic theories about our ability to develop happiness. Psychotherapist Robert Rowland Smith argues that "the pursuit of happiness is a form of wanting, just like anything else. So the problem with wanting happiness is as much the wanting as the happiness. Deep inside us, wanting creates a hole, a lack, a lacuna. Wanting happiness equals wanting for happiness, and feeling empty." In addition 'set point' theory suggests that we revert back to a particular level of happiness after being influenced by a positive or negative effect. This is used to explain why lottery winners and those who have suffered serious illness can appear equally 'happy' a certain amount of time after either has occurred. But it's also been suggested that over time, this set point can be fundamentally shifted. The endless treadmill can be unraveled! And of course, even if our 'end point' is a relatively fixed level of happiness, that doesn't diminish the significance of fluctuations that occur on the journey.
In order to know if we're increasing happiness, we need to find a way to measure it. Measuring both individual and national levels of happiness can be difficult, particularly when people self report. Life satisfaction measures have long been used but while they are relatively simple and easy for international benchmarking, they rarely get under the skin of either the causes or consequences of happiness.
When carrying out measurements we also need to be aware of the distinction between causality and correlation. We have no shortage of data which shows an 'association' between all sorts of activity and levels of happiness or satisfaction. For example, belonging to a club or society is associated with higher life satisfaction scores. But whether membership led to happiness or vice versa is obviously an important distinction to make.
At a national level, happiness or satisfaction scores have been recorded for up to 70 years in some countries but throughout this time they have remained fairly static, even when other variables are changing. For example, in countries where income has risen happiness remains steady. But inter-country comparisons show different levels, which suggests that wholesale change is possible.
The general consensus is that measuring well-being requires a dashboard of measures rather than just a single figure. These will differ between nations, but as an example the UK has recently constructed an index of 11 dimensions based on national consultation.
If the goal is to increase happiness it's also necessary to explore who has responsibility for doing so. While individuals can be equipped to increase their own happiness, the institutions that surround them also have a role to play in creating an environment that fosters happiness. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, governments and international bodies are increasingly taking into account the affect of their policies on the well-being of their citizens. The compatibility of happiness and well-being with economics, politics and religious freedoms needs to become a part of national discussion.
Dictating exactly how people need to live is not the route to happiness, instead we need to provide the tools to facilitate happiness and freedom to pursue it (although as you'll see in the TEDTalks by Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz, too much choice often comes with its own difficulties!). The ability of individuals to manage their own happiness also raises broader questions; do we need to 'teach' people how to be happy? The response to this has implications for our education systems and life-long learning opportunities.
There is also a sustainability aspect to this discussion as short term gain for some should not mean suffering for others — making this an international issue growing in line with globalization.
Happiness and work
Organizational responsibility for the happiness and well-being of its employees has several facets. Work is an important part of living a good life, as long as it's 'good work'. This means it provides challenges that build a sense of purpose and allow employees to experience the joy of mastery. Simultaneously employers have an obligation to allow their employees enough time to pursue other activities and nurture the relationships that are so important for happiness. The collective support of business can also be a powerful tool for influencing national policies and governments should work with employers to allow the benefits of 'good' work to be realized.
This Teaching and Learning Guide
There is still a lot of room for debate around this topic with further evidence required in some areas and discussion about what we can do with our extended knowledge base. We hope that by the end of this module learners will understand some of the complexities of the 'science of happiness' but also appreciate the implications of our understanding and how it may shape our futures.
Let's begin this guide's examination of happiness with a TEDTalk from Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff who explores whether and why we're hard-wired for happiness.
A few years ago I stumbled upon a question I found both shocking and exhilarating: Suppose our natural instincts about what we needed to make us happy were dead wrong? That was what the latest scientific research on happiness seemed to suggest: that most of the things we spent our time striving for made almost zero difference to how happy we were.
Gross National Product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising and...the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play…the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
An important and incontrovertible phenomenon in the psychological study of happiness is known as adaptation: the joy or sadness resulting from a good or bad event tends to fade after a long time. Two early psychologists studying happiness, Brickman and Campbell (1971), posited something stronger: that adaptation is complete and unavoidable. Hence, nothing can have a permanent effect on one's happiness, and trying to make oneself happier is hopeless. With appropriate pessimism, the authors described this idea as follows: 'The nature of [adaptation] condemns men to live on a hedonic treadmill, to seek new levels of stimulation merely to maintain old levels of subjective pleasure, to never achieve any kind of permanent happiness or satisfaction.' (Brickman and Campbell, 1971, p289). Since that article, the term 'hedonic treadmill' has come to stand for the hypothesis that trying to improve one’s happiness is futile, and that happiness is instead determined entirely by a combination of genes and random effects.Byrnes, 2005
Life satisfaction is a complex term and is sometimes used interchangeably with the emotion of happiness, but they are indeed two separate concepts. Life satisfaction is defined as one’s evaluation of life as a whole, rather then the feelings and emotions that are experienced in the moment.
What is life satisfaction and how is it different from happiness?
Happiness is an immediate, in-the-moment experience, whereas life satisfaction is happiness that exists when we think about our lives as a whole, looking at the big picture.
This adds a little more clarity to the difference between the ideas of happiness and life satisfaction. It is not based on criterion that researchers deem to be important, but instead on your own cognitive judgments of the elements that YOU consider to be valuable.
Based on the research ‘The Study of Life Satisfaction’, quality of life is associated with living conditions, such as food, health, shelter, and so on (Veenhoven, 1996). By contrast, life satisfaction is defined as a state of emotion, like happiness or sadness.
We can also understand the theory of life satisfaction by using the PERMA model, introduced by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology (Seligman, 2011).
In general, whatever level of satisfaction you are feeling, you can define and maximize your level of wellbeing if you choose which elements you want to engage in to flourish. Also, life satisfaction tends to be dependent on your emotional state.
According to Daniel Gilbert, professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the meaning of happiness is “anything we pleased” ( Gilbert, 2009). Our mood is always changing.
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Contributors to life satisfaction
The sources of life satisfaction are not completely understood yet, but what is known, is that they are a complex combination of,
- collective action
- individual behaviour,
- simple sensory experiences
- higher cognition
- stable characteristics of the individual
- the environment
- chance factors
as Ruut Veenhoven states in his study of life satisfaction.
Variance in satisfaction between nations has been studied; it has been shown that living conditions are a major determinant of life satisfaction. That is, economically prosperous countries tend to experience it more when compared to poorer nations.
The correlation between income and life satisfaction is higher in poorer countries compared to more affluent countries. Life satisfaction tends to be higher in egalitarian countries; people will experience less inequality and be able to choose lifestyles that best fit their abilities and desires where equality is more prominently displayed.
Education is an interesting point when studying life satisfaction. As pointed-out from the variance in satisfaction between nations resource, more highly educated countries generally experience higher levels of satisfaction, but with this education comes opportunity for aversive consequences: loss of previous opportunities that comes along with achieving such education, job competition, or even lack of jobs. That being said, those more educated tend to experience more favorable events compared to adverse events.
Variables such as mental and physical health, energy, extroversion, and empathy have all been shown to be strongly correlated to satisfied individuals, but it is sometimes hard to determine whether these are products or causes of life satisfaction.
Our past experiences undoubtedly effect the way we think about our lives in terms of satisfaction. Establishing a satisfying life for yourself is not decided only by circumstances; it is also influenced by the way you think about and relate to the environment around you.
Measuring your life satisfaction
Beginning in the 1960’s when it became a big topic of discussion in research, life satisfaction was originally thought to be measured objectively and externally; the same way measuring heart-rate or blood pressure would be. Since then, it has become evident that life satisfaction must be measured subjectively rather than objectively; techniques commonly used include, surveys, questionnaires, and interviews.
Measuring life satisfaction isn’t just a way to see how happy people are with their lives, it’s also a way of determining how unhappy they are. By adding another, positive point of view stemming from the individuals subjective experience, clinicians and researchers can analyze what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy.
The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), created by Ed Diener, has been one of the more applicable measurement tests of life satisfaction. It consists of five statements (e.g. The conditions of my life are excellent) to which the participant indicates their agreement. This assessment doesn’t specify explicit domains such as financial or health satisfaction; it allows subjective evaluation of life as a whole.
Can you feel more satisfied with your life?
Yes. If you are not as satisfied with your life as you would like to be, you can do things to change this. Things such as having friends, goals, and a life story are shown to increase ones life satisfaction. You can look more in depth at these here, along with a couple of other ways to feel more satisfied with your life.
Relationships among the people you love can influence how satisfied you feel with your life. For example, studies in Western societies have shown that the mere presence of children to married couples does not automatically increase your life satisfaction. Rather, the good (or bad) relationships built with these children will alter your evaluation of it.
Satisfaction with life scale
According to the research conducted on the validity of life satisfaction scales, one of the main measurements is based on preferences and values of people (Diener, Inglehart & Tay, 2013). Though we share the same world, we can barely share the same value since we experience things and view life differently.
To measure your own life satisfaction, you can take Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) here. It is a short 5-item instrument designed to measure global cognitive judgments with life. It takes just 1 minute to complete.
Income and education are shown to increase life satisfaction, but this is mainly because they are so highly valued in the world we live in today. Build relationships with loved ones, create achievable goals for yourself, and put yourself in situations where you can exercise your personal strengths and abilities; it will help you experience greater feelings of satisfaction. If you can do these things, you can benefit yourself and those around you.
Barker, E. (2014, March 15). How To Be More Satisfied With Your Life – 5 Steps Proven By Research. Retrieved May 26, 2015, from http://time.com/25208/how-to-be-more-satisfied-with-your-life-5-steps-proven-by-research/ here
Diener, E., Emmons, R., Larson, R., & Griffin, S. (n.d.). The Satisfaction with Life Scale. Retrieved May 27, 2015, from http://www.unt.edu/rss/SWLS.pdf here
Diener, E. (n.d.). The Satisfaction with Life Scale. Retrieved May 27, 2015, from http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/lifesatisfactionscale.pdf here
Diener, E., & Pavot, W. (1993). Review of the Satisfaction With Life Scale. Retrieved May 27, 2015, from http://www.ksbe.edu/_assets/spi/pdfs/survey_toolkit/other_samples/pavot_diener.pdf here
Hsu, B. (n.d.). Happiness versus Life Satisfaction: What's the Difference? Retrieved May 28, 2015, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/blackwhiteandgray/2012/10/happiness-versus-life-satisfaction-whats-the-difference/ here
Life Satisfaction. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2015, from http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/life-satisfaction/ here
Veenhoven, R. (n.d.). The Study of Life Satisfaction. Retrieved May 25, 2015, from http://www2.eur.nl/fsw/research/veenhoven/Pub1990s/96d-full.pdf here