As a psychologist , if you want to be taken seriously you better not talk about happiness, you call it subjective-well-being (SWB). Well, I am not a psychologist, and I am not afraid to talk about happiness. But, I think “the pursuit of happiness” means so much more than leaving everything behind for the gold rush or just putting a smile on every morning.
Those are two extremes in which happiness seems to be perceived. People on the one end of the spectrum are only happy when they hit it big, the others see happiness as a mask that has to be put on every day, regardless of their feelings. “Just gotta be happy”…
Of course, most of us operate in the area between. We are genuinely happy about a hot cup of coffee, the first spring day, our daughter’s twentieth stick drawing of a cat or that we did not lock the keys in the car again.
And we often wonder when someone wins big in the lottery how happy they must be. We are happy for someone winning a competition or getting married; there is so much to be happy about. But what makes us happy? And what does happiness mean for our lives?
The Science of Happiness
Little did I know, into where I got myself when I started to read up on the science of happiness. The challenge is obvious; science seeks objectivity and happiness as a feeling is pretty subjective. That just calls for arguments. Boy, scientists love arguments. I know, I am one myself.
People have different opinions and people like to defend their opinions, especially of they had to work their butts off to come to these opinions. Not saying I am any better. Maybe it is because as a chemist I am fine with a photon being a particle and a wave at he same time, I don’t know. Maybe it is because I am just not a psychologist or economist and do not work my butt of in the field, but I am totally okay when different studies come to different results. Life is not black and white, neither is it all puppies and butterflies. That’s no reason not to be happy.
So before I continue, please note, psychologists working on subjective well-being are not always happy; There are lots of points for conflict and I tried to stay with what I believed to be the generally accepted results. I may be wrong of course.
Happiness and Income
Are we happier the more we earn? Statistically, yes. Is there a limit? No.
At least according to a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers not. They come to the conclusion that “while the idea that there is some critical level of income beyond which income no longer impacts well-being is intuitively appealing, it is at odds with the data.”
This study obtained subjective well-being data from four different worldwide surveys conducted over several years, and those data are clear.
However, a study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton showed that in the United States, people earning above $75,000 did not appear to enjoy either more positive affect nor less negative affect than those earning just below that. The authors point out that research has begun to distinguish two aspects SWB. “Emotional well-being, refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience—the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.” The other aspect, “life evaluation refers to the thoughts that people have about their life when they think about it.”
While for the life evaluation there appears to be no limit, our emotional well-being (the actual happiness) does not increase above a certain amount of income. As they authors put it ”high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness”. Doesn’t that make us readers happy? Rising income is not inevitably accompanied by increasing SWB as also Diener, Tay, and Oishi conclude.
Other Causes of Happiness
Whether we are happy also depends on whether we are extroverts, how old we are, our health, and even our genes may influence our degree of SWB.
But then honestly how much does it matter to us as individuals what thousands of others think about their subjective well-being (happiness)? So money may or may not make us happy, but can we turn the game around and ask whether there is a reason for why we should strive to be happy other than liking the feeling? Are there any scientifically proven benefits that come with being happy?
The Benefits of Being Happy
The keyword is here correlation and causality. For example as we got better in reading while we passed through elementary school grades, the student’s height had to correlate with reading skill. But that of course, does not mean that we can estimate the reading skill by student size within any given class. Size does not cause reading skill. For the same reason, ice cream was once thought to be the cause of polio, just because consumption of ice cream and polio cases peaked in summer (see the video here)
The same may be the case with happiness. Married couples are statistically happier, but maybe being happy and being married just coincides for other reasons? Or is marriage caused by happiness? In fact through careful study economists and psychologists have found several benefits to being happy:
Happiness/ high subjective well-being leads to:
1) better social relationships
2) increased altruism
3) better health and longevity
4) greater work productivity
5) improved ability to resolve conflicts
6) improved self-image and perception of others
7) financial success
Yes, even financial success seems to be caused by happiness to a good portion. Looking at these benefits, it is no wonder so many self-help books and blogs talk about happiness.
The key, however, does not lay in just putting a “happy mask” on, acting like there were no problems. That doesn’t work. I wrote about the power of don’t before (little hint: click the Don’t button). Just try not to think about something. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t make happy. The solutions lays in tackling these problems head-on and solving them. Even the small wins count, as long as we notice them consciously (see Emmons and McCullough). Such recorded wins create happiness. This happiness in return prepares us for more good things to come.
Just in 2012 about 12,000 publications related to subjective well-being were written according to Ed Diener. Given the benefits, the reasons are clear. Happiness is an important socioeconomic factor. Happy employees are for example more productive, healthier, and better at solving conflicts. A happy population produces more, does better financially, is less prone to suicide, more willing to give, and more likely to get married and have children.
For reasons of readability I did not place a reference next to each individual fact I am citing as it is typical for scientific publications. However, below I am listing all my sources. Not all papers are freely available, but when they were, I also added a link to their PDF files.
- Beatriz López Ulloa, Valerie Moller and Sousa-Poza, A. (2013) How Does Subjective Well-Being Evolve with Age? A Literature Review. IZA Discussion Paper No. 7328. (PDF)
- Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (2013) Subjective Well-Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Saturation? NBER Working Paper Series.(PDF)
- Diener, E. (2013) The Remarkable Changes in the Science of Subjective Well-Being. Perspectives on Psychological Science 8(6), 663-666.
- Diener, E., & Chan, M. Y. (2011). Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 1–43.
- Edmans, A. (2012).The link between job satisfaction and firm value, with implications for corporate social responsibility. Academy of Management Perspectives, 26, 1–19.
- Emmons, R.A. and McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(2), 377-389. (PDF)
- Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., Asplund, J. W., Killham, E. A., & Agrawal, S. (2010). Causal impact of employee work perceptions on the bottom line of organizations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 378–389.
- Kahneman, D. and Deaton, A. (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(38), 16489-16493. (PDF)
- Lawless, N. M., & Lucas, R. E. (2011). Predictors of regional well-being: A county level analysis. Social Research, 101, 341–357. (PDF)
- Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. and Diener, E. (2005) The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin 131(6), 803-855. (PDF)
- Myers, D.G. (2000) The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist 55(1), 56-67. (PDF)
If you think I misrepresented your research, please contact me. Please also contact me for all other reasons. Thank you