Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. — Dalai Lama
There are few things in life we pursue as consistently and determinedly as happiness. Heck, “the pursuit of happiness” is inscribed in the US Constitution (i.e., so you know it’s legit).
But for as important as we all agree happiness is, the field of psychology hasn’t treated it so. For example, in 1981, there were close to 130 publications on the subject. Of course, over time this has improved, and by 2012, there were close to 12,000 publications. But even still, the field lags behind many other subjects.
Still, happiness researchers—or as they call themselves, “subjective well being” researchers— still have a lot to figure out.
So today, let’s examine the state of the research; and maybe, by the end of it, you’ll be an expert on happiness yourself.
Which would mean you still don’t fully understand what’s going on.
SUBJECTIVE WELL BEING
If you were asked to describe happiness (which we’re going to call “subjective well being,” for scientific accuracy), you may say something like “happiness is feeling positive;” however, researchers divide it into three components: one’s cognitive satisfaction with their life, one’s positive emotional experiences, and one’s negative emotional experiences.
Now, for a while, researchers treated these different aspects as the same thing, but research shows they’re independent. For example, one’s income tends to strongly influence life satisfaction while having little effect on negative emotional experiences. Similarly, personality traits like extraversion influence the extent of positive emotions people feel, without having much influence on the extent of negative emotions they feel.
Through whichever route you achieve greater subjective well being, though, the benefits are very important. Those with greater subjective well being are more likely to be married (and married happily), healthier, maintain better social relationships, and be more productive at work.
Oh yeah, and they live longer.
Now, from what I’ve shared so far, you may conclude that here is a simple equation for ultimate subjective well being: maximize positive emotions, minimize negative emotions, and you’ll be satisfied with life. And for the last century or so in psychology, that’s how it’s been conceptualized.
But if we go back even further, say circa 2,000 years ago, we find notably different advice.
In Aristotle’s famous tome, Nicomachean Ethics he first suggests that happiness is not simply the absence of unpleasant emotions. Instead, Aristotle’s suggestion was that happiness is about feeling the right kind of emotions.
To draw an example from my own life, let’s say someone illegally (and intentionally) rammed you in the chest while playing flag football. In that moment, feeling anger might be the right emotion to feel.
(And oh, I definitely felt the right emotion that night.)
And it’s not just Aristotle’s musings that support this: Just this year, researchers interviewed over 2,000 people across 8 different countries to put this hypothesis to the test.
From this, they first confirm that, yes, people who experience more (or less) positive (or negative) emotions have greater subjective well being. However, above and beyond this, it was important that people felt the right emotions; that is, the smaller the difference between the emotions people experienced and the emotions they desired to feel, the greater that person’s subjective well being.
So, if you’re to take one thing from today’s post, take it from the research team themselves: “The secret to happiness, then, may involve not only feeling good but also feeling right.”
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: What are some examples from your own life where you may have felt a positive emotion that you didn’t really want to? For example, have you ever wanted to be mad at someone but you couldn’t help having positive emotions toward them? What about feeling okay after a traumatic occurrence, when rather, you would want to feel sadness?
Diener, E. (2013). The remarkable changes in the science of subjective well-being. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 663-666.
Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Oishi, S., & Kim, M. Y. (2017). The secret to happiness: Feeling good or feeling right?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(10), 1448.