When psychologists use the term happiness, they tend to mean one of two things. In the narrow sense, happiness is a specific emotion that people feel when good things happen. It includes feelings of pleasantness along with moderate levels of arousal. In addition, the emotion often co-occurs with a specific facial expression: the smile. Happiness can be distinguished both from negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger and also from other positive emotions such as affection, excitement, and interest. People from around the world tend to have a similar concept for happiness and can recognize happiness in others. As a result, the emotion of happiness is often included as one of a small number of basic emotions that cannot be broken down into more fundamental emotions and that may combine to form other, more complex emotions (in fact, it is sometimes the only positive emotion that is considered to be basic). Thus, happiness is an important concept for researchers who study emotions.
Yet happiness also has a broader meaning, and an entire field of research has developed around this more inclusive concept. Psychologists often use the term subjective well-being to distinguish this broad collection of happiness-related phenomena from the more specific emotion. In this broader sense, happiness is a global positive evaluation of a person’s life as a whole. As one might expect, people who are happy in this way tend to experience frequent positive emotions and infrequent negative emotions. But this broader form of happiness is not purely emotional; it also has a cognitive component. When happy people are asked to think back on the conditions and events in their life, they tend to evaluate these conditions and events positively. Thus, happy people report being satisfied with their lives and the various domains in their lives.
Interestingly, these different components of happiness do not always co-occur within the same person. It is possible that someone could experience a great deal of negative emotions yet still acknowledge that the conditions of his or her life are good ones. For example, someone who works with the poor, the sick, or the destitute may experience frequent negative emotions but may also feel satisfied with life because he or she feels that the work is worthwhile. Similarly, someone who spends lots of time engaging in hedonistic pleasures may experience frequent positive affect but may also feel that life is empty and meaningless. Subjective well-being researchers are interested in the various factors that influence these distinct components.
Psychologists are interested in happiness for two reasons. First, psychologists study happiness because lay people are interested in happiness. When people from around the world are asked to list the things that are most important to them, happiness consistently tops the list. People rank attaining happiness as being more important than acquiring money, maintaining good health, and even going to heaven. Psychologists believe that they can help people achieve this goal of being happy by studying the factors that are associated with happiness.
A second reason why psychologists study happiness is because people’s evaluative responses to the world may provide information about human nature. One of the most basic principles guiding psychological theory is that people and animals are motivated to approach things in the world that cause pleasure and to avoid things in the world that cause pain. Presumably, this behavior results from adaptive mechanisms that guide organisms toward resources and away from dangers. If so, people’s evaluative reactions to the world should reveal important information about basic characteristics of human nature. For instance, some psychologists have suggested that human beings have a basic need to experience strong and supportive social relationships. These psychologists point to evidence from the field of subjective well-being to support their claim—people’s social relationships are reliably linked to their happiness. Thus, cataloging the correlates of happiness should provide important information about the features of human nature.
It is reasonable to ask whether happiness can even be studied scientifically. Psychologists can’t see happiness, and therefore it might seem that happiness would be difficult to measure. However, psychologists have spent decades studying happiness measures (including self-report measures), and a great deal of evidence now suggests that these measures are valid. For instance, when researchers ask people to report on their happiness, their answers tend to be consistent over time: People who say they are happy now also tend to say that they are happy when asked again in the future. Because the conditions in people’s lives don’t usually change that frequently, the stability of happiness measures provides support for the idea that these measures truly do tap this important construct. In addition, research shows that when life events do occur, people’s reports of happiness change in response.
Perhaps more importantly, when psychologists try to assess happiness in a variety of different ways, these measures all seem to converge on the same answer. For instance, when researchers ask people to provide self-reports of happiness, these reports tend to agree with informant-reports of happiness, that is, ratings provided by friends and acquaintances. Furthermore, psychologists have ways of determining who is happy without even asking for an explicit judgment of happiness, and again, these measures tend to agree with self-reports. For example, some researchers ask people to list as many positive memories as they can within a minute. People who say that they are happy tend to be able to remember and list more things. Psychologists can even find evidence of happiness in the brain: Certain patterns of brain activity are reliably associated with happiness. Together, this evidence makes psychologists confident that happiness can, in fact, be measured.
Correlates of Happiness
It is important to first note that although the preponderance of self-help books might suggest otherwise, most people are quite happy. When psychologists track people’s levels of happiness, most people report being in mildly positive moods most of the time. In addition, when psychologists ask people to rate their overall life satisfaction, most people report scores that are above neutral. This research finding is not limited to relatively well-off samples (like the college students who are often asked to participate in psychological studies). Instead, it has been replicated in many different populations in many nations around the world. Thus, when psychologists study the correlates of happiness, they are usually looking for factors that distinguish the very happy from the mildly happy rather than the happy from the miserable.
Psychologists have arrived at several surprising conclusions in their search for predictors of happiness. Many of the factors that may first come to mind do not seem to play a major role in happiness. For example, although people strive to acquire high-paying jobs and dream about winning the lottery, income is not strongly correlated with happiness. Rich people are happier than poorer people, but the difference is not very large. As one might expect, the association between money and happiness is strongest among very poor groups and among poor nations: Income leads to smaller and smaller gains in happiness as income levels rise.
Health also plays a role in well-being, but the associations are, again, surprisingly small. Surveys of representative populations show that objective measures (including doctors’ reports, hospital visits, and lists of symptoms) are very weakly correlated with happiness. Subjective reports (such as a person’s own evaluation of his or her health) tend to correlate more strongly, but even these associations are, at most, moderate in size. In addition, although people with major health problems such as paralyzing spinal-cord injuries are quite a bit less happy than uninjured people, the difference is not as large as some might expect. Even people with very serious illnesses tend to report happiness scores that are above neutral.
The factor that has been most closely linked to high levels of happiness is social relationships. Research consistently shows that people who have strong social relationships tend to report higher levels of well-being. As with other domains, subjective reports of relationship quality and relationship satisfaction tend to exhibit the highest correlations with subjective well-being. But even more objective measures, including the number of close friends a person has, the number of social organizations to which the person belongs, and the amount of time the person spends with others, all show small to moderate correlations with happiness. As one might expect based on this research, specific types of social relationships are also important for well-being. For instance, marital status is one of the strongest demographic predictors of happiness. Married people consistently report higher levels of happiness than single people, who report greater happiness than the widowed, divorced, or separated. Interestingly, however, it does not appear that marriage, itself, causes higher levels of well-being. Longitudinal studies show that people only receive a small boost in happiness around the time they get married and they quickly adapt to baseline levels. The differences between married and unmarried people are due primarily to the lasting negative effects of divorce and widowhood, along with selection effects that might actually predispose happy people to marry.
Other demographic characteristics also show weak associations with happiness. Religious people tend to report greater happiness than nonreligious people, though the size of these effects varies depending on whether religious beliefs or religious behaviors are measured. Factors such as intelligence, education, and job prestige are also only slightly related to well-being. Happiness does not seem to change dramatically over the course of the life span, except perhaps at the very end of the life when declines are somewhat steep. In addition, sex differences in well-being are not large.
In contrast to the relatively weak effects of external circumstance, research shows that internal factors play a strong role in subjective well-being. Individual differences in happiness-related variables emerge early in life, are stable over time, and are at least partially heritable. For instance, behavioral genetic studies show that identical twins who were reared apart are quite a bit more similar in their levels of happiness than are fraternal twins who were reared apart. This suggests that genes play an important role. Most estimates put the heritability of well-being components at around 40% to 50%.
Personality researchers have shown that at least some of these genetic effects may be due to the influence of specific personality traits on happiness. For example, the stable personality trait of extraversion is moderately correlated with positive affect (and, to a lesser extent, with life satisfaction and negative affect). People who are outgoing, assertive, and sociable tend to report more intense and more frequent positive emotions. This association is so robust that some psychologists have even suggested that the two constructs—extraversion and positive affect—are controlled by the same underlying physiological systems. Similarly, researchers have shown that the basic personality trait of neuroticism is moderately to strongly correlated with negative affect (and again, to a lesser extent, with life satisfaction and positive affect). This and other research on the links between happiness and traits (including factors such as optimism and self-esteem) show that personality plays a strong role in people’s subjective well-being.
Cognitive Processes That Affect Happiness
There is a popular notion that the way that people view the world should influence their happiness. Some people always look for the silver lining in things, and presumably this positive outlook shapes the emotions that they feel. Psychologists, too, believe that the way that one thinks about the world is related to characteristic levels of happiness. A great deal of research has been conducted to examine the cognitive processes that affect people’s well-being.
For instance, many researchers examine the role that social comparison processes play in happiness. Initially, psychologists thought that people evaluated the conditions in their own lives by comparing them to the conditions in other people’s lives. Those individuals who were worse off than the people around them (in other words, people who experience upward comparisons) should experience unhappiness; those individuals who were better off than the people around them (in other words, people who experience downward comparisons) would experience happiness. Although this effect can occur, more recent research suggests that the processes are a bit more complicated. For one thing, both upward and downward comparisons can lead to either increases or decreases in happiness. A person may look to someone who is better off and think, “I am doing terribly in comparison,” or he or she may say, “I can get what she has if I just try a little harder.” Obviously, these two interpretations should lead to different effects on happiness. In addition, research shows that happy and unhappy people often choose different people for comparison. Happy people may choose comparison people who serve to maintain their happiness; unhappy people may choose comparisons that lead to less happiness. Thus, social comparison affects happiness in complicated ways.
Psychologists have also shown that goals and aspirations influence happiness. Not surprisingly, people who are rapidly approaching a goal tend to experience higher levels of happiness than people who are approaching a goal more slowly. But research also shows that simply having important goals is associated with greater happiness. Presumably, the sense of purpose that these goals create may protect people from the negative effects of temporary setbacks. Interestingly, the specific goals that people choose may also affect their happiness. Research suggests that choosing goals that are a challenge, but not unachievable, is important.
Although people tend to think about happiness as an outcome that they desire rather than as a tool that can be used to achieve additional goals, psychologists have also begun to ask what function happiness serves. Barbara Fredrickson has developed what is probably the most well-known of these theories, and she suggested that the function of happiness (or more precisely, the function of positive emotions) is to broaden one’s thinking and to build one’s resources. According to this theory, positive emotions lead people to think creatively and to try new things. As a result, happy people can develop new ways to approach the world, new interests, new social relationships, and even new physical skills. All of these effects lead to positive outcomes in people’s lives.
Psychologists have begun using experimental and longitudinal studies to determine whether positive affect plays a role in future positive outcomes. These studies provide evidence that happy people are more sociable and cooperative than unhappy people, are healthier than unhappy people, and earn more money than unhappy people. A number of studies have even shown that happy people live longer than unhappy people (and this is not just due to the fact that happy people tend to be healthy). Thus, although most people want to be happy because it feels good, this desired goal may lead to other positive outcomes in their lives.
- Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.