|Tags||happiness (RSS), well being (RSS)|
Studies have shown that those who are high in materialistic orientations are lower in levels of life satisfaction (Kasser and Ahuvia 2002, Richin and Dawson 1992, Belk 1984, Kahneman et al. 2006, Nickerson et al. 2003). Goals for financial success have been negatively correlated with self-esteem, vitality, and self-actualization, and have been related with depression and anxiety (Kasser and Ryan 1993). If materialism doesn’t bring about life satisfaction what will? More importantly why do many people believe that having more money and more things will make them happy? It’s possible that this belief is a result of a focusing effect that results when we step back and appraise our lives (Kahneman et al. 2006). We will discuss this bias here, and many other factors that contribute to what we think will make us happy, and what actually does make us happy.
In almost every culture people rank the pursuit of happiness as one of their most cherished goals in life (Lyubomirsky 2001). As a result, life satisfaction, subjective well being, and happiness have been the focus of a strong line of research. Starting with Diener’s 1984 review paper on subjective well-being (SWB), he describes three meanings of well-being:
1) happiness is based on external criteria of virtue and holiness. Aristotle described such external measures as pride, friendliness, honesty, wittiness, intellectual virtue, rationality in judgment, and scientific knowledge ;
2) happiness is defined by a cognitive assessment of one’s life – how does one feel when reflecting back on one’s life?, and
3) happiness defined by the sum total of affective feelings – did I have more happy moments today, or more frustrated moments?
Global SWB: Most work to date on SWB has focused on measuring the second meaning of happiness – a cognitive global assessment of one’s life. Research based on global measures has found that life circumstances (gender, age, marital status, income, etc.) account for only 8%-15% of life satisfaction (Deiner 1984). Married people are happier than unmarried people, and gender, age and education have little effect on SWB (Myers and Diener 1995). Income in particular is worth touching upon. Up to a certain point absolute income does improve SWB, but after a certain point ($12,000 in GDP) absolute income no longer matters. Though relative income does impact perceptions of well-being (Kahneman et al. 2006), the extremely wealthy have been found to be only slightly happier than the average American, and 37% are actually less happy (Myers and Diener 1995). Furthermore even though there have been large increases in real income in the developed world over the last 50 years, reported life satisfaction has remained fairly constant (Easterlin 1995). Though global SWB scores have been illuminating in understanding “who” is happy based on life circumstances, more recent work has shown that these measures may be subject to cognitive biases. Global questions such as “Overall how satisfied are you with your life?” are subject to the focusing effect. When we answer these types of global questions we are likely to generate the most accessible standards of comparison such as our income or our marital status. Because these factors are so easily accessible, and our answers are constructed at that moment, they end up being overweighed when considering the totality of our lives (Schkade et al. 1998, Kahneman et al. 2006). Income in particular is overweighed by focusing effects. It is more likely that income changes have only a transitory effect on well-being because we quickly adapt (Brickman and Campbell 1971).
Daily Reconstruction Method: An assessment tools that looks more like the third meaning of happiness, the sum of our affective feelings, is more immune to these focusing effects. When measuring well-being through the daily reconstruction methods (DRM) (Kaheneman et al 2004) subject recall events from the previous day and construct a diary of episodes and associated feelings. Using the previous day’s events reduces bias in recall. The difference between the standard SWB method and DRM is likely to be the difference between “I enjoy my kids” in a global sense and “they were a pain last night,” in a momentary affective sense (Kahneman et al. 2004). DRM is likely to define happiness more like the bottom-up approach that Diener describes in his 1984 paper. Studies using DRM have found some different indicators of happiness than those found using the SWB methods. In particular they’ve found that positive affect and enjoyment are influenced more by aspects of temperament and character (depression and sleep quality) and by features of the current situation (time pressured at work), than by features of life circumstance (income and marital status). DRM studies have actually found that people who have higher incomes work more, are subject to more stress and tension, and have less time for passive leisure (Kahneman et al. 2006).
Because when people think about choices in their life, they are more likely to make a global appraisal, they will more likely be vulnerable to focusing effects, especially for accessible things like income and material goods. However, material goods have been shown to yield little joy for most people (Scitovsky 1976, Kahneman et al. 2006) and family income has been found to be associated with anger and anxiety (Schnall et al. 1998). DRM in contrast is less affected by the comparison standards (like income and marital status). DRM methods are also less vulnerable to the hedonic treadmill. When we think of our lives from global perspective we ignore that we are quick to adjust to new circumstances even when they are dramatic. Studies have shown that lottery winners are no more happy one year after their winning, and parapalegics are no less happy one year after being injured (Brickman and Campbell 1971). Because we don’t account for the hedonic treadmill when thinking about our futures, we feel they will be much better if we are more wealthy, and much worse if we don’t get tenure, but in the end we adapt rather quickly (Gilbert et al. 1998). Though DRM may seem like the solution both in surveys and in our own thinking, it also has some shortcomings. If we were to judge our lives only on our moment-to-moment affect we may never make decisions that further our long-term interest – sitting on a beach will always be more pleasant than studying for an exam. The SWB and DRM measures seem more complementary – one that gives you an overall picture (subject to some biases), and one that gives you a moment-by-moment feeling. A good analogy might be to a movie – it has an overall global rating, but moment to moment it takes you through many different feelings. Overall it’s good to consider both.
Disposition: If we are engaging in a discussion about what makes people happy we cannot ignore disposition characteristics. Though we continually strive for happiness, some accounts suggest that most of the positive and negative emotional variability we encounter is genetically determined (Tellegen 1988). Before circumstances are even accounted for we are subject to a much more influential genetic set-point. These factors are more in line with the top-down view of happiness presented by Diener (1984) – we are happy because we are likely to see things through rose-colored glasses. Part of this may be determined by choice, but much by genetics and conditioning.
Characteristics (genetically determined or otherwise) associated with a happy person are extroversion, self-esteem, and a sense of personal control (Myers and Diener 1995). A diverse set of psychological processes moderate the impact of life events, life circumstances, and demographic factors on well-being in different ways for happy people and unhappy people (Lyubomirsky 2001). Motivated psychological processes like positive illusions enable people with high self-esteem to feel optimistic about future life circumstances, feel they have more control than they actually have, and possess confidence over their abilities (Talyor and Brown 1988, Lyubomirsky 2001). Oddly, people with low self-esteem are more accurate in these measures. Furthermore happy people are less likely to engage in social comparison, and are motivated to reduce dissonance by rationalizing their choices after the fact (Lyubominsky 2001, Lieberman et al. 2001).