The Psychology of Everyday Life: Motivation and the Search for Happiness - The Psychology of Happiness

10 important questions on The Psychology of Everyday Life: Motivation and the Search for Happiness - The Psychology of Happiness

What function does happiness have?

Happiness researchers believe that positive emotions signal to us that we are in good shape. Our needs are being met, we have adequate resources, and we are reaching our goals. Positive emotional states also encourage people to engage with the environment, to seek out and take on new goals.

We can contrast the effects of positive emotions with those of negative emotions, such as depression or fear. These emotions signal to the individual that something is not right, that the environment is not safe, and that the best course of action is withdrawal and avoidance.

How much does the intensity of happiness matter?

Apparently, the consistency of positive emotions matters more than the intensity of them. In a 1991 study by Ed Diener and colleagues, the proportion of time that people felt positive emotions was a better predictor of their evaluation of their overall happiness than the intensity of their positive emotions.

In other words, happy people tend to feel mildly or moderately happy most of the time, but may not feel intensely happy all that often.

What is the happiness set point?

In the early 1970s Phillip Brickman and Donald Campbell introduced the notion of the happiness set point. In this view, our general level of happiness is genetically determined and largely untouched by life events. While significant life events may knock us above or below our set point, the effect is only temporary and we return to our baseline in relatively short order.

Although most happiness researchers have since tempered this extreme stance, a fair amount of evidence suggests there is some merit to this idea.

What is the hedonic treadmill?

The concept of the hedonic treadmill is closely related to the concept of the happiness set point. If we are destined to return to our happiness set point over time, then positive life events can only give us a temporary lift.

People who are constantly in search of a higher state of happiness may deny this to themselves, repeatedly pursuing temporary pleasures as if the effect will not, in fact, be temporary. It is as if they are continuously marching on a treadmill, thinking they are going forward when they are really staying in place.

How much does our neighbors' material success affect our satisfaction with our own possessions?

Money clearly matters to some extent and not having enough money definitely has a negative effect. But we can also ask how much money is enough? It is likely that social comparison plays some role here.

We may be perfectly happy with our cute little cottage as long as our neighbors and friends live in similar houses. When our peers start moving into spacious mansions, however, we become dissatisfied with what we have.

The term "social comparison" refers to the way we evaluate our own belongings through comparison with our neighbors' belongings.

What is the current view on the happiness set point?

In a 2005 paper, Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, and Christie Napa Scollon revisited the concept of the happiness set point. In their view, external events do affect our overall sense of wellbeing - we are not immune to our environment. Nevertheless, over time we do tend to adapt to our circumstances, both good and bad.

Moreover, in a 2007 study by Richard Lucas, two fairly large groups of disabled people showed a distinct downturn in their life satisfaction following the onset of their disability, with little to no recovery over time.

What factors seem to affect our general level of happiness?

In recent years happiness researchers have looked at several factors that may influence our level of happiness. More specifically, researchers have studied the contributions of:

  1. Genetics
  2. Demographic characteristics
  3. Interpersonal relationships
  4. Money
  5. Attitude toward life
  6. Sense of control

How much do life circumstances contribute to happiness?

According to this same review of the literature by Lyubormirsky and colleagues, life circumstances such as income, social status, and demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity) matter, but not as much as we might expect, accounting for 10 to 20 percent of overall happiness scores. Estimates similar to this have been reported in other happiness studies.

How important are interpersonal relationships to happiness?

Supportive social relationships likely play a very important role in happiness, judging by many studies showing strong correlations between these two domains. There is also a large body of literature attesting to the powerful effect of social support on our resistance to stress and physical illness, as well as our general well-being.

Do our attitudes affect our level of happiness?

Several lines of research point to the importance of the way we engage with life, in effect, our attitude toward life. Lyubormirsky and colleagues suggest that 40 percent of our overall happiness depends on our active attempts to foster our own happiness through our thoughts, activities, and goals. This viewpoint is echoed by Martin Selig-man in his work on positive psychology.

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