There’s no doubt that happiness research is at the top of the charts in psychology-related studies of well-being. From measures of a population’s psychological health to indications of moment-to-moment variations in people’s daily moods, research tries to pinpoint the factors that will give us joy.
However, this focus may be taking us away from a true understanding of psychological well-being. Happiness research has a definite down side in its emphasis on those feelings of joy and elation. In a New York Times op-ed piece fittingly called Happiness and its Discontents, St. Louis Philosophy professor Daniel Haybron challenged what he saw as an over-reliance on simple happiness scales to index people’s psychological health.
Psychological researchers have, for years, distinguished between “life satisfaction,” or the overall assessment of your feelings and attitudes about your life at a particular point in time, from “subjective well-being,” which captures the actual feelings of happiness you have at the moment. The aptly-labeled phrase paradox of well-being describes a puzzling finding, long known about in the field of psychology and aging, that older people express higher levels of subjective well-being despite the fact that, objectively, their life circumstances are less positive than are those of younger but often, unhappier, people.
According to a 2009 Pew Research Center report, “Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality,” older adults are much happier than they ought to be. The survey results reported here compared the expectations of growing older by people 64 years and younger with the reality of aging as expressed by those 65 and older. Rather than being bogged down by such problems as memory loss, not being able to drive, having a serious illness, not being sexually active, and feeling sad or depressed, older adults felt pretty good about their lives. They felt they had more time for hobbies and interests, family, and volunteer work, and regarded themselves as well-respected, financially secure, and less stressed. Across all age groups, about one-third rate themselves as “very happy,” which is pretty steady from ages 18 and up. The age groups who rate themselves as happiest are the people in their 20s, but there isn’t a tremendous fall-off after that even until ages 75 and older.
Again, though, we have to ask about the difference between “happiness” and other forms of well-being. To be happy means that you feel positive emotions but, as we know, emotions are fleeting states. If I ask you right this second to say how happy you are, would this be a fair estimate of how much well-being you have? For example, maybe at the moment, you’re a little tired, worried about whether one of your family members or loved ones is okay, or just a bit frazzled after a long commute in heavy traffic or bad weather. Being truly honest, you might say “3” out of a 10-point scale. However, if I asked you to rate your satisfaction with your overall state in life, you’d stand back and from this big-picture point of view, and may very well give yourself a far higher 9 out of 10.
It’s also possible that you would rate yourself as both unhappy (at the moment) and not all that satisfied. Perhaps you’re undergoing some pretty negative experiences at the moment, lowering your felt happiness right now, and you’re also feeling dissatisfied because your life isn’t going where you’d like it to go. You’re not getting that job you wanted, you’re not in a close relationship, or you’ve lost touch with your favorite relatives and friends. However, perhaps your mood and dissatisfaction are at their worst right now because you’ve decided to give up the comforts of home to find work in a new location, to serve a charitable cause, or to join the military. You’ve made this decision because you’re seeking to give your life a higher purpose. At the moment, you’re not happy or even satisfied, but you feel that you’re working toward fulfilling important life goals.
Happiness doesn’t equal life satisfaction, or even feelings of fulfillment. What’s more, much of the happiness research reporting on, for example, the relationship between income and “happiness” asks people how happy they are, but not how unhappy they are as well. This bias in the question wording can result in failure to detect true sources of pain and discontent in people’s lives. Just as a physician needs to ask “where it feels ok” in addition to where it doesn’t, psychologists need to give people a chance to provide a description of their complete emotional state, even if it is only their feelings at the moment.
Because of this inherent bias in “happiness” ratings, psychologists David Watson, Lee Clark, and Auke Tellegen designed the “PANAS,” or Positive and Negative Affect Schedule” (1988), which has since been expanded and translated into many languages. It’s much more complex than the usual happiness indexes, which in their simplest form, consist of a single item, or perhaps as many as three or five. In addition to the PANAS, Bradburn’s Affect Balance Scale (ABS; Bradburn, 1969) includes 10 questions with 5 assessing positive and 5 assessing negative emotional states. What matters is not only how happy you are, but what the ratio is of pleasure to displeasure in your life.
Returning to the question of how it is that older adults manage to feel pretty good about themselves and their lives, it’s possible that the paradox of well-being reflects some sort of survival effect. The older adults who are alive now are the ones who, obviously, are not dead. Perhaps these are the ones who are in better health, both physical and psychological, and are of a different breed than their deceased counterparts. Perhaps these individuals were always inclined to view the world in a positive way, and the fact that they are the ones left standing at the end of life reflects their particular optimistic bias.
To understand the possible contributors to subjective well-being means that you need to drill pretty far down into the data, more so than often is evident from the reports we read in the news about which country makes it to the top of the happiness charts. It’s also important to realize that, all other things being equal, claims that money can’t buy you happiness fail to recognize that there are real benefits to having, if not higher income, then higher levels of education and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and class. Although money and status cannot guarantee happiness, they can help to resolve many of the real-life challenges that people at the lower end of the income spectrum experience (Deacon, 2008).
At the end of the day, what’s going to matter more for your long-term feelings of well-being will not be how happy you were on a given Monday or Friday, but whether you see yourself as making a difference in improving the well-being of others. Focus on what you’re doing with your life, and your feelings of well-being will eventually fall into place.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Bradburn, N. M. (1969). The structure of psychological well-being. Oxford England: Aldine.
Deacon, A. (2008). Income, health, and well-being from around the world: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll. Journal of Economic Perspectives 22.
Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063-1070. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.523