Happiness research is becoming the new religion in social science. Out with the psychoanalysts, in with the hedonists. Instead of finding out what makes you "tick," the "High Priests of Happiness" merely seek to tickle your fancy. The new worship of happiness, ushered in by the positive psychology movement, emphasizes all the ways that we can maximize our feelings in moments of joy, elation, and pleasure. Survey follows upon survey as the wave of bliss thermometers continues to rise through the populace. You've probably read the results of at least one of these surveys in your news and Twitter feeds. The findings are easily summed up in 6-word headlines or 140 character tweets: "Midlife Adults Least Happy" and "Most Black Americans Say They're Happy," to name two that come to mind.

Now, I suppose that to avoid sounding like a negative psychologist (which I most decidedly am not), I should hop right on the bandwagon and tout the virtues of happiness studies. My own research, on personal fulfillment, sounds like it's probably got a strong dose of the happiness factor. Sorry to say, though, that happiness research leaves a lot to desired. Its most striking flaw is the superficiality of happiness measures.

Social surveys of a country's mood almost always tend to include an overall life rating question. Some surveys use what is called "Cantril's Ladder," in which you rate your overall satisfaction on a 10 point scale (like the rungs of a ladder). Others look at the balance of positive to negative affect (the "Affect Balance Scale"). A related measure taps "life satisfaction," a more cognitive evaluation of your current situation. Finally, there's "subjective well-being," or your assessment of how good you're feeling at the moment.

Most of the well-publicized happiness research uses rating scales that are short, but not particularly sweet. Many of the scales are given in the context of large (like hundreds of thousands of people large) general surveys, some on the Internet. Yet, with quantity in numbers comes decline in quality of measurement. The study on the racial gap in happiness ratings, for example, bases its conclusions largely upon the single item: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days, would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"

More fine-grained measures of satisfaction ask respondents to rate their satisfaction with specific areas of life including health, marriage, job, and finances. Yet, the headlines from this and similar studies treat happiness, satisfaction, and subjective well-being as equivalent notions. So unless you read the fine print (if you can actually find the fine print) you can't ever be sure what's being measured and how. The problem is compounded by the fact that the sample sizes are so extraordinarily large that the tiniest correlation (a measure of the strength of a relationship) comes out as statistically significant. But statistical significance is not the same as conceptual significance, and therein lies the problem.

Let's look just at that 3-point happiness scale in which people are asked to say whether they are "very," "pretty," or "not too" happy. Can the complexities of your life "taken all together" be boiled down into one pathetic set of adjectives? Can you really and truly answer that question with any confidence? Yet this measure forms the basis for much of the research conducted by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his examination of the question of whether money can buy happiness.

It's surprising that Kahneman places so much stock in this inadequate happiness measure. Kahneman has provided illuminating views on the human adult's cognitive foibles when judging probabilities of common events. He wisely pointed out a few years ago that there is a kind of "focusing illusion" that we make when evaluating our happiness. We don't usually think that much about (a) whether or not we're happy or (b) why. Only when someone asks you to rate your happiness, or try to account for your happiness (or lack thereof) does the idea suddenly come into focus. At that point, you're probably somewhat wrong about (a) and most likely very wrong about (b). In short, we don't know how happy we truly are or why.

To me, the focusing illusion characterizes the happiness research enterprise, not just the measurement of happiness. You can ask a little kid if he or she is happy and you'll probably get a decent and honest reply. Children don't reflect on abstract concepts such as life's meaning, and whether they are finding or have found it. Adults, in contrast, have the cognitive and emotional capacity to reflect on all of life's ambiguities and impossibilities. More importantly, most adults recognize that being happy is not the same as being fulfilled.

My research on midlife adults has shown that the majority of people are more than willing to sacrifice their own happiness to work on behalf of a larger cause. At the end of the day (or your life), it's the feeling of making a contribution to the world that's going to contribute to your deeper sense of fulfillment. The question to ask is not "Am I happy?" but "Am I making a difference in the world?" Try nailing that with a 3-point scale.

In summary, here are some ideas to keep in mind to look for fulfillment in all the right places:

1. Thinking about happiness can actually lead you to be less happy. One of the original positive psychologists, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, proposed the idea of "flow"-the more we stop and examine our good feelings, the more they may dissipate.

2. Don't be seduced by eye-catching headlines. Learn to discern. You wouldn't buy a piece of fruit without giving it a squeeze. Learn to do the same with the results of studies that might have personal relevance to you.

3. Don't worry if you're not happy. Feeling blah? Sometimes people do. We all have down days. Don't expect to feel great 100% of the time, but...

4. If good feelings elude you entirely, it's not too late to change. If your sad mood continues on a daily basis and you don't feel that you are making a difference in the world, it may be time to seek help from an expert-be it a licensed psychologist, counselor, or trusted advisor. You can find ways to improve both your mood and your sense of fulfillment.

5. Look for true sources of fulfillment.The eternal hunt for personal happiness can leave you hollow. Fulfillment is found by making a difference in the lives of others. Not only will you benefit others, over the long term you will find an increased sense of inner well-being. Your true merit is measured in how much you've mattered to others.

Living a life that matters gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, and in the long run, is how you will find fulfillment. During these tough times, it's more important than ever to keep your sights focused on your long-term goals.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Kahneman, D., Krueger, A.B., Schkade, D., Schwartz, N. & Stone, A.A. (2006). Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion. Science, 312, 1908-1910. DOI: 10.1126/science.1129688

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