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Why You Don’t Have to Be Happy to Feel Good

New research questions the role of happiness vs. satisfaction in well-being.

Key points

  • Positive psychology assumes that happiness is at the heart of well-being.
  • New research using a network approach to well-being suggests that simple satisfaction is more important than you might realize.
  • By testing your momentary well-being, you can understand the value of appreciating what you have.

When you stop and think about your own well-being, what are the first images that come to mind? According to traditional views within positive psychology, it’s the emotion of happiness these images produce that fuels your well-being by creating waves of energy that reverberate throughout the rest of your conscious experience.

However, what about those moments in which you simply feel contented, glad that things are going well for you? You might not define yourself as happy in the sense of feeling elated, but you definitely would rate yourself as satisfied.

Because positive psychology researchers treat satisfaction as distinct from happiness, they may be missing the mark in capturing what really contributes to well-being, according to a new study by Tilburg University’s Marianne van Woerkom and colleagues (2022).

One reason that prior investigators incorrectly focused on happiness, the Dutch researchers maintain, is that their measures relied on “declarative well-being” measures, or “the report of well-being to someone else or to an audience.” Instead, because subjective well-being measures are by definition subjective, it is more fitting to use “introspection and awareness of oneself in the moment.”

In keeping with this distinction, the authors devised a study in which they asked participants to provide momentary assessments several times a day, which, in turn, could be fed into a “network analysis." Using this approach, the Dutch researchers became able to answer the question of whether happiness or satisfaction would prove to be the main driving force in feelings of well-being.

A Network Approach to Well-being

The underlying assumption of a network approach is that related elements of a psychological concept cluster in complex ways that reflect their interactions. Using this method, you would not average up the scores people have on these various elements. Instead, you would see how all the scores relate to each other by calculating the correlations among them and seeing which ones naturally fall closer to each other and which are more distant. The results of the network analysis are represented as geometric shapes of nodes (circles) connected by lines.

With this image in your mind, you can now think about these clusters as possibly changing from moment to moment, depending on what’s going on in a person’s life at the time. In the words of the Tilburg University authors, this makes it possible to “accurately capture the variability of subjective experiences and to detect and discover patterns, which are missed when using a sum or average score.”

As you can imagine, the network approach is considerably more difficult to pull off than is the standard method of assessing well-being based on one-time average ratings. At its most basic, the one-shot approach requires only that the researcher ask a participant to rank their happiness or satisfaction on a 1-10 scale. Try this on yourself to see what it’s like to summarize your entire range of feelings over time (such as the past week) in a single number. Not easy, is it?

Testing the Network Approach to Well-Being

Having completed this brief exercise, you may now be able to appreciate the advantages of an approach that considers momentary fluctuations in a range of components within the well-being domain. You might also wonder how this could be accomplished without overburdening a research participant. To tackle this problem, the U. Tilburg team used brief, but well-established indices of what they believed would constitute the key dimensions of well-being. At each assessment, participants reported on their actions and whether they were with others.

Each is defined below, along with the items used to measure them (all of which are rated on a seven-point scale). Try rating yourself on each one based on your current state of mind:

Mood State (positive vs. negative, high vs. low activation.)

Positive affect: “I feel cheerful,” “I feel satisfied,” “I feel happy.”

Negative affect: “I feel insecure,” “I feel anxious,” “I feel down.”

Need Fulfillment (Having basic needs met that contribute to sense of fulfillment.)

Fulfillment of need for autonomy: “I choose to do this,” “This feels like an obligation” (reversed).

Fulfillment of need for competence: “I am good at this,” “I doubt that I can do this” (reversed).

Fulfillment of need for relatedness: “I feel appreciated,” “I feel part of this company,” “I feel misunderstood” (reversed).

Psychological Well-Being

“I feel inspired,” “I am satisfied with myself,” “I pursue my goals.”

Physical Well-Being

“I feel tired” (reversed),” “I feel energetic.”

If you want to get a sense of how the Dutch investigators tracked well-being over time, return back to this page and give yourself this brief test once again later in the day.

The sample of 151 participants in the Woerkem et al. study ranged from 18-65 years of age (average age of 42 years old) who each provided, on average, 33 assessments over the five consecutive days of the study. The mobile application for the study prompted participants at each of ten randomly selected 90-minute blocks across five consecutive days. If they were busy, they still had 15 minutes to complete the measures and have their responses count.

If happiness drives well-being, then the ratings of positive affect should be the central nodes of the network analyses combining all experiential ratings, but if satisfaction is at the core of well-being, then the item “I feel satisfied” should occupy center stage. As it turned out, satisfaction indeed took on this key role.

Not only was the satisfaction item at the center of the network, but it also linked out to several other nodes, earning it the distinction of receiving the highest “betweenness," meaning that it showed up in other node linkages within the network. As the authors concluded, “This means that feeling satisfied cannot just be seen as a passive indicator of well-being, but also as an active agent in a causal system that brings about other aspects of well-being.”

Clearly, feeling satisfied, though not reflecting a state of euphoria, can serve to provide the type of fulfillment you wouldn’t find in a fleeting sense of happiness.

Tapping Into Your Satisfaction

It may be comforting to think that you don’t have to experience elation in order to experience inner gratification or even fulfillment. Do you ever find your eyes wandering over to a favorite houseplant, photograph, or book on the shelf that gives you a peaceful feeling of pleasure? If so, then you can understand how this vision and the feelings that go with it can lift you out of the doldrums, even if only temporarily.

Looking back at the other components of well-being identified by the Dutch researchers, what else can you draw on to help get you back on track? Perhaps you never really thought about fulfilling your need for competence as a source of well-being. Yet, just appreciating the results of your success in completing a project can be enough, according to the study's results, to provide a well-being boost.

When it comes to relationships with other people, the same principles apply. Imagine that the Tilburg U. study app beeped you while sitting on the couch binge-watching the latest streaming series with your significant other by your side. Both of you just had a chuckle, and along comes the notification to provide those 7-point ratings. That’s enough to count as a contributor to overall well-being.

To sum up, feeling satisfied may be, as Woerkem et al. note, a “low arousal emotion.” Yet, its power to produce effects throughout your own network of well-being may be enough to energize a wider range of positive emotions to sustain your fulfillment over time.

References

Woerkom, M. van, Constantin, M., Janssens, M., Reijnders, J., Jacobs, N., & Lataster, J. (2022). Networks of happiness: Applying a network approach to well-being in the general population. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being doi: 10.1007/s10902-022-00546-x

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