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Why Are You Feeling Unhappy When Things Are So Good?

More and better things probably don't make you happier.

Ask yourself these questions: Are you more likely to live longer of your grandparents? Do you own more things than your parents? Are young males you know more or less likely to see combat than their grandfathers? Are you more or less likely to be a victim of a crime than 30 years ago?

By every objective measure, the quality of life for most people has greatly improved. We are healthier and safer than ever before. Of course, some lives are worse off than before. Your life, your neighbor’s, your community may be amongst those afflicted by a natural disaster, unemployment, crime or drug addiction, for example. But if you look at the total populations, not particular individuals, then the trend is in a positive direction.

That is the argument made by Steven Pinker, professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard University and author of several best-selling books on the state of the world.

Pinker makes his case for our improved condition with graphs, charts, numbers and studies. His assessment seems irrefutable: We live in, if not the best of all possible worlds, at least in times far better than ever before.

If nearly every objective measure of the quality of life is up, then why doesn’t it feel that way to so many? Why hasn’t the level of happiness risen commensurately with the quality of life?

One reason for the disconnect between Pinker’s optimism and general feeling of malaise may be in the methodology used to measure quality of life and happiness. Pinker measures that which is objective and therefore subject to data analysis. Happiness, though, is subjective and notoriously difficult to measure. What is known about the happiness of a person is what they tell the surveyor.

Whether people are happy or not depends upon what you mean by happiness. Psychologists and interviewers assume a definition and then ask respondents questions based upon that definition. But no matter how careful the questions may be phrased, people are responding to how they understand each of the subjective experiences being surveyed.

But isn’t this much like the problem around pain? One person’s experience of pain may be very different from another’s. Medicine has come up with an elegant solution: Ask patients to rate the pain on a scale from 1-10. They are simply reporting that whatever it is that they feel, it is the most excruciating they can imagine.

But happiness is different. If you ask someone who has just taken a hit of heroine to rate their degree of happiness, they may well report it as a ten. Yet the same people may report that they aren’t happy with their lives. This reveals the two different ideas around happiness: happiness as pleasure and happiness as life satisfaction. Often this is the difference between short-term happiness (getting high, for example) and long-term happiness (having life-long friends).

So it is possible to claim that people are happier because that which gives pleasure has risen (more income, better health), while at the same time people may feel less satisfied with life and therefore less happy. Things can give us pleasure but relationships give us satisfaction. The problem with a life of greater pleasure is that it may, at some point, undercut the other kind of happiness, which is at least, if not more, important in the long run.

There is little argument that capitalism has been the most successful economic arrangement in history in raising the standard of living. It is largely responsible for many of the advances that Pinker points to—indoor plumbing, better medical treatments, higher literacy rates, etc. But capitalism is also destruction of the bonds that make life truly satisfying. While capitalism promotes innovation and provides goods and services like never before, it undermines personal relations. Just think of technology’s latest good, smart phones. Which is the happier picture in your mind: people around a dining table, each on their phone, or a gathering around a table where there is direct conversation? (In both instances, assume that people like those they are interacting with.)

In his book on ethics, Aristotle recognized that material goods can provide a floor for a happy life. Being ill or impoverished makes happiness more difficult to achieve, for example. However, beyond a certain point, additional material goods don’t add to the goodness of life. Better relations are more likely to lead to greater happiness than having more money.