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Can You Ever Truly Know What Makes You Happy?

New research shows how hard it's to understand your own sources of happiness.

The idea that happiness is a state you can achieve through your own actions underlies many of the inspirational messages you see conveyed in posters, in Facebook memes, and advice from popular happiness gurus.

The keys to happy living, in these messages, include such actions as thinking positively, looking for the silver lining in bad situations, and focusing on your own positive attributes. Indeed, such inspirational messages include the written or unwritten assumption that you actually do need to be happy. But what is it that truly makes you happy? Can you ever really know?

Imagine you've just accomplished what to you is a major goal, and you're feeling pretty pleased about it. You wanted to finish an important project by a deadline, and you did. But how is it that you were able to achieve that goal? Was it due to your own capabilities, or was it just luck that everything fell into place? Did you need other people to help you, or is it something you did on your own? And now that you've gotten the results you wanted, do you honestly feel better about yourself? Does your happiness in the moment translate to a boost in self-esteem?

On the other hand, what if you failed at your goal and missed that deadline? You could conclude that you're a failed person who can't ever get things done on time, or you could turn your explanation around onto the situation (other people, bad luck, an impossible task) and still come out feeling happy and good about yourself.

According to happiness mantras in the popular media, your best bet would be to preserve your good feelings about yourself by taking stock of your accomplishments in the face of what were insurmountable odds. You could see the silver lining by singing a line from Kelly Clarkson's "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger." There. You've managed to keep your self-esteem intact and you can still feel happy.

University of Missouri's Liudmila Titova and co-author Kennon Sheldon (2019) believe that most people manage to preserve their happiness and self-esteem through what’s known as a “self-serving bias (SSB).” A considerable amount of social psychological research supports the idea that most people with high self-esteem prefer to see themselves as the cause of positive outcomes but put the onus on others, or the situation, for negative ones. It's not enough to sing your way out of a disappointment, you also have to bend your perceptions via SSB.

Furthermore, SSB's feed on themselves because each time you attribute success to your inner qualities, you ratchet your self-esteem up one more notch. However, as you might imagine, this is not a fail-safe approach. Problems arise, as Titova and Sheldon point out, “when ‘rose-colored glasses’ become ‘rose-colored blinders.'" Too much of a SSB leads you to be unable to learn from experiences in which you failed. Maybe you needed to plan ahead more than you did in order to make that deadline you missed.

An understanding of SSB requires, according to the Minnesota researchers, a broader look at people’s so-called “attributional style.” This involves looking at the causes of your behavior in terms of stability (the cause continues over time), internality (the cause was internal or external to you), and globality (the outcome applies generally or just to a particular situation). In the SSB, you see your happiness as resulting from factors within yourself that are constant over time and that apply generally to many situations in your life.

A slightly different fourth component must also be taken into account according to Titova and Sheldon. This has to do not just with whether a cause is internal (involving you) or external (involving other people or situations) but also whether you are able to control those factors. You could see yourself as in control of external factors if, for example, you're able to take advantage of situations to get them to work in your favor. In the SSB, controllability involves seeing factors within yourself as the cause of your own happiness. You're happy because of the actions you took, not because of anything that other people did for you. Controllability may not always work in your favor, however. Perceiving that you have high personal control in situations that aren’t going well will lead you to feel shame and guilt. If you perceive high external control in those situations (i.e. others are at fault), you’ll experience anger.

The main hypothesis guiding the Titova and Sheldon study was that “positive feelings at a particular point in time, and higher subjective well-being (SWB) overall, are associated with more stable, internal, and personally controllable attributions for that state of mind." In other words, due to the self-serving bias people have, you are more likely to take credit for events that had happy endings which, in turn, builds your feelings of self-esteem. The authors conducted a set of three studies, all using undergraduate samples, attempting to link attributions of causality to the self-perpetuation of feelings of well-being via these positivity biases.

In the first study, the research team prompted participants to recall times in their life when they were happy or unhappy. With this experience in mind, participants then rated their associated feelings of locus of causality (internal or external), stability, amount of internal personal control, and amount of external personal control. They also rated their current levels of SWB.

Supporting the study’s predictions, participants turned out, in fact, to be more likely to believe that they were in control during the times that they were happy and they were slightly more likely to see unhappy situations as in control of the other people in those situations. Thinking about your own experiences, this would mean that when you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to see happiness as a function of the things that you do but when you’re in a bad mood, you’ll shift the blame to other people.

The second study drilled down into types of positive and negative feelings by asking participants to recall their feelings when they achieved or failed to achieve a desired goal (such as succeeding in a job interview) vs. their feelings in relationships that either went well or did not. The findings from this component of the research suggested that people are more likely to have a self-serving bias (i.e. see themselves as in control of their happiness) in achievement than relationship situations.

The authors maintain that, in relationships, unlike in areas involving personal accomplishment, people are more likely to spread controllability to the others in that relationship. Your happiness with your partner, in other words, really would depend on actions taken by your partner, not just how much you think you’re in control.

Adding an experimental control to the third study, Titova and Sheldon next manipulated feedback participants received about the scores of an SWB measure they completed in the lab. People were told either that their SWB scores were far lower than average or were at the high range of the SWB scale. A third group received accurate SWB information. Next, they had to answer questions about why they may have scored this way.

This third study further confirmed the existence of the SSB in judgments about the causes of one’s own “measured” levels of happiness. People who received feedback that they were low in well-being saw their feelings as more the result of external factors not under their control. More importantly, people who actually did have high SWB scores were more likely to attribute the positive feedback they received as consistent with stable, internal, and personally controllable causes. They believed they had high SWB scores because this was consistent with their world view. Those with low SWB who received the negative feedback were more likely to feel that the feedback was accurate, but if they received positive feedback, they saw the cause as something temporary that would pass.

When it comes to identifying the source of your happiness, the Minnesota research team’s findings suggest that if you’re someone who tends to be happy, you’ll be more likely to see yourself in control of your fate, particularly in situations when you put yourself on the line for some type of accomplishment. If you’re feeling unhappy, you’ll push any personally controllable attributions aside and see your emotions as more fleeting and likely to improve. Happiness, in short, breeds happiness.

To sum up, a self-serving bias can be seen as a self-preserving bias. As a protective mechanism, being able to brush aside temporary setbacks can help you retain your faith in yourself as someone who can accomplish your goals, including your emotional goals. As a disclaimer, it's important to note that it's wise to be realistic in your self-assessments, if for no other reason than to prevent disappointment when things don’t turn out as you would have wished. However, a small dose of a self-serving bias can help color your world that much rosier.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock


Titova, L. & Sheldon, K.M. (2019) Why do I feel this way? Attributional assessment of happiness and unhappiness, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14 (5) 549-562, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1519081