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Beyond Happiness: The Role of Life Satisfaction in Human Flourishing

Why feeling good isn’t good enough.

Key points

  • Happiness involves both emotions and beliefs; the latter, cognitive dimension is often called “life satisfaction.”
  • Life satisfaction has stronger effects on other aspects of human flourishing than does the merely emotional dimension of happiness.
  • Human flourishing, however, extends beyond just satisfaction with life.
  • Perfect happiness is ultimately only possible if all aspects of life are good, and this is not fully attainable here and now.

This research update from the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard discusses the role of happiness and life satisfaction in human life, its effects on other aspects of flourishing, and what it is that we are ultimately seeking.

People want to be happy. Aristotle thought it uncontroversial that people, above all else, desire “happiness.” However, he hastened to add: “To say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired.” He recognized that we are fallible in understanding what we desire when we desire “happiness,” and are too apt to confuse it for pleasure. What is happiness, and what is its role in human life?

Happiness is sometimes understood as a momentary emotion, as when people say, “I feel happy.” But most of us recognize that this is not all there is to happiness. This insight into the incompleteness of affective happiness prompted Aristotle, along with other classical and medieval philosophers, to insist that happiness is better understood as a judgment about one’s life as a whole. Happiness is thus sometimes also understood as more of a cognitive state, as life satisfaction, such as when people say, “I am happy with life.” Our own flourishing measure assesses both affective and cognitive happiness but using different questions for each.

Various studies have examined both the causes or drivers of happiness and the consequences of happiness for other aspects of life. The research literature is vast. In a recent article, we’ve traced a brief “global history of happiness,” considering how the desire for happiness, broadly defined, plays an important role in various cultures and civilizations from ancient Egypt to the modern West. In another recent review article, we’ve tried to summarize some of the major drivers of happiness including the various social, environmental, economic, political, behavioral, and cultural forces that shape the happiness of individuals and populations. Our program’s new Psychology Research Scientist, Tim Lomas, is also about to release an entire book on happiness. And of course, there has been much else written on the topic.

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Happiness
Source: Adobe Spark on Adobe Stock

But one can also turn the question around, and ask what the consequences of happiness are for human life more generally. How does happiness contribute? Is happiness all that ultimately matters? What is the relationship between happiness and human flourishing? These questions have both conceptual and empirical answers.

The Effects of Happiness

A few years ago, a high-profile paper using data from the Million Women Study in the UK caused quite a stir in the public health community by providing evidence that affective happiness (feeling happy) had almost no association with longevity. While the study was criticized for using a poor measure of happiness (a single question with few response categories), in fact, our more thorough review of the literature on psychological well-being and mortality risk found fairly similar results. Of the factors assessed, affective happiness understood simply as feeling happy, had one of the weakest associations with longevity. Purpose in life, for instance, seemed to matter much more. However, the story with cognitive happiness or life satisfaction was more complicated. While the effects of life satisfaction on longevity are perhaps not quite as profound as they are with purpose in life, they are still substantial and, in another of our recent studies, we in fact found evidence for the effects of life satisfaction on a whole host of other important outcomes.

Our study used longitudinal data from about 13,000 older adults in Health and Retirement Study, employing our outcome-wide designs drawing upon principles of causal inference. We found that those with high levels of life satisfaction were 26 percent less likely to die during follow-up than those with low levels, even after controlling for a host of social, demographic, economic, psychological, and health-related variables. We also found evidence for an effect of life satisfaction on various other outcomes including better self-rated health, better sleep, more exercise, higher purpose in life, lower depression, lower hopelessness, and lower loneliness. We did not, however, observe the effects of life satisfaction on all outcomes (e.g. the incidence of cancer or heart or lung disease, or rates of smoking or binge drinking, or time spent with children, family, and friends). Interestingly certain particular assessments of life satisfaction, such as finding one’s living conditions close to ideal, or just saying one was satisfied with life, were much more important than having no regrets, (e.g. thinking “If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing”). This has important consequences for measurement as well, since even with “life satisfaction,” this is not a single monolithic construct. We need more nuanced assessments. In any case, the study provided evidence for important causal effects of life satisfaction on other aspects of human flourishing.

Is Happiness All of Human Flourishing?

Given its conceptual and empirical importance, some might wonder whether we might reduce all investigation of flourishing to life satisfaction alone? Doing so would have the advantage of giving us a single number, a single aspect of life, to focus upon. However, we would argue that doing this would be a mistake. First, it obscures other important aspects of flourishing. For example, while it is the case that richer developed countries have higher levels of life satisfaction than poorer developing countries, it conversely is the case that poorer developing countries report higher levels of purpose. This seems important and should arguably prompt questions as to how to go about development and economic growth in ways that do not compromise meaning and purpose. An exclusive focus on life satisfaction would miss this.

Second, in some cases, someone might report high satisfaction with life but not really be flourishing. Someone may in principle be satisfied, and yet addicted to narcotics, or someone may be satisfied and yet completely socially isolated by their own choosing. We would not say that such persons are flourishing. Some studies and rankings, such as those in the World Happiness Report, use what is arguably a somewhat more adequate assessment of life evaluation, one which asks where an individual would place themselves on a ladder with steps numbered 0 to 10, with 10 representing the “best possible life” and 0 representing the “worst possible life” (sometimes called Cantril’s Ladder). This has the advantage of not just focusing on satisfaction alone.

However, this kind of overall life evaluation can still be misleading, if it is taken to imply that well-being simply involves maximizing one’s average life evaluation score. Difficulties can arise especially with questions of character, virtue, and morality. A successful mafia boss might report high levels of life evaluation, but is this person flourishing? Conversely, someone who feels a moral obligation to do what is right might make choices that the person knows will result in lower lifetime average self-assessment on the ladder, and nevertheless proceed because it is the right thing to do. Not everyone is a utilitarian seeking to maximize their average life evaluation. Life evaluation and life satisfaction are important, but they are not the whole of well-being.

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Flourishing Life
Source: Adobe Spark/Adobe Stock

The Dimensions of Flourishing

Looking at life evaluation or composite summaries of well-being can be valuable, but ultimately we want to understand how dynamics may differ across different aspects of wellbeing. We’ve argued elsewhere that, at a minimum, we should be looking separately at happiness, health, meaning, character, social relationships, and financial security. The causes and consequences of each may differ, as indeed we saw above with affective happiness versus life satisfaction. Temporal trends may also differ across different aspects of flourishing, as in fact has been the case with the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected happiness, health, and financial security much more than meaning, character, or even relationships. This level of nuance should be the norm.

As another example, a recent project in which our program was involved revealed that higher composite flourishing was associated with lower subsequent health care costs. This is important to know, but if we want to know what to do about it, we again need to examine how each aspect of flourishing individually affected subsequent costs.

Perfect Happiness

Is happiness or life satisfaction all that we are, or should be, seeking? We would argue that, in this life, the answer is “no.” There are numerous other important aspects of flourishing that we should be examining as well. Our feelings, and even our considered judgments, are at best partial indicators of how well our lives are actually going. The subjective and objective dimensions of flourishing can unfortunately at least partially come apart.

Interestingly, however, both Aristotle and Aquinas do insist that happiness is effectively what we are ultimately seeking more than anything else. How should this be reconciled? Aquinas understood perfect happiness as the complete satisfaction of the will. The only way we can be completely satisfied with all of life is if we are fully flourishing, i.e. if all aspects of life are good. If something is not right, we will not be completely satisfied. Aquinas thought that the only way we could be completely satisfied was in a final vision of, or communion with, God. In this life, we are thus stuck with imperfect happiness, and that is shaped by a variety of different goods.

While perfect happiness and complete eternal flourishing may in some sense coincide at the ultimate horizon, and while because of this we should thus also be assessing aspects of spiritual well-being, if we are to navigate life here and now as best as possible, we need to examine numerous aspects of wellbeing. Under present conditions, happiness and life satisfaction are important, but only partial, aspects of a truly flourishing life.

References

Kim, E.S., Delaney, S.W., Tay, L., Chen, Y., Diener, E., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2021). Life satisfaction and subsequent physical, behavioral, and psychosocial health in older adults. Milbank Quarterly, 99:209-239.

Lomas, T., Case, B., Cratty, F., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2021). A global history of happiness. International Journal of Wellbeing, 11(4).

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Related Articles

How to Measure Well-Being. Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. June 2021.

What Brings Meaning and Purpose in Life? Psychology Today. Human Flourishing Blog. January 2020.

Trudel-Fitzgerald, C., Millstein, R., von Hippel, C., Howe, R., Tomasso, L. P., Wagner, G., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2019). Psychological well-being as part of the public health debate? Insight into dimensions, interventions, and policy. BMC Public Health, 15;9(12):e033697.

Lee, M.T., Kubzansky, L.D., and VanderWeele, T.J. (2021). Measuring Well-Being: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Social Sciences and the Humanities. Oxford University Press.

VanderWeele, T.J. (2017). On the promotion of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 31:8148-8156.

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