What does it mean for someone to be happy? Like most characteristics, there is both a state and a trait version of this question. States refer to what is going on in the moment. If you’re at a party having fun with friends, then you may be happy in that moment. A trait refers to how you are in general. Presumably, a happy person is one who experiences lots of moments of happiness.
But is that all there is to it?
A 2020 paper to appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Fan Yang, Joshua Knobe, and Yarrow Dunham suggests that when people evaluate someone as being happy, they include more than just how they are feeling in that moment. They also include their sense of whether that person is a good person.
In a simple study, American children (between the ages of 5 and 9), as well as adults, were given descriptions of three people. Each of them was experiencing a happy feeling at that moment. One person was described only by that feeling. A second was described as also doing nice things. A third was described as also doing mean things. Participants were asked to rate how happy these people were on a 4-point scale (where higher values indicated more happiness). Both children and adults felt that the nice person (and the person only described as happy) were significantly happier than the mean person.
Another study looked at whether being a good person affected judgments about any positive characteristic. Children and adults both think that being able to run fast is a more desirable characteristic than being able to run slowly. In this study, American children and adults read about someone who could run fast and was either mean or nice. Unlike judgments of happiness, people rated the speed someone could run as equally fast regardless of whether they were nice or mean. Being a bad person didn’t affect judgments about a physical characteristic.
So, is being a good person actually more important for judgments of happiness than experiencing good feelings? This question was addressed in an interesting study. Children and adults read about one character who experienced a lot of good feelings, but was mean. They read about a second character who experienced few good feelings, but was nice. They were able to correctly identify which character experienced more good feelings and which character was nicer. When asked which character was happy, though, children and adults overwhelmingly selected the character who was nice rather than the one who experienced good feelings. This finding suggests that people believe happiness goes beyond just having positive feelings.
It is hard to know exactly what these results mean. One possibility is that people think that people who are morally good experience more positive feelings. The other is that people who are good have some kind of grace that makes them happy—even if they do not always experience happiness in the moment. It is possible that when people hear the word happy in this context, they assume it has to involve something beyond just having good feelings.
To address this question, the researchers did something clever. In English, we use the same word—happy—to refer both to the momentary positive feeling as well as to the trait of being a happy person. According to the authors of the paper, in Mandarin Chinese, there is one word (Gao Xing) that refers to the experience of happiness. A second word (Kuai Le) can refer to the experience of happiness, but it is often used to evaluate someone’s life overall as being happy.
In this last study, Chinese adults were given descriptions of people who were either nice or mean and experienced positive feelings. They were asked to rate the happiness of these individuals, where the rating involved either the word that refers to the experience of happiness (Gao Xing) or the word that can also refer to their life overall (Kuai Le). Interestingly, adults rated the mean person as less happy than the nice person regardless of which word was being used. This suggests that they were evaluating the person as experiencing less happiness because of a moral failing.
Overall, these results suggest that people find a deep connection between being a good person morally and living a happy life. This belief persists despite the number of people all of us know who are deeply good people and are profoundly unhappy. It may also help to explain why when a person we perceive to be good suffers from depression, we find it hard to believe and may not offer them as much support as they need to deal with their illness.
Yang, F., Knobe, J., & Dunham, Y. (2020). Happiness is from the soul: The nature and origins of our happiness concept. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000790