Motivation and emotion/Book/2010/Happiness

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Overview[edit | edit source]

Felicidade A very happy boy.jpg

In the early centuries of human civilisation, religiosity stated that the antecedents of happiness were immortality, wisdom and bliss; and as such, many believed that happiness was experienced only by the gods (McMahon, 2010). But in 380 BC Socrates (cited in McMahon) asks “What being is there who does not desire happiness?... How can we be happy?” With these questions, Socrates transforms the notion of happiness not only into something which mortal humans can experience, but he also suggests the importance of happiness by prompting the search for its causes.

Happiness is something which people are said to strive for and pursue as often as possible (McMahon, 2010). Happiness can be spoke of in terms of life-long happiness, current situational happiness and contentment (see Griffin, 2007). It can be discussed terms of moods, emotions, attitudes and feelings (Griffin) which relate to different cognitive, physiological, and durational experiences. Happiness can be experienced when one feels fortunate, content, cheerful or glad (Griffin). Forethought can produce happiness when thinking about an upcoming holiday, as can positive feedback when one receives a great mark at school. Happiness can be something that is felt when needs have been fulfilled or goals have been reached, or in a moment of 'bliss' (Jacobsen, 2007). The goals for which people strive are different for each person, and a blissful moment for one may be anxiety producing for another; where one may see the end of a romantic relationship as an invigorating start to a new journey, and another may feel that their world has come to an end.

This subjective nature of the term 'happiness' has prompted much research over many years. Most researchers seem to have agreed that 'subjective well-being' is a reasonable way to operationalise the concept of happiness (Diener & Ryan, 2009; Griffin, 2007; Jacobsen, 2007; Natvig, Albrektsen, & Qvarnstrom, 2003). Confirming the valid use of this term as an operational definition, Davern et al. deconstructed scales of subjective well-being, to see what they were actually measuring. The authors found six affective descriptions contained in tests of subjective well-being which explained 64% of the variance of how satisfied one is with their life on a whole. These affects included which energised, happy, content, satisfied, pleased and negatively correlated stressed, which do indeed seem to be reasonable encompassing of the term 'happiness'. Subjective well-being is often measured by asking how happy one is with their life on a whole (Davern, Cummins & Stokes, 2007) and will be the operational definition of happiness used in this chapter.

Cognitive Models[edit | edit source]

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Construal Model[edit | edit source]

The construal model is a cognitive model of happiness that involves explaining the experience of happiness in terms of how people interpret (or construe) an event (Lyubomirsky, 2001). Lyubomirsky explains that the subjectivity involved in this process explains why some individuals can continually interpret events in a way which undermines their happiness, while others construe events in a manner which maintains or promotes their happiness. Individuals can differ in their understandings by construing an event as either challenging or threatening; with a sense of humour or tragedy; by seeing it favourably or unfavourably; and by dwelling on the situation or avoiding thoughts of it. These are cognitive strategies which can either help or hinder the experience of happiness. Lyubomirsky and Tucker (1998) investigated such strategies and found five that happy people are adept at using adverse situations. These include I just enjoyed the event and didn't think about it too much; I found something positive and productive about the event (e.g. thought about what was learned from it, looked at its positive aspects, thought about the accomplishment of having survived it); I looked at the event with a sense of humour; I avoided dwelling on the event and I thought about how much better things are now.

In their second study, Lyubomirsky and Tucker (1998) further investigated these cognitive strategies. Participants completed a 'good-feelings' questionnaire and were either classified as being generally happy or generally unhappy. They asked participants to describe an event which had made them happy, and one which had made them unhappy. Participants then gave the stories ratings on a 7 point likert scale (1 = very unhappy, 7 = very happy). These stories were then transcribed and randomly allocated to impartial judges who gave their own ratings on how happiness inducing the events were. This was done in an attempt to decipher an objective happiness rating of the events. The authors found that generally happy gave their happy memories higher ratings than did unhappy people, and unhappy people described their less fortunate events as more disheartening. Judges provided confirmation of the subjective nature of happiness when they failed to find any differences in affect between the stories of happy and unhappy people. That is to say, even though happy people rated their positive life event more highly, the judges did not interpret these events to be more positive. The same effect was observed for unhappy stories, where the judges could not see a difference between events described by happy and unhappy people. If the situations themselves do not differ in happiness, then it must be some difference in how the event is perceived which provokes more elated feelings. This provides strong evidence in support of the construal model of happiness.

In their third study, Lyubomirsky and Tucker (1998) found that happy people dealt with situations in a more adaptive way. Happy people were better able to make decisions which may have been slightly aversive in the short term, but which provide substantial benefits in the long term. They found that unhappy people were more likely to distract themselves from a problem in the short-term, avoiding dealing with the issue, which can lead to the problem being a source of more ill-feeling down the track. This ability to deal with an issue head-on may well help sustain happiness in happy people in the long-term, yet another benefit of having a happy disposition. But is it peoples happiness which leads them to deal with issues head-on, or is it dealing with issues head-on that leads to happiness? Earlier it was explained that events rated similarly by impartial judges were seen to be the source of significantly more happiness for already happy individuals suggesting that cognitions, not the event itself, causes positive affect.

Self Attention Model[edit | edit source]

Self attention is another cognitive process said to moderate feelings of happiness. Self attention can lead to either an increase or decrease in subjective well-being depending on which process is used: self-reflection or self-rumination. Self-reflection is a process related to honest curiosity about the self, where one is interested in knowing more about their inner thought processes, attitudes, emotions and vales; and can lead to wisdom (Morin, 2002). On the other hand, self-rumination is self-thought with undertones of anxiety, self doubt and lack of self-worth (Morin), which leads to sadness (Trapnell & Campbell, 1999) Whereas the person who self-reflects is curious to learn more, a person who self-ruminates is self-criticizing. Trapnell and Campbell tested a concept called the Self-absorption paradox, where those who are self-reflective are more self-knowledgeable and wise, but are also prone to pay attention to negative aspects of the self, which can lead to sadness. In their investigation, Trapnell and Campbell found their self-attentive participants were either sadder or more wise, not both. They found that greater self-reflection led to greater happiness, but not if the person was prone to self-rumination. If a person was highly self-reflective and highly self-ruminative they experienced more negative affect than most. This study suggests that self-attention does not automatically lead to sadness as was suggested by the Self-absorption paradox. Instead, if self-attention is the result of a genuine curiosity to gain further knowledge about the self, and if a person can disengage these reflective processes when it is leading to negative feedback, then self-attention can lead to increased happiness (Trapnell & Campbell). This result has been replicated in other studies (e.g. Elliott & Coker, 2008). It is possible that this effect is observed because a predominately self-reflective person sees their shortcomings as constructive feedback, leading to more positive behaviour in the future.

Discrepancy Theory[edit | edit source]

Another cognitive theory, know as Discrepancy Theory, suggests that affective experiences are the result of discrepancies between the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self (McDaniel & Grice, 2008). McDaniel and Grice explain that the ideal self is what a person strives to be, and the ought self is who the person thinks they ought to be as suggested by people around them. In discrepancy theory, higher discrepancy between the actual and ideal selves is said to predict depression, and discrepancy between actual and ought self is said to predict anxiety (McDaniel & Grice). In their study, McDaniel and Grice found both actual-ideal and actual-ought discrepancies to be highly correlated (p ≥.90), as such they could not be said to represent different constructs. They found discrepancies in the actual-ideal/ought selves did predict variance in depression, self esteem and anxiety. Insomuch as depression is negatively correlated with happiness, it can be said that those with less actual-ideal/ought discrepancies will experience increased happiness. An extension of Discrepancy Theory, called Multiple Discrepancy Theory, suggests that happiness (or lack of) is experienced through perceived discrepancies in a) what someone has now, b) what they want in the future, c) what the best is that they've had in the past, and d) what they feel they deserve and what they need (Davern et al., 2007).

Cognitive Models: Quiz Question

When does self-attention lead to happiness?

When it involves a genuine curiosity in ones self
When one focuses on the negative aspects of the self

Other Models[edit | edit source]

Personality[edit | edit source]

Despite the understanding that environmental events which are generally fluid can influence the experience of happiness, measures of subjective well-being seem to be fairly stable across populations across time (Jacobsen, 2007). Happiness has been seen to vary by only 3.3% in 4 years in an Australian population (Cummins et al, cited in Davern et al., 2007). Davern and colleagues propose that evolution has predisposed humans to have a 'set point' for happiness, an average overall happiness of approximately 75%. Due to this stability, and the stability of personality over time, it is suggested that happiness may be primary attributed to the big 5 personality traits (e.g. Hotard, McFatter, McWhirter, Stegall, 1989). Through path models Davern and colleagues found that Core Affects of content, happy and excited, actually influence personality and subjective well-being, rather than personality being the causal factor.

Evolution[edit | edit source]

As far as the evolution of happiness goes, Nesse (2005) explains that just as negative emotions have evolved to help us avoid adverse circumstances, positive emotions have evolved to help us approach situations which hold opportunities. He explains explains the evolution of happiness in terms of very distant relatives of humans who are known as bacteria. Nesse explains that a bacterium continue in a direction if that direction is providing it with the same or better circumstances to what it was in before. If the direction the bacterium is travelling in provides worse circumstances, it will tumble into a randomly new direction. Nesse suggests that the emotions humans have today are actually just sophisticated variations of the behaviour of bacteria. He propses that as organisms evolved they required differentiated emotional responses to deal with ever increasing social, personal and reproductive choice.

Benefits of Happiness[edit | edit source]

Happy Old Man.jpg

Buffering Effects[edit | edit source]

Subjective well-has been investigated using Social Comparison theory. In this theory, upward comparison happens when people compare themselves to someone perceived to be more competent, and tends to lead to a decrease in self-esteem and well-being (Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997). Downward comparisons which are comparisons to people perceived to be less competent or able, can be reassuring and self-enhancing (Lyubomirsky & Ross). This method of behiaviour is a source of great differences between individuals; where some rely heavily on social comparisons to form their self concept, and others rely on it very little (Lyubomirsky & Ross). Lyubomirsky and Ross aimed to investigate how happy and unhappy people differ in methods and outcomes of social comparison. Prior to the task, participants were classified as either happy or unhappy individuals. Then after an anagram solving task, social comparison was induced by randomly reporting to participants whether a peer had performed better or worse than they. Participants completed measurements of mood, self-rated ability and self-confidence pre- and post-task. The authors found that after completing the task and being told that they had out-performed their peer, both happy and unhappy participants rated their ability as higher than they did pre-task. When participants were told that they were outperformed by a peer, those classified as happy still felt that their ability had increased post-task, but those will low happiness reported a decreased perception of their ability. A similar trend was observed in ratings of mood. When individuals were out-performed by a peer, 'happy' participants had no change in mood pre- and post-task, but those considered to be unhappy had a significantly lower mood post-task. Thus, having a happy disposition can act as a buffer to the negative effects of social comparison. Happy people seem to be better able to ignore or defend themselves against the negative impact of social comparisons.

In Lyubomirsky and Ross's second study (1997), they further investigated these effects. In one condition participants were given fake feedback that they had done well but a peer had done better; and in the second condition, the feedback suggested that the participant had performed averagely, but their peer had performed worse. They found that 'happy' individuals exhibited increased positive mood after being given a positive evaluation even though their peer had scored higher, and a slightly deflated mood being given a mediocre evaluation, even though their peer had scored lower. The opposite was true of unhappy individuals who displayed elevated mood when given mediocre feedback and doing better than their peer, and deflated mood after having done very well but being outperformed by their peer. Through social comparison, 'unhappy' people experienced ill feelings after having done well and good feelings after having done not-so-well, which is quite maladaptive behaviour. This result suggests that social comparison can be particularly detrimental to those who experience 'unhappy' dispositions.

Physical Health[edit | edit source]

Veenhoven (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies with the main aim of finding out if happiness produces better health, and if so, how this process occurs. Veenhoven found that in 53% of studies participants with higher levels of happiness were found to live longer, in 34% there was found to be no difference in live expectancy between happy and unhappy individuals, and in 13% of the studies, happy people were actually found to have a decreased life expectancy. In non-chronically ill populations happy participants were found to live for an average of 8.75 years longer than those who are unhappy. Veenhoven explains that happiness has never been found to cure disease, so instead describes ways in which happiness must be contributing to some kind of disease prevention. Veenhoven suggests that unhappiness places strain on the fight-or-flight response. This can cause long term lower immune system functioning and higher blood pressure, which can account for much of the variance in longevity between happy and unhappy people. Happiness also leads to healthier lifestyle behaviour, like exercise and healthy eating (Veenhoven).

Work Success, Family and Aging[edit | edit source]

Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) compiled a meta-analytic study of 225 papers and found that happy people were more likely to be interviewed, received better ratings from supervisors and exhibited higher performance and productivity. Happy people were also found to be better able to cope with the demands in managerial positions, and received higher incomes (Lyubomirsky et al.). Other studies have also found this to be the case, but that the benefits of income on happiness taper off towards higher earning brackets (around $100,000 or more) (North, Holahan, Moos & Cronkite, 2008). However, Garđarsdóttir, Dittmar, Aspinall (2009) found that the want for money has a negative correlation with happiness, possibly because those who dedicate more time to pursuing money have less time and to spend on other happiness inducing activities. In the North and colleagues article mentioned above, it was also found that happiness and family support are significantly correlated. North and colleagues scale of family support measured how much family members helped and backed each others decisions and how much family members were encouraged to openly and honestly express their feelings to one another. North and colleagues' results suggest that happiness can be increased if these attitudes of expressiveness and supportiveness are adopted, which will also foster feelings acceptance and belonging within the family. Despite some common stereotypes of elderly people, many studies have found that happiness does not decrease with age, and can actually increase (Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, & Carstensen, 2008; Lacey, Smith, & Ubel, 2006). This is said to be prompted by a greater appreciation of a person's mortality, making time more meaningful (Ersner et al.). In turn this prompts older people to focus on more emotionally meaningful goals (Ersner-Hershfeild et al.), an attitude that other researches (e.g. Tkach & Lyubomirsky, 2006) have found to increase happiness.

Benefits of Happiness: Quiz Question

What is upward comparison?

When one thinks they are better than someone else
When one strives to achieve their best
When one compares them self to someone who they think has more ability

Increasing Happiness[edit | edit source]

Happy boys.jpg

Happiness is said to be a function of living skills such as social competance and determination (Veenhoven, 2008). Tkach and Lyubomirsky (2006) aimed to elucidate such living skills by asking participants to give rate 66 happiness increasing attitudes on how often they were employed. Six of these attitudes appeared to be most used in producing and maintaining happiness, and could account for 52% of the total variance in happiness scores. The first of these attitudes is called social affiliation which involves helping others and communicating with friends. The second is mental control, an attitude inversely related to happiness, where suppression of emotional expression and a need for control over emotions seems to lead to unhappiness. Then there is instrumental goal pursuit, where happiness can be increased by committing to personally meaningful goals. Next there is active leisure, where a person makes a marked effort to participate in exercise and hobbies. Active leisure increases positive affect, especially compared passive leisure like sleeping and watching TV, which have been found to have no effect on well being. Then there is the rarely used but nonetheless beneficial involvement in religion. Religion is said to increase happiness because it provides people with a sense of being socially connected and often gives people a sense of purpose in their life. Finally, direct expression of happiness is correlated with increased experience of happiness, but the causal direction of this relationship is unclear (Tkach & Lyubomirsky). It is possible that people who internally experience happiness are more likely to outwardly express it; but since the years of enlightenment, it has been known that outward expressions of happiness cause an increase of internal positive affect (Tkach & Lyubomirsky).

In their meta-analysis of 225 research papers on happiness, Lyubomirsky and colleages (2005) found several other actions and attitudes which contribute to a more happy disposition. These include activity and sociability, positive perceptions of ones self and of others, cooperation and likability, creativity and problem solving, coping and physical well-being, and prosocial behaviour (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005). In 2008, Robinson and Martin analysed 34 years of data collected through the General Social Survey in the United States. They found that people who socialise more with relatives and friends seem to be happier, as are people who go to church more often. Robinson and Martin also found that amount of hours spent at work did not significantly effect happiness; but they did find that employment, compared with unemployment, was correlated with happiness. Also, they found that TV watching was inversely related to happiness, an effect observed in Tkach and Lyubomirsky's (2006) study mentioned above. Robinson and Martin propose that this effect is observed because passive leisure like TV watching reduces the amount of time spent on activities that may be more beneficial in the long term like exercising, or keeping in contact with friends. Robinson and Martin observed that unhappy people were more likely to feel they either had too much time on their hands or were rushed for time, whereas happy people generally felt neither.

Increasing Happiness: Quiz Question

Which of the following have NOT been shown to increase happiness? (Hint: Choose more than one)

Watching TV
Spending time with relatives
Subdued expression of emotions

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is important to note that much of the happiness research has been purely correlational in nature, and as such causal connections can not be made. It is possible that activities like socialising with friends increases happiness, but it is also possible that happier people are more likely to engage in social activities; and it could also be that the causal factor is a third variable. When determining which methods are best for increasing or sustaining happiness, research that is experimental in nature will elucidate the most accurate strategies. Evidence from the experimental designs in the cognitive models above suggest that the following will help to increase happiness. Firstly, it is important to make decisions that will be beneficial in the long-run as opposed to succumbing to instant gratification (Lyubomirsky & Tucker). In self-reflection it is beneficial to have a genuine and sincere curiosity about ones-self, rather than to self-ruminate in an anxious and self-criticising way (Trapnell & Campbell, 1999). It is important to have fair and honest view of ones self, ones abilities and ones situation as to avoid discrepancies in actual-ideal and actual-ought selves. And finally, it is beneficial to take some constructive criticism from an adverse event, and to have a laugh at yourself every now and again.

References[edit | edit source]

Davern, M., Cummins, R., & Stokes, M. (2007). Subjective Wellbeing as an affective-cognitive construct. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 429-449. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9066-1

Diener, E., & Ryan, K. (2009). Subjective well-being: a general overview. South African Journal of Psychology, 39, 391-406. Retrieved from

Elliott, I. & Coker, S. (2008). Independent self-construal, self-reflectoin, and self-rumination: A path model for predicting happiness. Australian Journal of Psychology, 60, 3, 127-134. doi: 10.1080/00049530701447368

Ersner-Hershfield, H., Mikels, J., Sullivan, S., & Carstensen, L. (2008). Poignancy: Mixed emotional experience in the face of meaningful endings. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 94, 158-167. Retrieved from

Garđarsdóttir, R., Dittmar, H., & Aspinall, C. (2009). It's not the money, it's the quest for a happier self: The role of happiness and success motives in the link between financial goals and subjective well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28, 1100-1127. doi:10.1521/jscp.2009.28.9.1100

Griffin, J. (2007). What do happiness studies study? Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 139-148. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9007-4

Hotard, S., McFatter, R., McWhirter, R., & Stegall, M. (1989). Interactive effects of extraversion, neuroticism, and social relationships on subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 321-331. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.2.321

Jacobsen, B. (2007). What is happiness? Existential Analysis. Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 18, 39-50. Retrieved from

Lacey, H., Smith, D., & Ubel, P. (2006). Hope I die before I get old: Mispredicting happiness across the adult lifespan. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 167-182. doi:10.1007/s10902-005-2748-7

Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others? American Psychologist, 56, 239. Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: A contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73, 1141-1157. Retrieved from

Lyubomirsky, S., & Tucker, K. (1998). Implications of individual differences in subjective happiness for perceiving, interpreting, and thinking about life events. Motivation & Emotion, 22, 155-186. Retrieved from

McDaniel, B., & Grice, J. (2008). Predicting psychological well-being from self-discrepancies: A comparison of idiographic and nomothetic measures. Self & Identity, 7, 243-261. doi:10.1080/15298860701438364

McMahon, D. (2010). What does the ideal of happiness mean?. Social Research, 77, 469-490. Retrieved from

Morin, A. (2002). Do you “self-reflect” or “self-ruminate”? Science and Consciousness Review, 1, 1-5. Retrieved from

Nesse, R. M. (2005). Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness. In F. A. Huppert, N. Baylis, & Keverne, B. (Eds.), The science of well-being (pp. 3-34). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

North, R., Holahan, C., Moos, R., & Cronkite, R. (2008). Family support, family income, and happiness: A 10-year perspective. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 475-483. Retrieved from

Robinson, J., & Martin, S. (2008). What do happy people do? Social Indicators Research, 89, 565-571. doi:10.1007/s11205-008-9296-6.

Tkach, C., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How do people pursue happiness?: Relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 183-225. doi:10.1007/s10902-005-4754-1

Trapnell, P., & Campbell, J. (1999). Private Self-Consciousness and the Five-Factor Model of Personality: Distinguishing Rumination From Reflection. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 76, 284-304. Retrieved from

Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 449-469. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9042-1