Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Happiness

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What is it and how to get it?


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"The smiley face": an internationally recognised symbol of happiness.

Ancient civilizations once believed that happiness could not be achieved or attained, but was either bestowed upon the people by their god or simply due to sheer good luck. However in modern times happiness seems to be regarded as something that if one works hard enough, putting in enough time, energy and effort into can be achieved, if deserving. The easy availability of modern day channels to happiness, such as self-help books or websites, relays the message to consumers that there may be a formula that if followed carefully will equal happiness. However, is achieving happiness really as easy or foolproof as these things make it sound?

Happiness is primarily understood as a “subjective phenomenon for which the final judge is whoever lives inside a person’s skin” (Myer & Diener. 1995), and on a more basic note, a general feeling of goodness that permeates through an individual’s life. Although acknowledged as a subjective phenomenon, it is generally agreed upon that true happiness runs deeper than simply enjoying your favorite food or television show. In fact many theorists have attempted to capture and explain the essence of happiness, with one of the oldest theories being Aristotle’s notion of Eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, as explained in Waterman’s 1993 study, is Aristotle’s technical term for happiness, develops from identifying one’s virtues, cultivating them and living one’s life in accordance with these virtues providing principle guidance. Following on from Aristotle’s theory, Cicero expressed his belief that the virtue of gratitude is possibly the most important virtue to have and if gratitude does not exist then an individual cannot attain or cultivate any other virtues (Waterman. 1993). Cicero took Aristotle’s idea of Eudaimonia and proposed that an individual must experience gratitude for everything they have and only then can they achieve happiness, which was considered by Cicero to be the gift of being grateful for everything one has (Waterman. 1993).

Happiness exercise

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  • List (preferably in writing) 3-5 things in your life for which you're grateful, and take some time to reflect on them.
  • Mediate on anything and everything in the world you believe deserves to be appreciated
  • List the 5 most important people in your life. They could be the ones you love the most, the ones you see the most, or the ones who have the most impact on your life for whatever reason. Then, focussing on one person each night for the next week, specifically describe 5 things about each person that you feel appreciative of. If you complete this exercise, at the end of the week you'll have a list of 5 people with at least 5 'blessings' for each. That's 25 things for which you can be grateful. and I'm pretty confident that if you then sit back and reflect on this list, you'll feel happier.
  • List all the various aspects of your job (or your home or other duties) for which you're thankful. This is, I think, a particularly useful exercise as many people tend to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of their lives.
  • For example:
I am grateful for the fact that I get paid to do something I love
I am grateful for the fact that I have fantastic friends and family

The academic pursuit of happiness (a literature review)

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Merton and Kitt (1950) developed the term ‘relative deprivation’ to explain the results of their study in which American soldiers during World War II with a high school education or better, who were identified as having higher than normal promotion chances, were found to be less happy with and optimistic about their promotion chances, than others who were not identified as having the same chances. The better educated soldiers regarded themselves as doing poorly compared to their civilian counterparts, while less educated soldiers saw themselves as reasonably well off compared to their civilian counter parts. The study found that those who were objectively worse off were actually more satisfied in all life aspects than those who were objectively better off (Merton & Kitt. 1950).

Adaptation Level Theory considers and tests the idea that happiness may be relative (Brickman et al. 1978). If so, Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman (1978) theories that happiness may not be as different as we think between groups who have experienced extreme good fortune, such as lottery winners, and groups who have experienced extreme misfortune such as accident victims. Adaptation Level Theory states that individual’s judgments of their current levels of stimulation depend on whether this stimulation exceeds or falls short of the level of stimulation which they have grown accustomed to (Brickman et al. 1978). Adaptation Level Theory offers two primary reasons why those experiencing good fortune are generally not happier than those who experience extreme misfortune (Brickman et al. 1978).

Winning the lottery is a distinctive event, which should induce feelings of extreme happiness. As such many everyday events may seem less pleasurable and dull in comparison. Despite the fact that coming into a large sum of money may create new desirable experiences for the individual, the fact that old pleasures may now not be as enjoyable negate any gain in happiness from the lottery win (Brickman et al. 1978). Habituation to good fortune means the initial excitement of a lottery win will eventually wear off. New events will be compared to the lottery win, which had raised the bar in terms of a baseline from which to judge further happiness. This process occurs in reverse for accident victims who may now look upon everyday occurrences as extremely pleasurable as they have a new appreciation of negative events from which to judge future events (Brickman et al. 1978). The results of this study by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman (1978) support the idea that happiness is relative to an individual’s life experience.

“The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances” – Martha Washington.

An alternative explanation for the decreased satisfaction of the lottery winners in Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman’s study is that large, dramatic and unexpected life events can lead to stress and unexpected out comes such as the strain of close personal relationships due to jealousy, leading the individual not to see their current situation in a favorable light as one might expect after a lottery win. This alternate explanation is supported by the lottery winners in Brickman et al (1978) study stating that they found good health and close social relationships to be more satisfying than their monetary win.

Accident victims similarly did not rate the physical consequences if their accident (which in most cases studied was complete paralysis) as the worst thing that could ever happen to them (Brickman et al. 1978). This further supports the idea that happiness is relative and that these events (positive or negative) simply create a new scale on which the individual judges their future happiness. Also supported is the idea that happiness cannot be predicted by an individual’s life circumstance (Brickman et al. 1978).

Schneider’s 1975 study found that inhabitants of poorer cities, regions or countries are no less happy than inhabitants of wealthier more popular areas. Gallup (1977) also failed to establish any strong or consistent relationship between high economic status and increased happiness and although high status individuals felt more fortunate overall, they worried just as frequently and reported wanting to make just as many life changes as low-status individuals.

As previously should in studies such as Schneider (1975) or Gallup (1977) an individual’s life circumstance cannot be used as a predictor or happiness however Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) suggest that success in the areas of work life, social relationships and health is highly correlated to happiness. They also suggest happiness may have a reciprocal relationship with these areas with their findings that success in these areas typically leads to happiness and further to this, happiness typically leads to further growth and evolvements within these areas.

Lyubomirsky et al (2005) define success as ‘accomplishing those things that are valued by one’s culture, flourishing in terms of the goals set forth by one’s society.’ Success is identified within their study as a key factor to happiness, and happiness as a key factor to success.

Don’t limit investing to the financial world. Invest something of yourself and you will be richly rewarded” – Charles Schwab.

Quality of employment and work, as well as income have been identified by Lyubomisky et al (2005) as the two main things upon which work related happiness is based. Cross-sectional evidence shows individuals rating high on a happiness scale are more likely to secure jobs, be evaluated positively by a manager, show superior performance and productivity, and handle managerial roles better. This supports the findings of Connolly and Viswesvaran (2000) who found that the more satisfied a person was with their job overall, the happier they were. Although income was not found to be a predictor of happiness in previous studies (Schneider. 1975., Gallup. 1977) Lyubomirsky et al (2005) did find it to be a key indicator of success, with success being a key indicator of happiness. In contrast to the aforementioned studies several recent studies have found a correlation between income and overall happiness (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis & Diener. 2004., Diener & Biswas-Diener. 2002., Pinquart & Sorensen. 2000).

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too” – Anne Frank.

Social relationships, inclusive of friends, family or marriage, have been identified as another key aspect to happiness (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005). Lyubomirsky et al (2005) also discusses a reciprocal relationship between social relationships and happiness, a concept which is supoorted by a study conducted by Straw, Sutton & Pelled (1994) who found that employees who reported being happier received more emotional and tangible assistance from their superiors and equal level workers than those who reported lower levels of happiness. The results of this study suggest that happy people are more likely to firstly engage in social relationships and secondly, are more likely to receive help from others in a social setting, with access to social support having been identified as another marker on the path to happiness (Straw et al. 1994).

“A man only appreciates happiness when he gets married, but by then it is too late” – Frank Sinatra.

Headey & Veenhoven (1989) found marriage to be a primary indicator of happiness and that the longer people stayed married the higher their scored on a scale of happiness. While Neyer & Asendorph (2001) found a strong correlation between happiness and self-esteem, reporting that those with higher levels of self-esteem engaged in closer and more frequent social relationships, reporting feelings of security, less conflict in all aspects of their life and higher levels of happiness.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” – World Health Organization, 1948.

Physical health is also an area, which researchers have studied in relation to happiness. Longitudinal studies have been particularly useful in establishing a link between these areas and they ultimately tell us that those who report better physical health also report higher levels of happiness (Koicumaa-Honkanen et al. 2004). Scheier et al (1989) found that optimism and higher levels of happiness were associated with lowed incidents of cardiovascular disease, a higher quality of life overall, quicker physical recovery and a quicker return to normal life and activities following major cardiovascular surgery. Shorter-term longitudinal studies have also established similar findings with teenagers who rated as ‘pessimistic’ and reported lower levels of happiness, more likely to engaged in delinquent activity in the six months following their assessment (Windle. 2000). Leading to the idea that happiness may influence not just physical health but also physical behavior.

Now we know what happiness is, how do we get it?

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While we know that happiness is subjective and defined differently by each person who experiences it, what most of us really want to know is, how do we get it? There are many different avenues popular psychology tells us we can take to achieve happiness.

Redefine what happiness means to you

"People take different roads seeking happiness and fulfilment. Just because they're not on your road, doesn't mean they've gotten lost" - H. Jackson Brown

As we’ve established happiness is a relative concept. For some it involves feelings of high arousal, excitement, joy and euphoria, while for others it can involve feelings of low arousal, contentment, calmness or peace (Hall. 1947). Following on from Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman’s (1978) Adaptation Level Theory we can see that those who are more extraverted individuals may have a tendency to define their happiness in terms of high arousal emotions, while more introverted individuals may define it by lower arousal emotions (Sharp. 2008). It is important to reflect on which of these categories you feel you embody and recognize that what makes you happy will be different to another. Ultimately your time is best spent focusing on the things that you feel will contribute to your particular type of happiness (Sharp. 2008).

Altering bad habits that an individual feels guilt or frustration over can be a major step on the pathway to happiness. People know that they should eat healthier, work harder, or procrastinate less. These habits contribute to an individual’s sense of cognitive dissonance when behaviors are not being matched with expectations (Bem. 1967). The most productive way of altering these bad habits is to actively engage oneself in positive behavior at times when these bad habits would normally occur (Sharp. 2008). Just as a diet which replaces bad eating with healthy eating is more likely to be successful than one which cuts out food completely, an individual is more likely to absolve themselves of these bad habits when they replace their bad behavior with positive behavior (Sharp. 2008).

It is an unfortunate reality that many people continue to partake in the activities or events which contribute to their unhappiness as they become so used to these things being a part of their lives (Sharp. 2008). This typically comes from the naming of these things as ‘responsibilities’ which although we don’t necessarily enjoy taking part in, we feel we must (Sharp. 2008). In the quest to redefine happiness, a particularly helpful exercise is to make a list of all the things which need to be done and all of things you do simply because you believe they ‘should’ be done. The next time you move to engage in something you have defined as a ‘should’, stop and think about whether it is really necessary, you will begin to create new life patterns which consist of things you actually enjoy doing and lead you to happiness (Sharp. 2008).

Know your strengths

As Lyubomirsky et al (2005) state, success is a key factor to happiness, and happiness a key factor to success. Lyubomirsky et al’s study identified the workplace as a contributing factor to happiness, and identified those who flourish in the workplace as being happier overall. Consequently, it becomes necessary to look at the things that make you successful in the workplace and try to incorporate these things into other areas of life. In fact an individual may also improve their work life by looking at the positive aspects of their home life and transferring these to their work life (Sharp. 2008). Are you good at mediating arguments between family members? Consider then you may be a very socially astute person who can also help to foster a team environment within your workplace. Are you excellent at keeping your office’s paperwork tidy and orderly? Consider then you may be excellent at keeping the household bills and records orderly and have them reconciled well in advance of the due date, avoiding last minute chaos. Know your strengths and find ways to implement them in all areas of your life.

Be Positive (Fake it till you make it!)

The finding by Straw et al (1994) that people who display higher levels of positivity in the workplace, also report higher numbers of close social relationships, and ultimately higher levels of happiness indicate that positivity is an important factor in the cultivation of what Straw et al defined as the three key areas contributing to happiness: the workplace, social relationships and health. Sharp (2008) suggests keeping a positive events diary, as a means of identifying the good events, situations or behaviors in your life, which cumulatively may lead to happiness. Each night, record 3 to 5 good events that occurred during your day. This may be a difficult task on particular days however reviewing the positive things that you have recently involved yourself in, reinforces the good emotions and feelings that came with them and can serve to offset any difficult, challenging or disheartening things that have occurred (Sharp. 2008).

The intended outcome of this exercise relates closely to Aristotle’s theory of Eudaimonia (happiness), which Cicero elaborated on, proposing that true and authentic happiness was in the gift of giving (Waterman. 1993). Keeping a positive events diary helps the individual to be thankful for all the positive things that occur in their life and as Aristotle proposes, only when these things are appreciated can happiness be achieved (Waterman. 1993). Another such exercise that follows Aristotle’s theory is detailed in the box entitled ‘Happiness Exercise’.

Get Moving

“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!” – Elle Woods, Legally Blonde.

During exercise the body releases a particular type of chemical throughout the body designed to produce pleasurable sensations, called endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring substances released by the brain, which result in feelings of happiness and contentment (Freeman. 1997). They also serve the important function of helping the human body to deal with feelings of pain or discomfort, serving as the body’s naturally occurring pain killers (Freeman. 1997). Exercise is one of the quickest and easiest ways to experience happiness and can be used as a tool for both the creation and maintenance of happiness (Sharp. 2008).

Make A Friend

"Do to others only as you would have them do to you" - Lindy Smith (aka Mum)

Research tells us that typically the happiest people have lots of friends, are very socially supported and often spend time with other people of the same happy disposition (Sharp. 2008). One of the most important sources of happiness according to Lyubomirsky et al (2005), is relationships. Sharp recognises them as the cornerstone of what makes us who we are and influence how we live our lives. As Brickman et al (1978) found, close social relationships are often based on inter-dependence between two people and good quality relationships can be built in a number of ways:

Always be Supportive of a friend, help them out where ever you can and show them they are important to you by giving them your time.

Focus on their unique characteristics and quirks that attract you to them, focusing on faults or weakness can only lead to frustration.

Give your unconditional friendship. All relationships have their ups and downs however if you seek a friend who will stick by you through anything you need to do the same for them (Sharp. 2008)


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Happiness is a unique experience for each individual (Myer & Diener. 1995). It can however be characterised by some common traits, and the intense feelings of joy and excitement, or peace and contentment it brings largely make up our experience as human beings (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005. Despite popular modern day assumptions, there remains no formula for happiness. Research also indicates that it cannot be predicted or attributed to an individual's life circumstance, however it seems that happiness may only come when you allow yourself to experience it and sometimes the greatest obstacle is the individual themselves (Schneider. 1975, Gallup 1997).

“As we grow up, we learn that even the one person that wasn’t supposed to ever let you down probably will. You will have your heart broken probably more than once and it’s harder every time. You’ll break hearts too, so remember how it felt when yours was broken. You’ll fight with your best friend. You’ll blame a new love for things an old one did. You’ll cry because time is passing too fast and you’ll eventually lose someone you love…

So take many pictures, laugh too much, and love like you’ve never been hurt because every 60 seconds you spend upset is a minute of happiness you’ll never get back” – Unknown.

See also

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Bem, D.J. (1967). Self Perception: An Alternative Interpretation of Cognitive Dissonance Phenomena. Psychological Review, 4, 183-200.

Brickman, P., Coates, D. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?. Journal of Personality and Psychology, 36(8), 917-927.

Connolly, J. J. & Viswesvaran, C. (2000). The role of affectivity in job satisfaction: a meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 29, 265-281.

Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). Will Money Increase Subjective Well-Being? Social Indicators Research, 57, 119-169.

Freeman, W. J. (1997). Happiness doesn’t come in bottles. Neuroscientist learn that happiness comes through dancing not drugs. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, 67-70.

Gallup, G. (1977). Human Needs and Satisfaction: A Global Survey. Public Opinion Quarterly, 40, 459-467.

Hall, S.G. (1947). Adaptation Level As Frame of Reference For Prediction of Psychophysical Data. The American Journal of Psychology, 1, 1.

Headey, B. & Veenhoven, R. (1989). Does Happiness Include a Rosy Outlook? How harmful is happiness? Consequences of enjoying life or not. Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 106-127.

Kiovumaa-Honkanen, H., Koskenvvo, M., Honkanen, R. J., Viiamaki, H., Heikkile, K. & Kapiro, J. (2004). Life dissatisfaction and subsequent work disability in an 11 year follow up, Psychological Medicine, 34, 221-228.

Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y. & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 15, 8-13.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?, Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.

Merton, R. K. & Kitt, A. S. (1950). Contributions to the theory of reference group behavior, Glencoe, Free Press.

Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who Is Happy?, Psychological Science, 6, 10-19.

Neyer, F. J. & Asendorpf, J. B. (2001). Personality-Relationship Transaction in Young Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1190-1204.

Pinquart, M. & Sorensen, S. (2000). Influences of Socioeconomic Status, Social Network and Competence on Subjective Well-Being in Later Life: A Meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 15, 187-224.

Scheier, M. F., Matthews, K. A., Owens, J. F., Magover, G., Lefebvre, R. C. & Abbott, R. A. (1989). Dispositional optimism and recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery: the beneficial effects on physical and psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1024-1040.

Schneider, M. (1975). The Quality of Life in Large American Cities: Objective and Subjective Social Indicators. Social Indicators Research, 1, 495-509.

Sharp, T.J. (2008). 100 Ways To Happiness: A Guide For Busy People. Penguin Books, Victoria, Australia.

Straw, B. M., Sutton, R. I. & Pelled, L. H. (1994). Employee positive emotion and favorable outcomes at the workplace. Organization Science, 5, 51-71.

Waterman, A. S. (1993). Two Conceptions of Happiness: Contrasts of Personal Expressiveness (Eudaimonia) and Hedonic Enjoyment, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(4), 678-691.

Windle, M. (2000). A latent growth curve model of delinquent activity among adolescents, Applied Developmental Science, 4, 193-207.

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