Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

What makes us happy

Edited by Jill Wright,

Psychologists in research labs all over the world, and for that matter economists and other disciplines, are constantly asking people if they are happy.

Generally what they think they are measuring is whether or not people are satisfied with their lives. The responses throw up some paradoxical issues for those who try to judge happiness on a global scale, because people in anything but comfortable circumstances - those in the slums of Calcutta, for instance - more often than not appear to be as happy, if not happier than their Western counterparts.

In a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times, Daniel M. Haybron, an associate professor of philosophy at St Louis University and the author of a book called Happiness: A Very Short Introduction, argues that in fact what people are reporting is not so much a state of happiness as resignation. If you like, they are happy that they are not unhappier.

Haybron suggests that real happiness has little to do with life satisfaction.

It's also misleading, he suggests, to equate these reports of "happiness" with "feeling good".

He argues that when researchers frame their questions, they take themselves to be thinking of happiness as pleasure, but in fact, "they’re tacitly thinking of happiness in another, more interesting way."

In Haybron's view, when we talk about happiness, we are actually referring, much of the time, emotional well-being.

"Happiness as emotional well-being concerns your emotions and moods, more broadly your emotional condition as a whole. To be happy is to inhabit a favorable emotional state," he writes.

"On this view, we can think of happiness, loosely, as the opposite of anxiety and depression ... being in good spirits, quick to laugh and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and comfortable in your own skin, engaged, energetic and full of life. To measure happiness, we might use extended versions of existing questionnaires for anxiety and depression from the mental-health literature. Already, such diagnostics often ask questions about positive states like laughter and cheerfulness, or your ability to enjoy things."

"If you are generally depressed, anxious or stressed, you will probably not find an answer to your problems by scrutinizing the day’s events one by one. It may be wiser, instead, to consider whether the way you are living really makes sense. Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living — and a happiness worthy of the name."

Haybron's musings are worth thinking about. 

"If you are generally depressed, anxious or stressed, you will probably not find an answer to your problems by scrutinizing the day’s events one by one," he suggests. "It may be wiser, instead, to consider whether the way you are living really makes sense. Often, the signals of the emotional self can set us on the path to better ways of living — and a happiness worthy of the name."


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.