Defining happiness and subjective well-being
Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word, commonly translated as happiness. Consisting of the word “eu” (“good” or “well being”) and “daimōn” (“spirit”, used by extension one’s fortune), it often refers to human flourishing. It was a central concept in ancient Greek ethics, along with the term “arete” (virtue) and “phronesis” (practical or moral wisdom). Webster dictionary defines happiness as “A) state of well-being and contentment, joy. B) a pleasurable or satisfying experience”.
These definitions show that the different aspects of happiness are given different importance by different people; the meaning of happiness in the ears of the listener. For some, it is an inflated term plastered on self-help books; for others, a way of living achieved by living in harmony with ourselves, events, conditions, people and environment around us.
Subjective well-being is not the same as happiness, even if such terms are often used as synonymous. Subjective well-being, as defined by Ed Diener, covers “a broad category of phenomena that includes people’s emotional responses, domain satisfactions, and global judgements of life satisfaction. Subjective well-being consists of two distinctive components: an affective part (evaluation guided by emotions and feeling), which refers to both the presence of positive affect (PA) and the absence of negative affect (NA), and a cognitive part (information-based appraisal of one’s life, evaluated using expectations and “ideal life” as benchmark). It is commonly abbreviated as SWB.
The usage of the term “subjective well-being”, or even the term “joy”, is much less widespread then the one “happiness”. While we use happiness in the title of this Book because that is what people search for and it is widely mentioned in the field of positive psychology, a suitable way to rephrase it is, in our opinion, “living joyfully” (when referred to the ordinary meaning of the word), and to use the already mentioned “subjective well-being” which is the accepted standard when it comes to scientific research.
Measuring subjective well-being
We have already covered some approaches to measure SWB in the previous seven chapters. There are several ways SWB has been measured, both on a collective and individual basis. Often, countries are ranked by their happiness, and cities by how liveable they are.
http://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nl ranks how well nations combine level and differences in happiness, for the period 2000-2009, as reported by Veenhoven, R., World Database of Happiness, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2009/06/liveable_vancouver ranks the most liveable cities in the World, as reported by Economist Intelligent Survey.
Findings about subjective well-being
This is a selection of scientific findings about SWB; as every selection, more could have been add, and we can discover more about it by reading in full the books of the authors mentioned here, and their colleagues:
– Mindfulness: as reported by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, study participants who appreciate positive moments of their day, “showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression”.
– Money aren’t everything: researchers Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan found that “The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there. The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.”. Money-seekers also score lower on tests of vitality and self-actualization. These findings are consistent across nations and cultures.
– Have meaningful goals: this has been a recurrent them along this book. “People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. As humans, we actually require a sense of meaning to thrive.” say Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable” according to Tal Ben-Shahar.
– Exercising matters: exercising delivers a sense of accomplishment, plus opportunity for interaction with people and environment, releasing endorphins and boosting self-esteem. And, under the supervision of a doctor, it may be very effective in healing depression.
– Positive outlook: “Happy people…see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savourr the high points,” say Diener and Biswas-Diener.
Sustaining subjective well-being
If we pursue a meaningful life, or flow, happiness tend to be sustainable, and even self-reinforcing. But if we are on the hedonistic treadmill, running here and there but in reality always being at point zero in terms of living joyfully, then in reality we are just aiming at pleasure (with its hedonistic adaptation which results in declining value in how we perceive the same activities other time). And, in this case, variety doesn’t really help us; as Daniel Gilbert (Harvard Professor of Psychology and author of “Stumbling on Happiness”) says: “People do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different doughnut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favourite on every visit – provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time”. He continues: “The main error, of course, is that we vastly overestimate the hedonistic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate. This “impact bias” has proved quite robust in both field and laboratory settings”. He also adds: “We are often quite poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future […] we have been given a lot of disinformation about happiness by two sources: genes and culture”. Does this mean we should relay only on scientists to know more about our happiness? Surely not, but we also need to be aware of the effects gene and meme have on our assumptions about happiness. We can “give in”, going in autopilot and relay on what our instincts (and the conditioning we have been exposed to) tell us to do; or we can be aware of the present moment, living joyfully and evaluating what are appropriate ways to act in each situation.
Subjective well-being and generosity
Elizabeth W. Dunn is assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and is well-known for her research in the field of happiness, self knowledge, affective forecasting, implicit social cognition. In the conclusions of her paper titled “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness”, she wrote “While much research has examined the effect of income on happiness, we suggest that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.
Subjective well-being and social networks
Human relationships are consistently found to be the most important correlation with human happiness. Happier people tend to have good relations with family and friends, as said by Diener and Biswas-Diener, who also add that “We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones” that involve understanding and caring. Studies, including the one published on the British Medical Journal, reported that happiness in social networks may spread from person to person. Quoting its conclusions: “While there are many determinants of happiness, whether an individual is happy also depends on whether others in the individual’s social network are happy. Happy people tend to be located in the centre of their local social networks and in large clusters of other happy people. The happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of people up to three degrees removed in the social network”.
Where are references and further information?