Happiness and Subjective Well-Being: Part 1
Are you a happy person? Would other people describe you that way? If not, do you think you can change that? What is happiness anyway? These are big questions with a number of not-so-straight-forward answers. Yet, positive psychologists have made great strides in identifying what can and does make most people happy. Before we get to that, let’s first start by focusing on a workable definition of happiness.
Happiness is a very commonly used term with a lot of nuances and individual interpretation. However, to truly understand any psychological construct, we need to develop an operational definition for that construct. In other words, a common definition ensures that we are all referring to the same thing. Historically, there has been a good deal of debate as to how to define happiness. Yet, in recent years, researchers have increasingly recognized that happiness may actually just be a single contributor to a broader concept called subjective well-being (Diener & Ryan, 2009). You can think of this as an umbrella term.
Subjective well-being is made up of three components:
2. Life satisfaction
3. Low neuroticism
Happiness refers to how we are feeling about ourselves and our life, life satisfaction refers to how we think our life is working out (and whether it could be better or worse), and neuroticism is a personality trait linked to emotional stability (lower neuroticism equates to more emotional stability). So, in reality, when we think about what makes us happy, we also need to focus more broadly on what positively and negatively impacts our lives.
Like many other psychological phenomena, subjective well-being is influenced by both nature and nurture. Some things are under our control whereas others are not. Let’s take a look at each. In this lecture, we are going to start with nature, in other words, how we are influenced by our genetic inheritance.
Personality traits. Are some people just born happier than others? Well, the short answer is yes, but there are some caveats to this. Research findings on the genetic inheritance of happiness are not as prevalent as the impact of environmental influences on happiness. Several studies indicate that certain personality traits, which are heavily influenced by inheritance, are quite important to happiness. For instance, we know that people who are high on extraversion (the extent to which a person seeks social interactions) tend to report being happier than individuals low on this trait (Tan et al., 2018). Similarly, people who are high in conscientiousness (the extent to which you are organized and disciplined) and agreeableness (the extent to which you are honest and trustworthy) also report being happier than people lower on these traits (Ziapour et al., 2018). Finally, as mentioned above, high neuroticism is negatively associated with happiness. People who are low on neuroticism are better able to manage their emotions and social relationships as a result.
Cognitions. Cognition is a term used to describe how we think. Our patterns of thinking are influenced by personality and our genetic inheritance but are also under our control to a significant extent. Research indicates that our interpretation of the events we experience in our lives can dictate how we feel. Unsurprisingly, if a person views their life in a negative way, they are less likely to report being happy. Optimism, the degree to which a person believes that things will go well, is a dispositional style of thinking. That is, some people are naturally more optimistic. Yet, importantly, we can learn to become more optimistic. Martin Seligman has termed this learned optimism and has found that if we actively practice looking at the “glass as half full”, we can shift toward less pessimism and more optimism in our lives (Seligman, 2006).
Physical health. At one time or another, something bad will happen to all of us that is outside of our control. For many people, physical illness or injury occurs through no fault of their own. Positive Psychologists have found that good physical health doesn’t necessarily make a person happier, but experiencing poor health often results in lower levels of happiness (Steptoe, 2019). The good news though, is that many people who are dealing with serious chronic illnesses can still live happy and fulfilling lives.
So far, we have covered a number of the key contributors to subjective well-being that are largely outside of our control. In the next lecture, we will discuss some of notable predictors of happiness that can be modified by the individual or larger groups of people. See you in the next lecture!
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