Is Great Happiness Always Better Than Moderate Happiness?

In a previous blog I wrote that happiness is good for us. Happier people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. But is it true that the happier you are the better it is for you? Should we all be striving for maximum levels of happiness?

A longitudinal study by Diener et al (2002) analysed the happiness levels of students entering college in 1976 and found that the most cheerful students in 1976 were making substantially more money in 1995 than those who were less cheerful ($65,023 compared with $49,770). Interestingly, the highest earners had rated themselves as having above average levels of happiness rather than the very highest levels of happiness. People who had above average levels of happiness were earning more than people who had the highest level of happiness. So, when it comes to income the optimal level of happiness isn’t the highest possible level of happiness, but rather the above average level.

The same is true with educational attainment. Moderately happy people are more likely to stay in education and achieve higher academic qualifications than very happy people. So for income and educational levels moderate happiness is better than the highest level of happiness.

This isn’t true for length of intimate relationship though. The happier you are the more likely you are to stay in a long-term relationship. But why are there different optimal levels of happiness?

One explanation is that the happiest people may become complacent which prevents them from seeing their weaknesses and working on them. People who are very happy are more likely to be content with who they are and won’t see the need to strive to make changes. People who are less happy may be more self-critical and therefore more motivated to change. They may be more motivated to work harder or to stay in education. Self-criticism brings with it self-improvement often leading to higher performance. Self-criticism isn’t as important in our intimate relationships. The positive illusion (seeing the world through rose tinted glasses) that comes with the very highest level of happiness serves well in romantic relationships, leading to us glossing over our partner’s flaws and focusing on romantic idealisation resulting in relationship stability. The ability of the very happiest people to see the best in the world around them helps them to maintain stable relationships.

One of the downsides of chronic happiness (reporting the very highest level of happiness) is that we can become more sensitive to negative events. Research has shown that chronically happy people need 2 compliments to overcome 1 criticism; where-as moderately happy people are able to recover from 1 criticism after 1 complement.

There is also evidence that people who are in sad moods are more detail-focused and critical in their thinking, which is important in certain roles and certain situations and in problem solving.

While most of us want to strive to achieve the greatest level of happiness we need to remember that great happiness doesn’t always make us successful in life. Most of us would be better off remaining moderately happy.

Reference: Diener, E., Nickerson, C., Lucas, R.E., & Sandvik, E., (2002). Dispositional affect of job outcome. Social Indicators Research. 59, 229 – 259

For more information: Oishi, S., Kurtz, J.L., (2011). The positive Psychology of Positive Emotions: An Avuncular View in Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T.B., & Steger, M.F., (Eds.). Designing the Future of Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. New York: Oxford University Press.

Loneliness: Reaching Out At Christmas

The Christmas holiday this year will mean different things to different people. For some of us it will be business as usual as we work through the holiday, for others it will be our most stressful time of the year as we organise and prepare Christmas for our families, for some it will be a time of great joy as we find the time to spend with the people we love, and for others it will be a time of year that emphasises our loneliness as we compare our festivities with the idealised versions we see on the television.

However you will be spending this holiday, it is a time to reflect on the importance of friendship and community.

A recent poll commissioned by the BBC reveals that almost half of all adults in England say that they experience feelings of loneliness. 1 in 5 of us say that we are more lonely now than 10 years ago. It is not only a problem for older people living on their own; 18 – 24 your olds experience loneliness just as much as those who are in their 60s and older.

Loneliness and isolation are bad for our physical and mental health and are associated with a substantial increase in mortality.

John Cacioppo in this TEDxTalk describes how as humans we have evolved as social beings. and as such loneliness acts as a threat (we are more vulnerable when we are isolated) and our brain moves into a defensive mode becoming hyper vigilant to perceived threats. We begin to see danger whether it is real or not and this hyper vigilance results in us having more negative interactions with other people. Our loneliness increases our defensiveness, and we become more suspicious of the people around us.

Cacioppo says that the feeling of loneliness acts a signal telling us that we should be doing something about it.

Engaging with people around us, building up our social support is consistently associated with positive health and wellbeing.

We don’t need to actually receive support to benefit from it. Just believing that we can call on it when we need it is enough for us to receive the benefits. One study by Schnall et al (2008) found that the presence of a friend (real or in one’s thoughts) led people to perceive a hill that they were told they would have to climb to be less steep. Just thinking about a friend or loved one before you embark on an arduous or stressful task is enough to help you manage it more effectively.

One of the other benefits we experience from social support is the ability to share our good news with other people. By sharing our good news with others we increase our feelings of wellbeing and self esteem which results in us feeling less lonely.

Below we give some thoughts on things you can be doing to decrease your feelings of loneliness:

Recognise the feelings for what they are. Recognise the feelings that you are experiencing as loneliness and recognise those feelings as a signal that you should be doing something about it. When we are lonely our brain shifts into a defensive mode making it hyper vigilant to perceptions of threat and increasing your defensive behaviours.

Reach out to the people who are there. Make contact with the family, friends and colleagues that you have got. Suggest meeting up for a coffee or a night out. Think of things that they enjoy doing and suggest that you do them together. Arrange to cook them a meal or help them with their shopping.

Embrace every opportunity. As you go about your day make the most out of every social opportunity you have got. Smile to people as you walk down the street, make small talk with people in the shops, offer to make a drink for your colleagues, say thank you and smile if someone opens a door for you. Remember, loneliness can lead to us behaving in more defensive ways and becoming more suspicious of people. Smile and be open to interacting with the people around you.

Give to others. Volunteering and involving yourself in your local community is an excellent way to build up your social networks and decrease feelings of loneliness. When we spend a lot of time on our own we can become very inward looking. Start looking around you, and look at things that you can do to support your community.

Take a risk. Take a deep breath, be brave and take a risk. The risk to your physical and mental health of being lonely far out weighs any temporary feelings of embarrassment if your offers of friendship are rejected.

As a wise man once said:

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”.

Some useful Links:
Friends in Need – Depression Alliance, new internet social networking and local groups

Do-It – volunteering made easy

The Silver Line – a helpline for older people

Community Christmas – events in your area for elderly people

Reference: Schnall, S., Harber, K.D., Stefanucci, J.K., Proffitt, D.R., (2008) Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 44. 1246-1255.

In The Pursuit of Happiness: How To Boost Your Happiness Levels

Being happy is good for you! There is strong evidence that happy people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. There is even research that shows that this is a 2-way relationship; it isn’t only our success that creates happiness, our happiness creates success (so happy people are more likely to be successful rather then just successful people are more likely to be happy).

The pursuit of happiness however isn’t straightforward – the more we strive towards it the more difficult it can be to obtain. Just the perception of a wide gap between where we are now and where we want to be in terms of our happiness levels is enough to create unhappiness and discontentment.

We cannot achieve happiness by trying to avoid negative experiences or thoughts. The more we try to avoid something the more significant it becomes (try telling yourself to stop thinking about chocolate – the more you try the more you think about it!).

Negative experiences are important. How can we appreciate the things that make us happy if we don’t experience the things that make us sad? It is through the bad things that happen to us that we often find the greatest life meaning and wisdom. Without sadness we would not appreciate our happiness.

Psychologists suggest that the optimal ratio of positive to negative experiences is 3 positive events for every negative event. A negative event has a greater impact on us so we need to counteract it with 3 positive events.

The extent to which we experience happiness isn’t predetermined.

It is estimated that 50% of our capacity to experience happiness is genetic (dependent on our genes), 10% is environmental (our life circumstances) and 40% is within our control. It is that 40% that we can directly influence.

We all have our own ‘happiness spectrum’, a scale that is normal for us. Some of us might be more naturally happy than other people. Events such as marriage, a promotion, winning the lottery might provide a boost to our levels of happiness but they will eventually return back to the ‘normal for us’ state (psychologists call this hedonic adaption).

Research has shown that there are things that we can be doing every day to influence that 40% of happiness that is in our control, things that can help us to sustainably boast our happiness levels to the top of our ‘normal for us’ spectrum and reduce the risk of hedonic adaption; simple cognitive and behavioural exercises that can reliably improve our levels of happiness.

It is fairly easy to temporarily boost happiness levels (doing things that we enjoy such as feeling the sun on our face, eating chocolate, having sex), these things are important, but what we are focusing on is achieving a sustainable, long-term boost to our happiness levels.

Examples of happiness-increasing activities include meditation, thinking optimistically, expressing gratitude, and acting kindly towards others.

Incorporating these elements into your everyday life can help you to sustainably boost your happiness. Try it for yourself. Over the next 8 weeks, once a week, spend 10 – 15 minutes writing down 3 – 5 things that you are grateful or thankful for. By just spending a few minutes a week counting your blessings and focusing on the big and small things that you are grateful about you can sustainably increase your levels of happiness.