Regulation of Stress and The Pursuit of Happiness

Learning outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define coping and differentiate between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping
  • Describe the importance of perceived control in our reactions to stress
  • Explain how social support is vital in health and longevity
  • Define and discuss happiness, including its determinants
  • Describe the field of positive psychology and identify the kinds of problems it addresses
  • Explain the meaning of positive affect and discuss its importance in health outcomes
  • Describe the concept of flow and its relationship to happiness and fulfillment

Regulation of Stress

As we learned in the previous section, stress—especially if it is chronic—takes a toll on our bodies and can have enormously negative health implications. When we experience events in our lives that we appraise as stressful, it is essential that we use effective coping strategies to manage our stress. Coping refers to mental and behavioral efforts that we use to deal with problems relating to stress, including its presumed cause and the unpleasant feelings and emotions it produces.

COPING STYLES

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguished two fundamental kinds of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, one attempts to manage or alter the problem that is causing one to experience stress (i.e., the stressor). Problem-focused coping strategies are similar to strategies used in everyday problem-solving: they typically involve identifying the problem, considering possible solutions, weighing the costs and benefits of these solutions, and then selecting an alternative (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). As an example, suppose Bradford receives a midterm notice that he is failing statistics class. If Bradford adopts a problem-focused coping approach to managing his stress, he would be proactive in trying to alleviate the source of the stress. He might contact his professor to discuss what must be done to raise his grade, he might also decide to set aside two hours daily to study statistics assignments, and he may seek tutoring assistance. A problem-focused approach to managing stress means we actively try to do things to address the problem.

Emotion-focused coping, in contrast, consists of efforts to change or reduce the negative emotions associated with stress. These efforts may include avoiding, minimizing, or distancing oneself from the problem, or positive comparisons with others (“I’m not as bad off as she is”), or seeking something positive in a negative event (“Now that I’ve been fired, I can sleep in for a few days”). In some cases, emotion-focused coping strategies involve reappraisal, whereby the stressor is construed differently (and somewhat self-deceptively) without changing its objective level of threat (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, a person sentenced to federal prison who thinks, “This will give me a great chance to network with others,” is using reappraisal. If Bradford adopted an emotion-focused approach to managing his midterm deficiency stress, he might watch a comedy movie, play video games, or spend hours on Twitter to take his mind off the situation. In a certain sense, emotion-focused coping can be thought of as treating the symptoms rather than the actual cause.

While many stressors elicit both kinds of coping strategies, problem-focused coping is more likely to occur when encountering stressors we perceive as controllable, while emotion-focused coping is more likely to predominate when faced with stressors that we believe we are powerless to change (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Clearly, emotion-focused coping is more effective in dealing with uncontrollable stressors. For example, if at midnight you are stressing over a 40-page paper due in the morning that you have not yet started, you are probably better off recognizing the hopelessness of the situation and doing something to take your mind off it; taking a problem-focused approach by trying to accomplish this task would only lead to frustration, anxiety, and even more stress.

Fortunately, most stressors we encounter can be modified and are, to varying degrees, controllable. A person who cannot stand her job can quit and look for work elsewhere; a middle-aged divorcee can find another potential partner; the freshman who fails an exam can study harder next time, and a breast lump does not necessarily mean that one is fated to die of breast cancer.

CONTROL AND STRESS

The desire and ability to predict events, make decisions, and affect outcomes—that is, to enact control in our lives—is a basic tenet of human behavior (Everly & Lating, 2002). Albert Bandura (1997) stated that “the intensity and chronicity of human stress is governed largely by perceived control over the demands of one’s life” (p. 262). As cogently described in his statement, our reaction to potential stressors depends to a large extent on how much control we feel we have over such things. Perceived control is our beliefs about our personal capacity to exert influence over and shape outcomes, and it has major implications for our health and happiness (Infurna & Gerstorf, 2014). Extensive research has demonstrated that perceptions of personal control are associated with a variety of favorable outcomes, such as better physical and mental health and greater psychological well-being (Diehl & Hay, 2010). Greater personal control is also associated with lower reactivity to stressors in daily life. For example, researchers in one investigation found that higher levels of perceived control at one point in time were later associated with lower emotional and physical reactivity to interpersonal stressors (Neupert, Almeida, & Charles, 2007). Further, a daily diary study with 34 older widows found that their stress and anxiety levels were significantly reduced on days during which the widows felt greater perceived control (Ong, Bergeman, & Bisconti, 2005).

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

When we lack a sense of control over the events in our lives, particularly when those events are threatening, harmful, or noxious, the psychological consequences can be profound. In one of the better illustrations of this concept, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of classic experiments in the 1960s (Seligman & Maier, 1967) in which dogs were placed in a chamber where they received electric shocks from which they could not escape. Later, when these dogs were given the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping across a partition, most failed to even try; they seemed to just give up and passively accept any shocks the experimenters chose to administer. In comparison, dogs who were previously allowed to escape the shocks tended to jump the partition and escape the pain (Figure).

An illustration shows a dog about to jump over a partition separating an area of a floor delivering shocks from an area that doesn’t deliver shocks.
Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments with dogs used an apparatus that measured when the animals would move from a floor delivering shocks to one without.

Seligman believed that the dogs who failed to try to escape the later shocks were demonstrating learned helplessness: They had acquired a belief that they were powerless to do anything about the noxious stimulation they were receiving. Seligman also believed that the passivity and lack of initiative these dogs demonstrated was similar to that observed in human depression. Therefore, Seligman speculated that acquiring a sense of learned helplessness might be an important cause of depression in humans: Humans who experience negative life events that they believe they are unable to control may become helpless. As a result, they give up trying to control or change the situation and some may become depressed and show lack of initiative in future situations in which they can control the outcomes (Seligman, Maier, & Geer, 1968).

Seligman and colleagues later reformulated the original learned helplessness model of depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). In their reformulation, they emphasized attributions (i.e., a mental explanation for why something occurred) that lead to the perception that one lacks control over negative outcomes are important in fostering a sense of learned helplessness. For example, suppose a coworker shows up late to work; your belief as to what caused the coworker’s tardiness would be an attribution (e.g., too much traffic, slept too late, or just doesn’t care about being on time).

The reformulated version of Seligman’s study holds that the attributions made for negative life events contribute to depression. Consider the example of a student who performs poorly on a midterm exam. This model suggests that the student will make three kinds of attributions for this outcome: internal vs. external (believing the outcome was caused by his own personal inadequacies or by environmental factors), stable vs. unstable (believing the cause can be changed or is permanent), and global vs. specific (believing the outcome is a sign of inadequacy in most everything versus just this area). Assume that the student makes an internal (“I’m just not smart”), stable (“Nothing can be done to change the fact that I’m not smart”) and global (“This is another example of how lousy I am at everything”) attribution for the poor performance. The reformulated theory predicts that the student would perceive a lack of control over this stressful event and thus be especially prone to developing depression. Indeed, research has demonstrated that people who have a tendency to make internal, global, and stable attributions for bad outcomes tend to develop symptoms of depression when faced with negative life experiences (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).

Seligman’s learned helplessness model has emerged over the years as a leading theoretical explanation for the onset of major depressive disorder. When you study psychological disorders, you will learn more about the latest reformulation of this model—now called hopelessness theory.

People who report higher levels of perceived control view their health as controllable, thereby making it more likely that they will better manage their health and engage in behaviors conducive to good health (Bandura, 2004). Not surprisingly, greater perceived control has been linked to lower risk of physical health problems, including declines in physical functioning (Infurna, Gerstorf, Ram, Schupp, & Wagner, 2011), heart attacks (Rosengren et al., 2004), and both cardiovascular disease incidence (Stürmer, Hasselbach, & Amelang, 2006) and mortality from cardiac disease (Surtees et al., 2010). In addition, longitudinal studies of British civil servants have found that those in low-status jobs (e.g., clerical and office support staff) in which the degree of control over the job is minimal are considerably more likely to develop heart disease than those with high-status jobs or considerable control over their jobs (Marmot, Bosma, Hemingway, & Stansfeld, 1997).

The link between perceived control and health may provide an explanation for the frequently observed relationship between social class and health outcomes (Kraus, Piff, Mendoza-Denton, Rheinschmidt, & Keltner, 2012). In general, research has found that more affluent individuals experience better health mainly because they tend to believe that they can personally control and manage their reactions to life’s stressors (Johnson & Krueger, 2006). Perhaps buoyed by the perceived level of control, individuals of higher social class may be prone to overestimating the degree of influence they have over particular outcomes. For example, those of higher social class tend to believe that their votes have greater sway on election outcomes than do those of lower social class, which may explain higher rates of voting in more affluent communities (Krosnick, 1990). Other research has found that a sense of perceived control can protect less affluent individuals from poorer health, depression, and reduced life-satisfaction—all of which tend to accompany lower social standing (Lachman & Weaver, 1998).

Taken together, findings from these and many other studies clearly suggest that perceptions of control and coping abilities are important in managing and coping with the stressors we encounter throughout life.

SOCIAL SUPPORT

The need to form and maintain strong, stable relationships with others is a powerful, pervasive, and fundamental human motive (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Building strong interpersonal relationships with others helps us establish a network of close, caring individuals who can provide social support in times of distress, sorrow, and fear. Social support can be thought of as the soothing impact of friends, family, and acquaintances (Baron & Kerr, 2003). Social support can take many forms, including advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, emotional comfort, and tangible assistance (such as financial help). Thus, other people can be very comforting to us when we are faced with a wide range of life stressors, and they can be extremely helpful in our efforts to manage these challenges. Even in nonhuman animals, species mates can offer social support during times of stress. For example, elephants seem to be able to sense when other elephants are stressed and will often comfort them with physical contact—such as a trunk touch—or an empathetic vocal response (Krumboltz, 2014).

Scientific interest in the importance of social support first emerged in the 1970s when health researchers developed an interest in the health consequences of being socially integrated (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Interest was further fueled by longitudinal studies showing that social connectedness reduced mortality. In one classic study, nearly 7,000 Alameda County, California, residents were followed over 9 years. Those who had previously indicated that they lacked social and community ties were more likely to die during the follow-up period than those with more extensive social networks. Compared to those with the most social contacts, isolated men and women were, respectively, 2.3 and 2.8 times more likely to die. These trends persisted even after controlling for a variety of health-related variables, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, self-reported health at the beginning of the study, and physical activity (Berkman & Syme, 1979).

Since the time of that study, social support has emerged as one of the well-documented psychosocial factors affecting health outcomes (Uchino, 2009). A statistical review of 148 studies conducted between 1982 and 2007 involving over 300,000 participants concluded that individuals with stronger social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with weak or insufficient social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). According to the researchers, the magnitude of the effect of social support observed in this study is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeded many well-known risk factors for mortality, such as obesity and physical inactivity (Figure).

Photograph A shows a large group of people holding hands with the sun setting in the distance. Photograph B shows a close relationship between three people by the water.
Close relationships with others, whether (a) a group of friends or (b) a family circle, provide more than happiness and fulfillment—they can help foster good health. (credit a: modification of work by Nattachai Noogure; credit b: modification of work by Christian Haugen)

A number of large-scale studies have found that individuals with low levels of social support are at greater risk of mortality, especially from cardiovascular disorders (Brummett et al., 2001). Further, higher levels of social supported have been linked to better survival rates following breast cancer (Falagas et al., 2007) and infectious diseases, especially HIV infection (Lee & Rotheram-Borus, 2001). In fact, a person with high levels of social support is less likely to contract a common cold. In one study, 334 participants completed questionnaires assessing their sociability; these individuals were subsequently exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored for several weeks to see who became ill. Results showed that increased sociability was linearly associated with a decreased probability of developing a cold (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003).

For many of us, friends are a vital source of social support. But what if you found yourself in a situation in which you lacked friends or companions? For example, suppose a popular high school student attends a far-away college, does not know anyone, and has trouble making friends and meaningful connections with others during the first semester. What can be done? If real life social support is lacking, access to distant friends via social media may help compensate. In a study of college freshmen, those with few face-to-face friends on campus but who communicated electronically with distant friends were less distressed that those who did not (Raney & Troop-Gordon, 2012). Also, for some people, our families—especially our parents—are a major source of social support.

Social support appears to work by boosting the immune system, especially among people who are experiencing stress (Uchino, Vaughn, Carlisle, & Birmingham, 2012). In a pioneering study, spouses of cancer patients who reported high levels of social support showed indications of better immune functioning on two out of three immune functioning measures, compared to spouses who were below the median on reported social support (Baron, Cutrona, Hicklin, Russell, & Lubaroff, 1990). Studies of other populations have produced similar results, including those of spousal caregivers of dementia sufferers, medical students, elderly adults, and cancer patients (Cohen & Herbert, 1996; Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002).

In addition, social support has been shown to reduce blood pressure for people performing stressful tasks, such as giving a speech or performing mental arithmetic (Lepore, 1998). In these kinds of studies, participants are usually asked to perform a stressful task either alone, with a stranger present (who may be either supportive or unsupportive), or with a friend present. Those tested with a friend present generally exhibit lower blood pressure than those tested alone or with a stranger (Fontana, Diegnan, Villeneuve, & Lepore, 1999). In one study, 112 female participants who performed stressful mental arithmetic exhibited lower blood pressure when they received support from a friend rather than a stranger, but only if the friend was a male (Phillips, Gallagher, & Carroll, 2009). Although these findings are somewhat difficult to interpret, the authors mention that it is possible that females feel less supported and more evaluated by other females, particularly females whose opinions they value.

Taken together, the findings above suggest one of the reasons social support is connected to favorable health outcomes is because it has several beneficial physiological effects in stressful situations. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that social support may lead to better health behaviors, such as a healthy diet, exercising, smoking cessation, and cooperation with medical regimens (Uchino, 2009).

COPING WITH PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION

While having social support is quite beneficial, being the recipient of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors is associated with a number of negative outcomes. In their literature review, Brondolo, Brady, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada (2009) describe how racial prejudice and discrimination serve as unique, significant stressors for those who are the targets of such attitudes and behavior. Being the target of racism is associated with increased rates of depression, lowered self-esteem, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Given the complex and pervasive nature of racism as a stressor, Brondolo et al. (2009) point out the importance of coping with this specific stressor. Their review is aimed at determining which coping strategies are most effective at offsetting negative health outcomes associated with racism-related stress. The authors examine the effectiveness of three coping strategies: focusing on racial identity to handle race-related stress, anger expression/suppression, and seeking social support. You’ve learned a bit about social support, so we’ll focus the remainder of this discussion on the potential coping strategies of focusing on racial identity and anger expression/suppression.

Focusing on racial identity refers to the process by which a person comes to feel as if he belongs to a given racial group; this may increase a sense of pride associated with group membership. Brondolo et al. (2009) suggest that a strong sense of racial identity might help an individual who is the target of racism differentiate between prejudicial attitudes/behaviors that are directed toward his group as a whole rather than at him as a person. Furthermore, the sense of belonging to his group might alleviate the distress of being ostracized by others. However, the research literature on the effectiveness of this technique has produced mixed results.

Anger expression/suppression refers to the options available as a function of the anger evoked by racial prejudice and discrimination. Put simply, a target of racist attitudes and behaviors can act upon her anger or suppress her anger. As discussed by Brondolo et al. (2009), there has been very little research on the effectiveness of either approach; the results are quite mixed with some showing anger expression and others showing anger suppression as the healthier option.

In the end, racism-related stress is a complex issue and each of the coping strategies discussed here has strengths and weaknesses. Brondolo et al. (2009) argue that it is imperative that additional research be conducted to ascertain the most effective strategies for coping with the negative outcomes that are experienced by the targets of racism.

STRESS REDUCTION TECHNIQUES

Beyond having a sense of control and establishing social support networks, there are numerous other means by which we can manage stress (Figure). A common technique people use to combat stress is exercise (Salmon, 2001). It is well-established that exercise, both of long (aerobic) and short (anaerobic) duration, is beneficial for both physical and mental health (Everly & Lating, 2002). There is considerable evidence that physically fit individuals are more resistant to the adverse effects of stress and recover more quickly from stress than less physically fit individuals (Cotton, 1990). In a study of more than 500 Swiss police officers and emergency service personnel, increased physical fitness was associated with reduced stress, and regular exercise was reported to protect against stress-related health problems (Gerber, Kellman, Hartman, & Pühse, 2010).

Photograph A shows an exercise room with several treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes. There are people exercising with multiple televisions hanging from the ceiling in front of them. Photograph B shows a person meditating next to a tree. Photograph C shows two people sitting across from each other at a table, each in front of a monitor. The person in the foreground has straps around the head holding up wires or devices.
Stress reduction techniques may include (a) exercise, (b) meditation and relaxation, or (c) biofeedback. (credit a: modification of work by “UNE Photos”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Caleb Roenigk; credit c: modification of work by Dr. Carmen Russoniello)

One reason exercise may be beneficial is because it might buffer some of the deleterious physiological mechanisms of stress. One study found rats that exercised for six weeks showed a decrease in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness to mild stressors (Campeau et al., 2010). In high-stress humans, exercise has been shown to prevent telomere shortening, which may explain the common observation of a youthful appearance among those who exercise regularly (Puterman et al., 2010). Further, exercise in later adulthood appears to minimize the detrimental effects of stress on the hippocampus and memory (Head, Singh, & Bugg, 2012). Among cancer survivors, exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety (Speck, Courneya, Masse, Duval, & Schmitz, 2010) and depressive symptoms (Craft, VanIterson, Helenowski, Rademaker, & Courneya, 2012). Clearly, exercise is a highly effective tool for regulating stress.

In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, developed a stress reduction method called the relaxation response technique(Greenberg, 2006). The relaxation response technique combines relaxation with transcendental meditation, and consists of four components (Stein, 2001):

  1. sitting upright on a comfortable chair with feet on the ground and body in a relaxed position,
  2. a quiet environment with eyes closed,
  3. repeating a word or a phrase—a mantra—to oneself, such as “alert mind, calm body,”
  4. passively allowing the mind to focus on pleasant thoughts, such as nature or the warmth of your blood nourishing your body.

The relaxation response approach is conceptualized as a general approach to stress reduction that reduces sympathetic arousal, and it has been used effectively to treat people with high blood pressure (Benson & Proctor, 1994).

Another technique to combat stress, biofeedback, was developed by Gary Schwartz at Harvard University in the early 1970s. Biofeedback is a technique that uses electronic equipment to accurately measure a person’s neuromuscular and autonomic activity—feedback is provided in the form of visual or auditory signals. The main assumption of this approach is that providing somebody biofeedback will enable the individual to develop strategies that help gain some level of voluntary control over what are normally involuntary bodily processes (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1995). A number of different bodily measures have been used in biofeedback research, including facial muscle movement, brain activity, and skin temperature, and it has been applied successfully with individuals experiencing tension headaches, high blood pressure, asthma, and phobias (Stein, 2001).

Summary

When faced with stress, people must attempt to manage or cope with it. In general, there are two basic forms of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Those who use problem-focused coping strategies tend to cope better with stress because these strategies address the source of stress rather than the resulting symptoms. To a large extent, perceived control greatly impacts reaction to stressors and is associated with greater physical and mental well-being. Social support has been demonstrated to be a highly effective buffer against the adverse effects of stress. Extensive research has shown that social support has beneficial physiological effects for people, and it seems to influence immune functioning. However, the beneficial effects of social support may be related to its influence on promoting healthy behaviors.

Review Questions

Emotion-focused coping would likely be a better method than problem-focused coping for dealing with which of the following stressors?

  1. terminal cancer
  2. poor grades in school
  3. unemployment
  4. divorce

Studies of British civil servants have found that those in the lowest status jobs are much more likely to develop heart disease than those who have high status jobs. These findings attest to the importance of ________ in dealing with stress.

  1. biofeedback
  2. social support
  3. perceived control
  4. emotion-focused coping

Relative to those with low levels of social support, individuals with high levels of social support ________.

  1. are more likely to develop asthma
  2. tend to have less perceived control
  3. are more likely to develop cardiovascular disorders
  4. tend to tolerate stress well

The concept of learned helplessness was formulated by Seligman to explain the ________.

  1. inability of dogs to attempt to escape avoidable shocks after having received inescapable shocks
  2. failure of dogs to learn to from prior mistakes
  3. ability of dogs to learn to help other dogs escape situations in which they are receiving uncontrollable shocks
  4. inability of dogs to learn to help other dogs escape situations in which they are receiving uncontrollable electric shocks

Critical Thinking Questions

Although problem-focused coping seems to be a more effective strategy when dealing with stressors, do you think there are any kinds of stressful situations in which emotion-focused coping might be a better strategy?

Describe how social support can affect health both directly and indirectly.

Personal Application Question

Try to think of an example in which you coped with a particular stressor by using problem-focused coping. What was the stressor? What did your problem-focused efforts involve? Were they effective?

The Pursuit of Happiness

Although the study of stress and how it affects us physically and psychologically is fascinating, it is—admittedly—somewhat of a grim topic. Psychology is also interested in the study of a more upbeat and encouraging approach to human affairs—the quest for happiness.

HAPPINESS

America’s founders declared that its citizens have an unalienable right to pursue happiness. But what is happiness? When asked to define the term, people emphasize different aspects of this elusive state. Indeed, happiness is somewhat ambiguous and can be defined from different perspectives (Martin, 2012). Some people, especially those who are highly committed to their religious faith, view happiness in ways that emphasize virtuosity, reverence, and enlightened spirituality. Others see happiness as primarily contentment—the inner peace and joy that come from deep satisfaction with one’s surroundings, relationships with others, accomplishments, and oneself. Still others view happiness mainly as pleasurable engagement with their personal environment—having a career and hobbies that are engaging, meaningful, rewarding, and exciting. These differences, of course, are merely differences in emphasis. Most people would probably agree that each of these views, in some respects, captures the essence of happiness.

Elements of Happiness

Some psychologists have suggested that happiness consists of three distinct elements: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life, as shown in Figure (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). The pleasant life is realized through the attainment of day-to-day pleasures that add fun, joy, and excitement to our lives. For example, evening walks along the beach and a fulfilling sex life can enhance our daily pleasure and contribute to the pleasant life. The good life is achieved through identifying our unique skills and abilities and engaging these talents to enrich our lives; those who achieve the good life often find themselves absorbed in their work or their recreational pursuits. The meaningful life involves a deep sense of fulfillment that comes from using our talents in the service of the greater good: in ways that benefit the lives of others or that make the world a better place. In general, the happiest people tend to be those who pursue the full life—they orient their pursuits toward all three elements (Seligman et al., 2005).

A Venn diagram features three circles: one labeled “Good life: using skills for enrichment,” one labeled “Pleasant life: enjoying daily pleasures,” and another labeled: Meaningful life: contributing to the greater good.” All three circles overlap at a section labeled “Happiness.”
Happiness is an enduring state of well-being involving satisfaction in the pleasant, good, and meaningful aspects of life.

For practical purposes, a precise definition of happiness might incorporate each of these elements: an enduring state of mind consisting of joy, contentment, and other positive emotions, plus the sense that one’s life has meaning and value (Lyubomirsky, 2001). The definition implies that happiness is a long-term state—what is often characterized as subjective well-being—rather than merely a transient positive mood we all experience from time to time. It is this enduring happiness that has captured the interests of psychologists and other social scientists.

The study of happiness has grown dramatically in the last three decades (Diener, 2013). One of the most basic questions that happiness investigators routinely examine is this: How happy are people in general? The average person in the world tends to be relatively happy and tends to indicate experiencing more positive feelings than negative feelings (Diener, Ng, Harter, & Arora, 2010). When asked to evaluate their current lives on a scale ranging from 0 to 10 (with 0 representing “worst possible life” and 10 representing “best possible life”), people in more than 150 countries surveyed from 2010–2012 reported an average score of 5.2. People who live in North America, Australia, and New Zealand reported the highest average score at 7.1, whereas those living Sub-Saharan Africa reported the lowest average score at 4.6 (Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2013). Worldwide, the five happiest countries are Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden; the United States is ranked 17th happiest (Figure) (Helliwell et al., 2013).

Photograph A shows a row of buildings by the water in Denmark. Photograph B shows an aerial view of a city in the United States including several skyscrapers.
(a) Surveys of residents in over 150 countries indicate that Denmark has the happiest citizens in the world. (b) Americans ranked the United States as the 17th happiest country in which to live. (credit a: modification of work by “JamesZ_Flickr”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Ryan Swindell)

Several years ago, a Gallup survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that 52% reported that they were “very happy.” In addition, more than 8 in 10 indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their lives (Carroll, 2007). However, a recent poll of 2,345 U.S. adults surprisingly revealed that only one-third reported they are “very happy.” The poll also revealed that the happiness levels of certain groups, including minorities, recent college graduates, and the disabled, have trended downward in recent years (Gregoire, 2013). Although it is difficult to explain this apparent decline in happiness, it may be connected to the challenging economic conditions the United States has endured over the last several years. Of course, this presumption would imply that happiness is closely tied to one’s finances. But, is it? This question brings us to the next important issue: What factors influence happiness?

Factors Connected to Happiness

What really makes people happy? What factors contribute to sustained joy and contentment? Is it money, attractiveness, material possessions, a rewarding occupation, a satisfying relationship? Extensive research over the years has examined this question. One finding is that age is related to happiness: Life satisfaction usually increases the older people get, but there do not appear to be gender differences in happiness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Although it is important to point out that much of this work has been correlational, many of the key findings (some of which may surprise you) are summarized below.

Family and other social relationships appear to be key factors correlated with happiness. Studies show that married people report being happier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed (Diener et al., 1999). Happy individuals also report that their marriages are fulfilling (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). In fact, some have suggested that satisfaction with marriage and family life is the strongest predictor of happiness (Myers, 2000). Happy people tend to have more friends, more high-quality social relationships, and stronger social support networks than less happy people (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Happy people also have a high frequency of contact with friends (Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000).

Can money buy happiness? In general, extensive research suggests that the answer is yes, but with several caveats. While a nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is associated with happiness levels (Helliwell et al., 2013), changes in GDP (which is a less certain index of household income) bear little relationship to changes in happiness (Diener, Tay, & Oishi, 2013). On the whole, residents of affluent countries tend to be happier than residents of poor countries; within countries, wealthy individuals are happier than poor individuals, but the association is much weaker (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002). To the extent that it leads to increases in purchasing power, increases in income are associated with increases in happiness (Diener, Oishi, & Ryan, 2013). However, income within societies appears to correlate with happiness only up to a point. In a study of over 450,000 U.S. residents surveyed by the Gallup Organization, Kahneman and Deaton (2010) found that well-being rises with annual income, but only up to $75,000. The average increase in reported well-being for people with incomes greater than $75,000 was null. As implausible as these findings might seem—after all, higher incomes would enable people to indulge in Hawaiian vacations, prime seats as sporting events, expensive automobiles, and expansive new homes—higher incomes may impair people’s ability to savor and enjoy the small pleasures of life (Kahneman, 2011). Indeed, researchers in one study found that participants exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth spent less time savoring a chocolate candy bar and exhibited less enjoyment of this experience than did participants who were not reminded of wealth (Quoidbach, Dunn, Petrides, & Mikolajczak, 2010).

What about education and employment? Happy people, compared to those who are less happy, are more likely to graduate from college and secure more meaningful and engaging jobs. Once they obtain a job, they are also more likely to succeed (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). While education shows a positive (but weak) correlation with happiness, intelligence is not appreciably related to happiness (Diener et al., 1999).

Does religiosity correlate with happiness? In general, the answer is yes (Hackney & Sanders, 2003). However, the relationship between religiosity and happiness depends on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult living conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) tend to be more highly religious than societies with more favorable living conditions. Among those who live in nations with difficult living conditions, religiosity is associated with greater well-being; in nations with more favorable living conditions, religious and nonreligious individuals report similar levels of well-being (Diener, Tay, & Myers, 2011).

Clearly the living conditions of one’s nation can influence factors related to happiness. What about the influence of one’s culture? To the extent that people possess characteristics that are highly valued by their culture, they tend to be happier (Diener, 2012). For example, self-esteem is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995), and extraverted people tend to be happier in extraverted cultures than in introverted cultures (Fulmer et al., 2010).

So we’ve identified many factors that exhibit some correlation to happiness. What factors don’t show a correlation? Researchers have studied both parenthood and physical attractiveness as potential contributors to happiness, but no link has been identified. Although people tend to believe that parenthood is central to a meaningful and fulfilling life, aggregate findings from a range of countries indicate that people who do not have children are generally happier than those who do (Hansen, 2012). And although one’s perceived level of attractiveness seems to predict happiness, a person’s objective physical attractiveness is only weakly correlated with her happiness (Diener, Wolsic, & Fujita, 1995).

Life Events and Happiness

An important point should be considered regarding happiness. People are often poor at affective forecasting: predicting the intensity and duration of their future emotions (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003). In one study, nearly all newlywed spouses predicted their marital satisfaction would remain stable or improve over the following four years; despite this high level of initial optimism, their marital satisfaction actually declined during this period (Lavner, Karner, & Bradbury, 2013). In addition, we are often incorrect when estimating how our long-term happiness would change for the better or worse in response to certain life events. For example, it is easy for many of us to imagine how euphoric we would feel if we won the lottery, were asked on a date by an attractive celebrity, or were offered our dream job. It is also easy to understand how long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which has not won a World Series championship since 1908, think they would feel permanently elated if their team would finally win another World Series. Likewise, it easy to predict that we would feel permanently miserable if we suffered a crippling accident or if a romantic relationship ended.

However, something similar to sensory adaptation often occurs when people experience emotional reactions to life events. In much the same way our senses adapt to changes in stimulation (e.g., our eyes adapting to bright light after walking out of the darkness of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sun), we eventually adapt to changing emotional circumstances in our lives (Brickman & Campbell, 1971; Helson, 1964). When an event that provokes positive or negative emotions occurs, at first we tend to experience its emotional impact at full intensity. We feel a burst of pleasure following such things as a marriage proposal, birth of a child, acceptance to law school, an inheritance, and the like; as you might imagine, lottery winners experience a surge of happiness after hitting the jackpot (Lutter, 2007). Likewise, we experience a surge of misery following widowhood, a divorce, or a layoff from work. In the long run, however, we eventually adjust to the emotional new normal; the emotional impact of the event tends to erode, and we eventually revert to our original baseline happiness levels. Thus, what was at first a thrilling lottery windfall or World Series championship eventually loses its luster and becomes the status quo (Figure). Indeed, dramatic life events have much less long-lasting impact on happiness than might be expected (Brickman, Coats, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978).

Photograph A shows a pitcher for the Cubs on the mound. Photograph B shows a lottery ticket.
(a) Long-suffering Chicago Cub fans would no doubt feel elated if their team won a World Series championship, a feat that has not been accomplished by that franchise in over a century. (b) In ways that are similar, those who play the lottery rightfully think that choosing the correct numbers and winning millions would lead to a surge in happiness. However, the initial burst of elation following such elusive events would most likely erode with time. (credit a: modification of work by Phil Roeder; credit b: modification of work by Robert S. Donovan)

Recently, some have raised questions concerning the extent to which important life events can permanently alter people’s happiness set points (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). Evidence from a number of investigations suggests that, in some circumstances, happiness levels do not revert to their original positions. For example, although people generally tend to adapt to marriage so that it no longer makes them happier or unhappier than before, they often do not fully adapt to unemployment or severe disabilities (Diener, 2012). Figure, which is based on longitudinal data from a sample of over 3,000 German respondents, shows life satisfaction scores several years before, during, and after various life events, and it illustrates how people adapt (or fail to adapt) to these events. German respondents did not get lasting emotional boosts from marriage; instead, they reported brief increases in happiness, followed by quick adaptation. In contrast, widows and those who had been laid off experienced sizeable decreases in happiness that appeared to result in long-term changes in life satisfaction (Diener et al., 2006). Further, longitudinal data from the same sample showed that happiness levels changed significantly over time for nearly a quarter of respondents, with 9% showing major changes (Fujita & Diener, 2005). Thus, long-term happiness levels can and do change for some people.

A chart compares life satisfaction scores in the years before and after significant life events. Life satisfaction is steady in the five years before and after marriage. There is a gradual incline that peaks in the year of marriage and declines slightly in the years following. With respect to unemployment, life satisfaction five years before is roughly the same as it is with marriage at that time, but begins to decline sharply around 2 years before unemployment. One year after unemployment, life satisfaction has risen slightly, but then becomes steady at a much lower level than at five years before. With respect to the death of a spouse, life satisfaction five years before is about the same as marriage at that time, but steadily declines until the death, when it starts to gradually rise again. After five years, the person who has suffered the death of a spouse has roughly the same life satisfaction as the person who was unemployed.
This graphs shows life satisfaction scores several years before and after three significant life events (0 represents the year the event happened) (Diener et al., 2006).

Increasing Happiness

Some recent findings about happiness provide an optimistic picture, suggesting that real changes in happiness are possible. For example, thoughtfully developed well-being interventions designed to augment people’s baseline levels of happiness may increase happiness in ways that are permanent and long-lasting, not just temporary. These changes in happiness may be targeted at individual, organizational, and societal levels (Diener et al., 2006). Researchers in one study found that a series of happiness interventions involving such exercises as writing down three good things that occurred each day led to increases in happiness that lasted over six months (Seligman et al., 2005).

Measuring happiness and well-being at the societal level over time may assist policy makers in determining if people are generally happy or miserable, as well as when and why they might feel the way they do. Studies show that average national happiness scores (over time and across countries) relate strongly to six key variables: per capita gross domestic product (GDP, which reflects a nation’s economic standard of living), social support, freedom to make important life choices, healthy life expectancy, freedom from perceived corruption in government and business, and generosity (Helliwell et al., 2013). Investigating why people are happy or unhappy might help policymakers develop programs that increase happiness and well-being within a society (Diener et al., 2006). Resolutions about contemporary political and social issues that are frequent topics of debate—such as poverty, taxation, affordable health care and housing, clean air and water, and income inequality—might be best considered with people’s happiness in mind.

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

In 1998, Seligman (the same person who conducted the learned helplessness experiments mentioned earlier), who was then president of the American Psychological Association, urged psychologists to focus more on understanding how to build human strength and psychological well-being. In deliberately setting out to create a new direction and new orientation for psychology, Seligman helped establish a growing movement and field of research called positive psychology (Compton, 2005). In a very general sense, positive psychology can be thought of as the science of happiness; it is an area of study that seeks to identify and promote those qualities that lead to greater fulfillment in our lives. This field looks at people’s strengths and what helps individuals to lead happy, contented lives, and it moves away from focusing on people’s pathology, faults, and problems. According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology,

at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and… happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. (p. 5)

Some of the topics studied by positive psychologists include altruism and empathy, creativity, forgiveness and compassion, the importance of positive emotions, enhancement of immune system functioning, savoring the fleeting moments of life, and strengthening virtues as a way to increase authentic happiness (Compton, 2005). Recent efforts in the field of positive psychology have focused on extending its principles toward peace and well-being at the level of the global community. In a war-torn world in which conflict, hatred, and distrust are common, such an extended “positive peace psychology” could have important implications for understanding how to overcome oppression and work toward global peace (Cohrs, Christie, White, & Das, 2013).

THE CENTER FOR INVESTIGATING HEALTHY MINDS

On the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center conducts rigorous scientific research on healthy aspects of the mind, such as kindness, forgiveness, compassion, and mindfulness. Established in 2008 and led by renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson, the Center examines a wide range of ideas, including such things as a kindness curriculum in schools, neural correlates of prosocial behavior, psychological effects of Tai Chi training, digital games to foster prosocial behavior in children, and the effectiveness of yoga and breathing exercises in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to its website, the Center was founded after Dr. Davidson was challenged by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, “to apply the rigors of science to study positive qualities of mind” (Center for Investigating Health Minds, 2013). The Center continues to conduct scientific research with the aim of developing mental health training approaches that help people to live happier, healthier lives).

Positive Affect and Optimism

Taking a cue from positive psychology, extensive research over the last 10-15 years has examined the importance of positive psychological attributes in physical well-being. Qualities that help promote psychological well-being (e.g., having meaning and purpose in life, a sense of autonomy, positive emotions, and satisfaction with life) are linked with a range of favorable health outcomes (especially improved cardiovascular health) mainly through their relationships with biological functions and health behaviors (such as diet, physical activity, and sleep quality) (Boehm & Kubzansky, 2012). The quality that has received attention is positive affect, which refers to pleasurable engagement with the environment, such as happiness, joy, enthusiasm, alertness, and excitement (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). The characteristics of positive affect, as with negative affect (discussed earlier), can be brief, long-lasting, or trait-like (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). Independent of age, gender, and income, positive affect is associated with greater social connectedness, emotional and practical support, adaptive coping efforts, and lower depression; it is also associated with longevity and favorable physiological functioning (Steptoe, O’Donnell, Marmot, & Wardle, 2008).

Positive affect also serves as a protective factor against heart disease. In a 10-year study of Nova Scotians, the rate of heart disease was 22% lower for each one-point increase on the measure of positive affect, from 1 (no positive affect expressed) to 5 (extreme positive affect) (Davidson, Mostofsky, & Whang, 2010). In terms of our health, the expression, “don’t worry, be happy” is helpful advice indeed. There has also been much work suggesting that optimism—the general tendency to look on the bright side of things—is also a significant predictor of positive health outcomes.

Although positive affect and optimism are related in some ways, they are not the same (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). Whereas positive affect is mostly concerned with positive feeling states, optimism has been regarded as a generalized tendency to expect that good things will happen (Chang, 2001). It has also been conceptualized as a tendency to view life’s stressors and difficulties as temporary and external to oneself (Peterson & Steen, 2002). Numerous studies over the years have consistently shown that optimism is linked to longevity, healthier behaviors, fewer postsurgical complications, better immune functioning among men with prostate cancer, and better treatment adherence (Rasmussen & Wallio, 2008). Further, optimistic people report fewer physical symptoms, less pain, better physical functioning, and are less likely to be rehospitalized following heart surgery (Rasmussen, Scheier, & Greenhouse, 2009).

Flow

Another factor that seems to be important in fostering a deep sense of well-being is the ability to derive flow from the things we do in life. Flow is described as a particular experience that is so engaging and engrossing that it becomes worth doing for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). It is usually related to creative endeavors and leisure activities, but it can also be experienced by workers who like their jobs or students who love studying (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Many of us instantly recognize the notion of flow. In fact, the term derived from respondents’ spontaneous use of the term when asked to describe how it felt when what they were doing was going well. When people experience flow, they become involved in an activity to the point where they feel they lose themselves in the activity. They effortlessly maintain their concentration and focus, they feel as though they have complete control of their actions, and time seems to pass more quickly than usual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Flow is considered a pleasurable experience, and it typically occurs when people are engaged in challenging activities that require skills and knowledge they know they possess. For example, people would be more likely report flow experiences in relation to their work or hobbies than in relation to eating. When asked the question, “Do you ever get involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter, and you lose track of time?” about 20% of Americans and Europeans report having these flow-like experiences regularly (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

Although wealth and material possessions are nice to have, the notion of flow suggests that neither are prerequisites for a happy and fulfilling life. Finding an activity that you are truly enthusiastic about, something so absorbing that doing it is reward itself (whether it be playing tennis, studying Arabic, writing children’s novels, or cooking lavish meals) is perhaps the real key. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1999), creating conditions that make flow experiences possible should be a top social and political priority. How might this goal be achieved? How might flow be promoted in school systems? In the workplace? What potential benefits might be accrued from such efforts?

In an ideal world, scientific research endeavors should inform us on how to bring about a better world for all people. The field of positive psychology promises to be instrumental in helping us understand what truly builds hope, optimism, happiness, healthy relationships, flow, and genuine personal fulfillment.

Summary

Happiness is conceptualized as an enduring state of mind that consists of the capacity to experience pleasure in daily life, as well as the ability to engage one’s skills and talents to enrich one’s life and the lives of others. Although people around the world generally report that they are happy, there are differences in average happiness levels across nations. Although people have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which their happiness set points would change for the better or for the worse following certain life events, researchers have identified a number of factors that are consistently related to happiness. In recent years, positive psychology has emerged as an area of study seeking to identify and promote qualities that lead to greater happiness and fulfillment in our lives. These components include positive affect, optimism, and flow.

Review Questions

Which of the following is not one of the presumed components of happiness?

  1. using our talents to help improve the lives of others
  2. learning new skills
  3. regular pleasurable experiences
  4. identifying and using our talents to enrich our lives

Researchers have identified a number of factors that are related to happiness. Which of the following is not one of them?

  1. age
  2. annual income up to $75,000
  3. physical attractiveness
  4. marriage

How does positive affect differ from optimism?

  1. Optimism is more scientific than positive affect.
  2. Positive affect is more scientific than optimism.
  3. Positive affect involves feeling states, whereas optimism involves expectations.
  4. Optimism involves feeling states, whereas positive affect involves expectations.

Carson enjoys writing mystery novels, and has even managed to publish some of his work. When he’s writing, Carson becomes extremely focused on his work; in fact, he becomes so absorbed that that he often loses track of time, often staying up well past 3 a.m. Carson’s experience best illustrates the concept of ________.

  1. happiness set point
  2. adaptation
  3. positive affect
  4. flow

Critical Thinking Questions

In considering the three dimensions of happiness discussed in this section (the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life), what are some steps you could take to improve your personal level of happiness?

The day before the drawing of a $300 million Powerball lottery, you notice that a line of people waiting to buy their Powerball tickets is stretched outside the door of a nearby convenience store. Based on what you’ve learned, provide some perspective on why these people are doing this, and what would likely happen if one of these individuals happened to pick the right numbers.

Personal Application Question

Think of an activity you participate in that you find engaging and absorbing. For example, this might be something like playing video games, reading, or a hobby. What are your experiences typically like while engaging in this activity? Do your experiences conform to the notion of flow? If so, how? Do you think these experiences have enriched your life? Why or why not?

glossary

biofeedback:
stress-reduction technique using electronic equipment to measure a person’s involuntary (neuromuscular and autonomic) activity and provide feedback to help the person gain a level of voluntary control over these processes
coping:
mental or behavioral efforts used to manage problems relating to stress, including its cause and the unpleasant feelings and emotions it produces
flow:
state involving intense engagement in an activity; usually is experienced when participating in creative, work, and leisure endeavors
happiness:
enduring state of mind consisting of joy, contentment, and other positive emotions; the sense that one’s life has meaning and value
optimism:
tendency toward a positive outlook and positive expectations
perceived control:
peoples’ beliefs concerning their capacity to influence and shape outcomes in their lives
positive affect:
state or a trait that involves pleasurable engagement with the environment, the dimensions of which include happiness, joy, enthusiasm, alertness, and excitement
positive psychology:
scientific area of study seeking to identify and promote those qualities that lead to happy, fulfilled, and contented lives
relaxation response technique:
stress reduction technique combining elements of relaxation and meditation
social support:
soothing and often beneficial support of others; can take different forms, such as advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, emotional comfort, and tangible assistance