Read an Excerpt
What Is Well-being?
that is enough to be happy.
Mme De La Fayette, Letter To Gilles Ménage
We social scientists can count crimes. We can measure memories. We can assess intelligence. But how do we gauge happiness? Can we trust what people tell us? Oh, for a happiness thermometer.
If we considered well-being a thing if it meant being well off, being successful, being healthy we could measure that thing. However, like Madame de La Fayette, social scientists view well-being as a state of mind. Well-being, sometimes called "subjective well-being" to emphasize the point, is a pervasive sense that life is good. Well-being outlasts yesterday's moment of elation, today's buoyant mood, and tomorrow's hard time; it is an ongoing perception that this time of one's life, or even life as a whole, is fulfilling, meaningful, and pleasant. It is what some people experience as joy not an ephemeral euphoria, but 2 deep and abiding sense that, despite the day's woes, all is, or will be, well. Even when the surface waters chum, the deep currents run sure.
To probe people's sense of well-being, researchers have asked them to report their feelings of happiness or unhappiness along with their thoughts about how satisfying their lives are. Like tangerines and oranges, happiness and life satisfaction are subtly different yet share much in common. People who feel happy also tend to think their lives are satisfying.
Sometimes researchers probe with asimple, single question. Imagine yourself one of the tens of thousands of Americans approached bysurvey research teams from the University of Michigan and the Univer-sity of Chicago and asked: "Taking all things together, how would yousay things are these days would you say you are very happy, prettyhappy, or not too happy?"
And "How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days? Are you very satisfied? satisfied? not very satisfied? not at all satisfied?"
Sometimes researchers probe with multi-item measures. For example, Chicago researcher Norman Bradburn wanted to assess people's positive and negative feelings separately. Imagine being asked about your positive emotions:
During the past few weeks have you ever felt...
particularly excited or interested in something? proud because someone complimented you on something you did? pleased about having accomplished something? on top of the world? that things were going your way?
And about your negative emotions:
During the past few weeks have you ever felt...
so restless that you couldn't sit long in a chair? very lonely or remote from other people? bored? depressed or very unhappy? upset because someone criticized you?
How many of the positive emotions have you been experiencing? How many of the negative emotions?
Alternatively, psychologists might define your happiness by summing your moment-to-moment positive feelings then subtracting your moment-to-moment negative feelings, or by computing the ratio of your positive to negative feelings. Bradburn's questions provide a quick self-estimate of what we would find.
How Happy Are People?
We are "not born for happiness," wrote Samuel Johnson, anticipating in 1776 a predominant opinion today. In his 1930 book, The Conquest of Happiness, philosopher Bertrand Russell echoed that most people are unhappy, and recent warmhearted books for the would-be-happy, mostly written by people who spend their days counseling the unhappy, concur. Dennis Wholey (author of Are You Happy?) reports that experts be interviewed believe that perhaps 20 percent of Americans are happy. "I'm surprised!" responded psychologist Archibald Hart in his 15 Principles for Achieving Happiness. "I would have thought the proportion was much lower!" In Happiness Is an Inside Job, Father John Powell agrees: "One-third of all Americans wake up depressed every day. Professionals estimate that only 10 to 15 percent of Americans think of themselves as truly happy." Even my esteemed fellow research psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has written that " genuinely happy individuals are few and far between." And psychiatrist Thomas Szasz speaks for many in surmising, "Happiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults."
But when asked about their happiness, people across the world paint a much rosier picture. For example, in national surveys a third of Americans say they are very happy. Only one in ten say "not too happy." The remainder the majority describe themselves as "pretty happy."
Most people are similarly upbeat about their satisfaction with life. More than 80 percent rate themselves as more satisfied than dissatisfied. Fewer than one in ten rate themselves as more dissatisfied than satisfied. Likewise, some three fourths of people say, yes, they've felt excited, proud, or pleased at some point during the past few weeks; no more than a third say they've felt lonely, bored, or depressed.
To probe people's well-being in yet another way, University of Michigan researchers asked a national sample of Americans to express their feelings nonverbally: "Here are some faces expressing various feelings. Which face comes closest to expressing how you feel about your life as a whole?"
Once again, we see that most people report feeling happy.
In Western Europe, well-being varies by country, from the Netherlands, where more than four in ten people say they arc very happy, to Portugal, where fewer than one in ten say the same. Although Europeans, by and large, report a lower sense of well-being than North Americans, even they typically assess themselves positively. Four in five say they are "fairly" or "very" satisfied with their everyday lives.Pursuit of Happiness. Copyright © by David Myers Phd. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.