Our main focus of attention up to this point has been to establish that when we speak of well-being, rather than only thinking about reducing negatives, we should also think in terms of boosting positives. As pointed out more than once in the previous two blog entries, seeking to reduce and/or remove symptoms of negative psychological functioning is important and necessary – but if this represents the totality of our efforts, then we are relying exclusively upon a strategy designed to reduce ill-being, as opposed to one that also focuses specifically on looking to enhance positive functioning.
In the simplest terms, subjective well-being relates to individual perceptions of their own happiness and life satisfaction, and maximising the experience of positive affect over negative affect (pleasure over pain). Because this perspective places such an emphasis on personal experience and feeling (the ‘subjective’ part!), it is also referred to as ‘hedonic’ well-being.
Hedonic, in this sense, is derived from the word hedonism. In the 21st century world, this word tends to bring certain negative ideas to mind, i.e., excess, over-indulgence, and a carefree pursuit of pleasure, unto the point of possibly harming oneself. While this understanding has come to be attached to the word over time, it does not fully capture the original intended meaning. Hedonism derives from the Greek for ‘delight’, and as a philosophical position reflects the view that the pursuit of pleasure or happiness is the highest, most worthwhile objective in life, and is closely linked to life satisfaction. So, against this backdrop, we sometimes refer to subjective well-being as hedonic well-being because of that shared emphasis on pleasure.
Writing in the late 1960s, long before the emergence of positive psychology, Warner Wilson produced one of the earliest broad reviews of subjective well-being. Wilson, in seeking out the ‘correlates’ of happiness, was concerned with identifying relationships between happiness and a range of relevant variables. He reported that a happy individual tends to be a “young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, high job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence”. He also added that little theoretical progress had been made in understanding happiness since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. While the latter point may have been true at the time and Wilson’s description of a happy individual in accord with the state of research when he was writing, the study of happiness and well-being has advanced in the near-half-century since then.
So, if you just read the above paragraph and found that you were not ticking enough of the specified boxes, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that you are not happy. Aside from anything else, happiness can’t be reduced to a checklist.
However, there are more fundamental points that need to be made here, as I will be referring to specific research findings with increasing frequency as the weeks pass, and rather than offer the necessary caveats each time, I will look to make the necessary points now and only allude to them in passing hereafter.
First, you will notice that I referred to Wilson’s findings as demonstrating what a happy individual will ‘tend’ to be. This word was used deliberately. In psychology, when offering up research findings – particularly arising from self-reports – we write in terms of trends, patterns, likelihoods, and tendencies, but never in definitive, categorical language. So, if I write that happy people ‘tend’ to share a number of characteristics, I am acknowledging that the finding is not carved in stone and that ultimately we are all individuals. The very fact that there are different personality types tells us that what works for one person will not necessarily work for anther. For example, Wilson refers to extroverts as tending to be happier. This may well be the case, but you cannot tell an introvert that they will be happier if they behave more like an extrovert, as that simply won’t be compatible with their personality type. Extroverts thrive in social situations, will generally enjoy being surrounded by people, and might enjoy nothing more than getting to know a room full of relative strangers. For introverts, on the other hand, all of the above might be a vision of hell. The default setting for an introvert might be a more quiet social setting with a small number of close friends or a night on the couch with a book – and neither of those scenarios might hold any appeal for an extrovert. The point is that it can never be a one-size-fits-all, and psychology tries to recognise that in the language it uses when reporting research findings.
The second point relates to seeking out correlates. One of the first things that a psychology student will be urged to recognise is the distinction between correlation and causation. It comes up early in the lecture halls because we don’t tend to recognise the differences between the two in general life, i.e., we sometimes misinterpret the nature of the relationship between any two things, assuming a causal relationship where one may not exist or where we simply do not have any enough information to offer that kind of conclusion.
Whenever I look to explain this to a class, the following example usually provokes a chuckle. Consider the following – there is research which suggests that married men will tend to be healthier than single men. When you read that, it is tempting to conclude that being married is therefore healthier than being single. In doing so, you suggest that marital status is the decisive factor in male health, i.e., that it is a causal factor. However, what if it is also the case that healthier men are more likely to get married in the first place? Suddenly your certainty on marriage as the key factor would seem ill-placed. Now, prior health seems to be key. The point being that you can only ever possess data on those variables that you measure and no matter how compelling your findings, there may always be any number of other relevant variables that you haven’t measured. So, again, because of that, when we identify relationships between different variables, we do not necessarily assume that those relationships are causal and instead speak in terms of correlations.
So, Wilson reported a number of correlates with happiness. However, in the near 50 years since then, our knowledge has increased and a number of his findings have been overturned. We will return to these points in the coming weeks, but for now it is worth pointing out that youth and modest aspirations are no longer seen as pre-requisites for happiness, while the role of income and money appears quite complex, and the potentially large role of genetics has also been identified.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.