More to Happiness Than Feeling Good, Study Finds

Cross-cultural data suggest that happiness involves feeling the emotions one deems as right, in accordance with personal and cultural values

Zenobia Morrill
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New data published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology report that happiness does not simply entail minimizing unpleasant feelings. The researchers found that “happier people are those who more frequently experience the emotions they want to experience, whether those emotions are pleasant (e.g., love or excitement) or unpleasant (e.g., anger and hatred).”

Photo Credit: Flickr

For the past 30 years, subjective well-being (SWB) and positive psychology approaches have promulgated the idea that happiness entails minimizing unpleasant emotions and maximizing pleasant ones.

However, dissenting approaches, notably featured in humanistic and existential theories, have an extensive history. They draw a distinction between hedonic  ideas of happiness, as maximizing pleasant affect, and happiness as a state of being, marked by personal growth, flourishing, self-acceptance, and other domains, also referred to as eudaimonia, or “the good life.”

The researchers of this study reference Aristotle’s approach which describes happiness as the result of feeling the right emotions. That is, happiness involves experiencing painful feelings when they are deemed appropriate or goal-conducive.

Highlighting happiness as “one of the most salient of human pursuits,” Maya Tamir, and a team of researchers, were interested in investigating how people come to experience it. Is it really marked by the absence of unpleasant feelings? Or does happiness manifest through experiencing emotions consistent with individual needs and desires?

First, the authors detail how this question necessarily involves considering the impact of culture.  While some studies demonstrate that people value experiencing emotions that are consistent with their core personal values, these values are also complexly nested within cultural values.

For example, European Americans tend to seek a high ratio of pleasant to unpleasant emotions whereas individuals from more collectivistic cultures are less motivated to minimize unpleasant emotional experiences, and seek a balance of emotions.

Positive emotions have also been more strongly linked to life satisfaction in countries that emphasize values surrounding self-expression compared to those that stress survival values. People are reportedly happier “the more they experience emotions that are characteristic of their culture.”

The study’s sample consisted of 2,324 university students (57.5% female) representing eight different countries (United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland, and Singapore). Participants were recruited either through ads or university participant pools.

To assess participant values, desired emotions, and emotional experiences, participants completed a variety of scales. They rated how often they wanted to experience various emotions in their daily life, followed by how often they actually experienced those emotions.

The Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) was used to assess well-being and depressive symptoms and Human Development Index (HDI) scores were used to rank the development level of each country. These rankings were gathered as a way to observe whether satisfaction and happiness vary across countries based on wealth, as indicated in the previous literature. Cross cultural measurement equivalence analyses were used to ensure that individuals from different countries were responding to these measures in comparable ways.

Results suggest that, on average, people desired more pleasant emotions and less unpleasant emotions compared to what they experienced. Interestingly, however, discrepancy scores demonstrated that 11% of participants wanted to feel less “self-transcending emotions, such as love and empathy,” and 10% wanted to feel more “negative self-enhancing emotions, such as anger and hatred,” than they reported actually feeling.

There were also variations across countries. When comparing individuals in highly developed countries to those in less developed countries, the more the desire to feel “self-transcendent emotions” (e.g. love, trust) matched the actual experiencing of them, the less likely one was to report symptoms of depression and the more likely they were to report enhanced life satisfaction.

Additionally, while people, on average, were happier with feeling more pleasant emotions and less unpleasant emotions, this study primarily found that people were happier when their feelings were consistent with the emotions they desired to feel. The authors write:

“The secret to happiness, then, may involve not only feeling good but also feeling right.”

“Right,” in this context, is noted to mean that emotions are perceived as desirable, given one’s motives and situational context. In other words, despite existing approaches in contemporary psychology, identifying emotions as “bad” or “good” is simplifying a subjective phenomenon.

“Our findings support Aristotle’s claims empirically,” write the researchers, in that the findings were consistent with his idea that happier people “are those who feel what they consider the right feelings, given their unique circumstances.”

The use of correlational and linear modeling methods limit this study, as one cannot infer causality. Additionally, a limited number of emotional categories were assessed.

While there is overlap between hedonic, eudaimonic, and Aristotelian models of happiness, understanding happiness seems to be contingent upon unique personal, social, cultural, and situational factors.

“To attain the best understanding of happiness and its variation across people, it is important to identify the unique cases in which the models of happiness make opposing predictions. The current investigation identified cases in which people are happier when they feel right even if they do not feel good.”

 

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Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Oishi, S., & Kim, M. Y. (2017, August 14). The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. (Link)

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Zenobia Morrill
MIA-UMB News Team: Zenobia Morrill is a graduate of the dual master’s counseling psychology program at Columbia University. As a doctoral student and researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she seeks to understand the context informing psychology research and the underlying social factors that influence individual psychology. She is currently involved in projects examining the impact of structural violence.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for your article.

    As a young man, who was bullied and abused and generally made to feel like I was an odd individual (I was simply more verbal and a little smarter than the people around me: a geek, in other words), I came to the conclusion as an angry young adolescent that it was more important to be yourself than it was to fit in with everyone else. In other words, I came to believe what Emerson talked about in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And this applies to what this research talks about. It is not important to feel happy so much as it is important to be who you genuinely are, whether that involves some anger or not (and I would point out that some social conditions of the countries that are described as
    “less developed” might involve some social conditions, like poverty and blatant oppression, that might produce very, very natural feelings of resentment, anger, and sadness) and that it is actually MORE adaptive to feel those feelings than to simply feel bliss as you make lots of money and eat at fancy restaurants in America, where you might actually start to feel kind of inauthentic. It is, after all, more natural to be an angry black woman in the United States, who is fighting to change things and who has respect for herself, than to be a white man who goes to his office job every day in resignation to the white, privileged, capitalist system that gives him his big paycheck and his worthless existence. Thank you again. Good article. Being you and in tune with your actual surroundings, I believe, makes you happier. Dr. Martin Luther King was surrounded with some pretty horrible stuff, I imagine, but I also imagine that he was very happy in how he responded to it.

  2. Ken Dodd, comedian savant:

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I’ve been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    To me this world is a wonderful place
    And I’m the luckiest human in the whole human race
    I’ve got no silver and I’ve got no gold
    But I’ve got happiness in my soul

    Happiness to me is an ocean tide
    Or a sunset fading on a mountain side
    A big old heaven full of stars up above
    When I’m in the arms of the one I love

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    Happiness is a field of grain
    Turning its face to the falling rain
    I can see it in the sunshine, I breathe it in the air
    Happiness happiness everywhere

    A wise old man told me one time
    Happiness is a frame of mind
    When you go to measuring my success
    Don’t count my money count my happiness

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I’ve been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness

    Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
    I thank the Lord I’ve been blessed
    With more than my share of happiness
    Source: click here

  3. “The right feelings, given their circumstances.” That a person’s emotions are, in cultural context, “understandable.” Which is, and should be, a matter decided within a cultural group, or by an individual, not something decided during an office appointment. Or decided by a psych diagnosis.

    I consider myself happy even without a study.

  4. Thanks for the provocative piece.

    Interesting to note that yes, as a genderQueer, gender fluid woman of color, am a psychiatric survivor of rather invasive clinically, medically necessary treatment, one who frequently is Profiled in any US Airport and otherwise, I quite agree with you. I’m angry. I rage. I’m happy with it. I don’t have a cancerous cell in my body. I do not internalize the stigma, the hate, the disgust, the social acculturalization of the inherent surrounding White Privilege in a heterosexist privileged hierarchical white male world. I’m nearly positive that while I don’t assume that MH/SA is a “disease” per se, I do qualify that genocide of People of Color and the new warehousing (Asyluming the Infirmed) occurs disgustingly in US Public Community Mental Health, prisons, jails and classrooms. I am at my happiest when I speak my Truth which is quite simply, do what’s right for you, and isn’t that your entire premise?