Are you happy with your life? It is a question most people I see professionally expect me to ask. I almost never ask it. I do ask if you are content or satisfied with your life, and I ask about contentment in different areas of your life. Why? Very simple! After 30 years of research into the topic of life-satisfaction I can comfortably say that happiness is an immediate reaction to a particular stimulus or event, fleeting in its tenure and gone rapidly. It is a reaction to a stimulus that can cause a smile to cross your face but the smile will quickly dissipate if a negative stimulus intrudes. Satisfaction on the other hand is an overriding feeling. Satisfaction lingers in spite of negative or even positive stimuli. You may be unhappy if something bad happens but if you are satisfied with your life bad events are less likely to impact on your sense of contentment.
Just last month the Harris Poll reported the results of an online survey of over 2,300 Americans level of reported happiness (available at –http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/1200/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx ). The survey reportedly indicates that Happiness is declining in the United States but especially so for minorities, recent college graduates unable to find employment and those with disabilities. One of the results even suggests that women over the age of 50 are happier than younger women. As with all surveys the researchers offer caveats, reasons why there may be errors in their results, which may lead to misinterpretation of the meaning of the survey findings. The errors that may impact the validity of the findings of this survey include “sampling error, coverage error, error associated with non-response, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments.” All of these possibilities exist in this particular survey making the findings somewhat less interpretable. But there is one error in particular I would focus on – question wording and response options.
The Harris survey appears to contain 22 questions some worded in the immediate, some including the word happy, some apparently asking the respondents to think about their emotions over the long term and some using adjectives such as optimism instead of happiness. This lack of consistency, in and of itself, creates a murky understanding in just how to interpret responses. Are they asking current or long-term happiness? If the focus is over the long term is happiness the correct emotion to research? The truth is, however, that the lay reader is never troubled by these issues. That is perhaps the biggest problem because if one reads the results without some critical insight the reported findings may cause many to believe in what is little more than a straw man. Do the results mean to suggest that if you are a woman and you make it to 50 you will automatically be happier? Do the results suggest that being a college graduate means that you are less likely to be happy?
Let me tell you what decades of research actually indicate. Except for individuals who have serious psychological issues – happiness fluctuates. If it did not we would be stuck in an unrealistic pattern of daily emotions, but emotions do not stay stuck. Happiness is a singular concept and as I said it is situation and context specific. If you want to be truly happy get rid of the word happy and replace it with satisfaction. If you do that, and examine levels of life satisfaction in the following eight areas: daily activities, a sense of meaning in life, working toward achieving one’s goals, mood, self concept, health, finances and social contacts, you will get a true read on people’s levels of contentment. There is a pattern to satisfaction in life and to truly assess it requires a more global and meaningful approach than the one reported by the Harris survey.
If this psychological research methodology reminds the reader of Pirkei Avot – “Who is wealthy? Someone who is content with their lot” – you are correct. There is a lot to be said for that Mishnaic insight – Contentment, life-satisfaction is much more valuable for well-being than fleeting feelings of happiness.