Research on happiness often distinguishes between two types: affective happiness and evaluative happiness. Affective happiness is how you’re feeling now and in the recent past. It’s fairly volatile and can rise or fall quickly. Evaluative happiness measures how happy you are with your life. It tends to be more stable.
Both types of happiness fit into a broader category generally known as the hedonic theory of happiness. This is essentially the pleasure principle – we seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s fairly straightforward and is often considered the ultimate goal in theories of positive thinking.
But let’s think critically about this. Is pleasure really all there is to happiness? When you overcome obstacles in life, doesn’t that make you happy, even if the process is painful? Can you be happy simply by thinking positively and banishing negative thoughts? Indeed, can you truly banish negative thoughts and emotions?
These questions lead to a different theory of happiness that’s often known as the eudaemonic perspective. In Western thought, the concept originated with Aristotle. The basic idea is that we should lead an actively engaged life, colored by virtue and excellent character. It’s often compared to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – when you’re completely immersed in what you’re doing. You harness your emotions toward a task and become completely absorbed by it.
When you’re fully engaged, negative thoughts may arise just as easily as positive thoughts. Rather than trying to suppress negative thoughts, you simply let them flow by. They’re part of who we are. In fact, they probably have some survival value. They can spur you to take action against an obstacle, do something unpleasant but necessary, or even just take your medicine.
Indeed, it may well be the case that trying to suppress negative thoughts causes us to have more of them rather than fewer. As Tori Rodriguez reports, a phenomenon called dream rebound may come into play. Researchers at the University of New South Wales divided participants into two groups. One group was asked to suppress a negative thought just before falling asleep. The other group did not try to suppress their thoughts. Those who tried to suppress their negative thoughts reported dreaming about it more frequently than those who didn’t. (Though it’s a different realm, this is similar to Jevon’s paradox).
In my experience, negative thinking produces a second-order effect. First, we have a negative thought. Second, we get wound up about having negative thoughts. OMG, am I a negative person? Why do I have such negativity?
In my opinion, the second-order effect is more damaging than the first. Of course we’re going to have negative thoughts. We can’t avoid them. In fact, they probably help us survive. The trick is to let them pass. As the Tibetans say, thinking is like writing on water. It goes away. Allowing negative thoughts to flow may not lead us to hedonic happiness but may very well stimulate eudaemonic happiness.
Are you happy? Would that be “affective happiness” or “evaluative happiness”?
Affective happiness has to do with day-to-day life and emotions. It can go up or down quickly depending on how your day is going. Evaluative happiness is your overall evaluation of your life. How happy are you with your place in society? Think of it as overall life satisfaction.
So what makes people happy? I’m glad you asked since I’ve been reading the World Happiness Report. (For my earlier article on Gross National Happiness, click here. For the full Report, click here.) The Report summarizes surveys and statistics from around the world and develops some surprising conclusions about what contributes to evaluative happiness. Here’s a look at a few of the variables.
Income — you might think that richer people are happier. To a degree, you’re right — but income works in strange ways. First, richer people are generally happier than poorer people but the quest for higher income can reduce happiness. Second, as countries grow richer, they don’t necessarily grow happier. GNP per capita has risen threefold in the U.S since 1960, yet we’re not happier. That’s partially because happiness is tied more to relative income rather than absolute income. If we all get richer at more or less the same rate, then our relative positions don’t change — nor does our happiness. Third, there seems to be an income limit. Up to a certain level, income seems to increase happiness. Beyond that level, more income does not yield more happiness. Ultimately, differences in income explain about 1% of the variance in evaluative happiness.
Marriage – “Marriage is one of the unambiguous, universally positive and statistically significant correlates of life satisfaction.” But what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Does marriage make people happy or do happy people get married? It seems to be a bit of both. People who are happier when they’re young are more likely to get married. But marriage then gives a happiness boost — over and above the “normal” rate of happiness.
Age — as you get older, your body starts to break down physically and mentally. So you should be less happy, right? Not quite. There’s a big U-turn when you relate age to happiness. Other things being equal, we’re happier when we’re young and then happiness declines until we reach our 40s. Then things brighten up again and our life satisfaction rises. Could it be the wisdom of maturity? Maybe. Or maybe we can just afford better wine.
Gender — “In most advanced countries women report higher satisfaction and happiness than men.” This is less true in poorer countries but seems to be universally true in richer, more advanced countries.
Education — the evidence is mixed. More education doesn’t correlate directly with greater happiness. But it does contribute indirectly in that more education generally results in higher income which can create greater happiness.
Children — “Surprisingly, the presence of children in the household appears not to be associated with higher life satisfaction.”
Television — “Many studies have shown that watching TV is associated with lower happiness, other things equal. An early study exploited the fact that one Canadian town gained access to TV some years later than other towns. The result was a relative fall in social life and increased aggression.” Additionally, TV watchers see many rich people on the tube and tend to underestimate their own relative income. As we saw earlier, your perception of your income relative to others is what counts in happiness.
There’s much more to it — including mental health, freedom, corruption, equality, and community — but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. Does that make you happy?