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.
What’s with these Danes? On virtually every survey that purports to measure national happiness — or Gross National Happiness — Denmark scores number one. In fact, the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — typically occupy half of the top ten “happy slots”. I’ve visited all the Nordic countries. They’re really nice but are they the happiest places in the world? Wasn’t Hamlet Danish? He didn’t seem so happy.
As you may have guessed, I’ve been reading the World Happiness Report published through The Earth Institute at Columbia University. (Click here). It’s about 170 pages long and makes for very interesting reading — enough so that I’m going to write about various facets of it from time to time. Here are some of the key questions:
I’ll write occasionally on happiness studies and delve into what makes people happy and what doesn’t — and how all this affects the way we live. Feel free to send me any of your questions about happiness studies and I’ll try to get them answered.
In the meantime here are two questions for you:
In the Nordic countries, the average life satisfaction score is 7.6. If yours is lower than that, maybe it’s time to head to Denmark.