Happiness is associated with a lot of good things in life. People who are happier tend to get better job ratings, make more money, be more likely to get married, and be more satisfied with their marriages than people who are less happy, even years after the original happiness assessment.
People around the world rate happiness as more important than intelligence, success, and material wealth. But is it possible to be too happy? An extremely happy person might be less motivated to seek a better job, more education, or better health care. Short-term happiness could conceivably be a route to a less satisfying life. Yet many government policies, for example, are justified by a desire to promote more and more happiness. Isn’t there a limit?
A team led by Shigehiro Oishi conducted what they claim is the first study of the idea that there may be an optimal happiness level. There is a wealth of data available that includes some measure of happiness along with other possible measures of well-being, so rather than conducting a new survey, the researchers re-analyzed several different data sets with an eye to learning if the optimal level of happiness might be something less than “perfectly content.”
The first study they considered was the World Values Survey, which was administered to over 100,000 individuals from 96 different countries between 1981 and 2000. One of the many questions respondents were asked was “all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life these days?” This is a pretty standard measure of happiness: respondents are simply asked to rate their overall happiness level on a numerical scale (in this case, 1 to 10). Another common way to assess happiness is on a moment-to-moment basis: You could be happy overall with your life, but sad momentarily when a favorite pet dies. Oishi’s team concerned itself primarily with the more long-term variety — but many studies have also shown that momentary happiness correlates with life satisfaction.
So, how does life satisfaction correspond to other measures of well-being? Here’s one slice of the results from the World Values Survey:
This is perhaps the most surprising result of the study: The happiest people aren’t the ones who make the most money. Survey respondents were asked where there own income fell relative to others in their country. They were allowed ten possible responses, ranging from the top ten percent to the bottom ten percent. The happiest respondents said they made significantly less than the second-happiest respondents — so while in general happiness is associated with earning more money, there is a decline in earnings at the highest level of happiness.
Oishi’s team speculates that people who are the most content with their current situation are likely to be less motivated to change. If you’re happy in your current job as a dishwasher, why would you strive to be a chef?
So, does this same relationship hold up in other measures of well being? Yes. The very happiest people have lower levels of political involvement and education than people who are just moderately happy. But the relationship wasn’t always the same — take a look at this graph:
At higher levels of happiness, people are significantly more likely to say they’re involved in a stable romantic relationship. But unlike for income, there’s no drop-off at the highest levels of happiness. The researchers argue that this is because people who are happy with a relationship are unlikely to look elsewhere for romantic fulfillment.
So it seems that while in certain domains, such as education and income, more happiness isn’t necessarily a good thing — but in relationships, the happier we are, the better. So what’s the optimal level of happiness? It’s hard to say — and it might depend on other factors as well. A further limitation of the World Values Survey is that it doesn’t cover the same individuals over a long span of time. What’s good for you in the short run might do considerable damage in the future.
Fortunately, there are some data sets that cover happiness and other types of well-being over long periods of time. We’ll discuss them later this week.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., Lucas, R.E. (2007). The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(4), 346-360. DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2007.00048.x