Is it possible to be too happy?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchHappiness 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

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i find this a little bit silly. what is 'happiness'? when we use a term like this we must be certain to define it, because generally when i ask people what they mean by 'happiness' they have no answer, but it must signify a specific feeling if one is to use it as the basis for a scientific study. i don't believe we all have the same definition for happiness, and i think that is a large problem here-- this study is just plain vague.

plus: you simply can't trust these results. i know several people who would claim a high level of happiness and a high level of stability in romantic relationship, for example, who have always been in unstable relationship and appear to be in just as unstable one now; and who would claim high levels of happiness but are tense, defensive, and reactive. how do these things mix with happiness? well, perhaps they just don't work with my definition of happiness-- but that is the point: we need to know what this word means to the individuals using it if it is to have any clarity in conversation or study.

in addition, i don't quite understand the idea that with income and education happiness isn't necessarily a good thing: if someone prizes happiness over everything else (e.g., does happiness here include or exclude physical and mental health?), then why would it be a bad thing for someone to be satisfied washing dishes? this seems to be a cultural bias. if we had a clear understanding of what happiness is we could have a clearer understanding how happiness relates to other aspects of life.

for example-- perhaps you are looking at this backwards. perhaps money allows for a healthier lifestyle, up until a certain point when the amount of money someone is making begins to make unhealthy decisions more likely. perhaps it is not that happiness makes one less likely to "do better" in their career, but rather that happiness makes one less desirous of an unnecessary spike in income. the equation money = happiness is clearly a poor equation.

Long-term happiness simply isn't the same as short-term happiness. By logic, the former should be more beneficial. I think your conclusions do make sense. Very happy people prefer to stick where they are stuck.

What most bothers me is, shouldn't the total number of men in a stable relationship and the number of women in a stable relationship be equal? And yet the percent is meaningfully higher for each group of men. Does this mean that men evaluate "a stable relationship" differently than women? And if so, how does that affect the overall validity of the study?

Interesting data, but the cause-effect hypothesis could use a little work. As a person that would self-report being in the top-10 on the happiness scale, I'd say that being "too" happy does not cause less drive towards income, etc.. I'd say that maximum happiness results from the realization that once you have enough, you don't need more. Striving for more, when you already have enough, doesn't make you happier, it just makes you tired. Why not take the time to slow down and enjoy what you have? You know, smell the roses and all that stuff?

Put another way, how could people be truly happy if they're constantly running around thinking they need more, more, more? Maybe, when you're sitting at bar-9 on the income scale, shooting for bar-10 MAKES you less happy. Maybe there's a level at which you can be too financially successful? It would make more sense to look at it this way. After all, if it's not to be more happy, what's the point of earning more money?

L Zoel:

How can you figure out the total number of men and the total number of women? If I thinking about this correctly (which I may not be), just knowing the percentage of men who have a life satisfaction rating of 5 that say they're in a stable relationship tells you nothing about how many men fit this category.

Daniel Kahneman's research shows that the questions "are you happy?" or "are you satisfied with your life?" are subject to an array of affective biases.

This blog seems to be biased toward quantitative studies. It's in qualitative and naturalistic studies-- studies that analyze discourse for instance-- that a more nuanced idea of happiness and satisfaction can be usefully studied.

This is backwards, isn't it? Happiness, not money, is after all the variable we want to optimize. If you're very happy then no, you don't actually need more money or education - and why would you? It's not going to make you happier, after all. If happiness precludes you from earning the most money then the problem is not that some people are too happy to make as much money as they could, but that some people earn too much money to be as happy as they can.

What are qualitative and naturalistic studies and how do the differ from a well constructed "quantitative" study? For that matter, how much time and money would it cost to conduct a reproducible analysis of discourse with even 1,000 people?

after jousting life's windmills for 3.7 decades and surviving two and a half marriages, allow me to post this observation: that happiness -- which i have come to believe is an inside job -- allows one to focus on other aspects of living life on life's terms. the amount of focus (and my degree of success) administered to each of life's speed bumps and my success in forward movement is proportional to the amount of happiness in my life: personal, professional and relational. fame, power and wealth -- materialism -- are sprinkled somewhere in the (narcissism) mix.

By william of san… (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

SOme interesting tidbits on happiness research...

(1) Three key predictors of happiness include: being employed, quality of relationships, and physical health

(2) A construct referred to as the hedonic set point suggests that happinesss (called subjective well being by social psychologists) has a genetic basis. That is, people differ in how happy they feel when they are born and their relative positions on the happiness scale remains the same throughout the lifespan.

(3) It is possible to be too happy to the extent that some research shows that high levels of subjective well-being decrease skeptical thinking processes and increase heuristic/short-cut thinking. (That's why scammers tend to go after people more fervently around Christmas time)

(4) A longitudinal study (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999) showed that there is no relationship between income and subjective well-being; their national poll from 1946-1999 showed that while adjusted per person income increased during this time period, no changes in subjective well-being were observed during the same time period

(5) In addition to the hedonic set point, a concept called adaptation-level theory provides an explanation for why extrinsic factors (e.g., money, buying a house or car, job promotion, etc.) aren't strongly associated with happiness. It basically suggests that our current sense of subjective well being depends on comparing past and current success--it really is just an expression of another diminishing return phenomenon. As examples, one study showed after winning the lottery, many of the winners reported deriving less pleasure from routine activities like shopping, reading, and talking to friends; another study showed that people with a mean income of $30,000 suggested that $50,000 would make them happy, while those with a $100,000 income stated that $250,000 would make them happy.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

Yeah, I don't know if this is an accurate look at happiness. A lot of the time, I feel happiest when I'm doing something I enjoy, and I can feel myself moving closer to my goals. As a matter of fact, when I'm not doing anything, I actually feel less happy.

Nobody can have total happiness in his/her life.

"There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year's course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness."