If short-term happiness isn't always best, what about long-term?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchEarlier this week we discussed the relationship between life satisfaction and other measures of well-being, finding that for measures such as relative income, the happiest people weren't always the best-off. For relationships, however, the happiest individuals also seem to do better.

But these measures were only taken at an instant in time. What about over longer periods? The College and Beyond study questioned incoming college freshmen in 1976, and included a self-rating of "cheerfulness," among many other measures. Then those same individuals were surveyed in 1995. How did cheerfulness affect income nearly two decades later? Here are the results:


As you can see, it depends on the individual. People who came from higher-income families earned significantly more than those who were from low-income families. But the pattern for high-income families looks more like the pattern previously observed only for relationships: the more cheerful respondents were in 1976, the more they made in 1995. For low-income families, being extremely cheerful didn't pay off as well: respondents from the second most cheerful group in 1976 earned more in 1995 than the most cheerful group.

Oishi's team suggests that the people from more affluent backgrounds work in an environment where a cheerful disposition allows them to be bold; boldness is rewarded. The people from lower incomes were in a more hostile environment where shrewd ambition has the highest payoff.

The Australian Youth in Transition study followed children for several decades. Oishi's team analyzed the data for kids born in 1961. This graph compares life satisfaction in 1979 when they were 18 to the length of their current romantic relationship in 1994:


Even 15 years later, life satisfaction was significantly correlated with length of relationship. The more satisfied individuals at age 18 were in longer relationships at age 33, even at the highest levels of satisfaction. This data follows the same pattern as the World Values Survey we discussed earlier this week: overall contentment corresponds in a direct fashion to the stability of the relationship.

One surprising result the team found over a variety of studies is the relationship between life satisfaction and volunteerism. You might expect that at the highest levels of happiness, people would be less likely to volunteer, just as those individuals earn a bit less than people who aren't quite as happy. After all, if you're happy with your life, why would you want to work to change things? In fact, the happiest people, even at extreme levels of happiness, are most likely to do volunteer work in their communities. This suggests that volunteering is more like a social relationship and less like working or educating yourself, the researchers say.

So what does all this say about the optimal level of happiness? It depends on your core values. If "success" is more important to you than personal relationships, then it might be better not to be completely satisfied with your life. But if social relationships are more important, then being satisfied with what you've got might be better, the researchers say.

It's rather counterintuitive to suggest that being less than fully satisfied with your life might be better than complete satisfaction, but I can definitely see where the authors are coming from. I'm not sure what I'd do next if I felt perfectly content with my life. A little bit of dissatisfaction really might be better than complete contentment.

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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See Toward an Economy of Well Being for a discussion of the diminishing returns of wealth on happinness.

On a related note, I find the consequence of being "top dog" of interest. This can play out in a number of ways. For example, many people aim to buy the cheapest house on the block. This may be a mistake from happiness standpoint. Even if it makes financial sense, you are forever comparing yourself to your more expensive surroundings and wealthier neighbors. I have even suggested to certain friends that they avoid driving through "rich" neighborhoods.

A final tangential point. Happiness and the hedonic treadmil were much discussed by that arch-capitalist Adam Smith. It was not something he favored... just an observation on people. In an attempt to square the circle... of capitalism and happiness, I have decided to label myself an anti-materialist capitalist. I radically embrace the free market, yet reject the notion that happiness, in toto, can be found there.

Re: 'If "success" is more important to you than personal relationships, then it might be better not to be completely satisfied with your life. But if social relationships are more important, then being satisfied with what you've got might be better, the researchers say.'

**Given Daniel Levinson's (1978, 1996) research on career development, there's probably a gender difference concerning focus on success vs. personal relationships. In particular, Levinson concluded that from 17-22, males will construct an independent achiever "dream" that for the most part, involves climbing the career ladder; career-oriented women will construct a "split dream" that involves defining self in terms of relationships with others. Eyeballing graph #2, it looks like there's some support for this idea. Namely, that the linear correlation for the life satisfaction/relationship length variables looks much stronger for females than males.

Given the apparent gender difference, I'm curious as to what graph #1 (income['success'?]/cheerfulness relationship) would look like if broken down by gender. I suspect this data might actually be confounded by gender given the feminization of poverty phenomenon, whereby women make up the vast majority of low income families who support themselves and their family regardless of age and ethnic group. If this gender confound is true, it would certainly explain why, for low income families, the happiness/income relationship appears to maximize at 4 if you factor in family relationships.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 27 Dec 2007 #permalink

A little bit of dissatisfaction really might be better than complete contentment.

I think this is so, even if it is as you said, counterintuitive. I saw Arnold when he was still training with weights, winning the highest contest. Then he did the movies and now he is Governor. This is all from a man who was the star of "Stay Hungry." I think you have to allow those momentary respites of bliss, but having things left on your, to do, list and working on completing them, brings the continual satisfaction over time of new things accomplished.
Dave Briggs :~)

What is the statistical significance of these results?
In some cases, the difference between values are so small that any uncertainty in these values can alter the conclusion.

For instance, in the second figure, the length of current relationship for Life sat. of 4 and 5. is almost the same Women.

I guess it is in a order of few months difference, and I am really skeptic people are accurate in reporting these values with such a precision.

I believe in this study. That is whats happening to me. I have a sense of pride aside from happiness in volunterism