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Most people have a goal of being happy in life. Psychologists call happiness subjective well-being (SWB). Typically it is based on self-report, so equivalent phrases are self-reported happiness or self-reported life satisfaction.

University of Illinois psychologist Edward Diener collected happiness data for decades using a simple 5-questionnaire. Most people are willing to fill it out, and the results show consistent patterns.

Age does not matter. Children, young adults, and older people are happy or unhappy in about the same proportions, and to the same degree.

Education and IQ does not matter. People of varying education and varying scores on so-called intel­ligence tests are not systematically different in happiness.

Wealth, beyond a moderate level, does not matter. People are happier if they can pay their bills, but beyond that, more money does not make people happier.

What correlates with happiness?

What does make people happier? In a survey of University of Illinois students by Diener and Seligman (2002), having friends correlated with subjective well-being.

Studies of married couples show those in good relationships are happier. People who report good relationships with their families report greater happiness.

The association between religion and happiness varies between countries. In the U.S., religious people have slightly higher self-reported happiness.

However, the countries rating highest in happiness (Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway) are the world's least religious countries (Stone, 2016). This led Barber (2011) to suggest that when it came to religion, "Feeling part of the mainstream may be comforting whereas being in the minority is potentially stressful."

The idea of a hedonic control system for pleasure and pain suggests constant joy is not a realistic goal. Brickman and Campbell (1971) argued that happiness has a set point. Each person has a characteristic level.

The idea of a set-point for happiness is supported by a consistent finding. Major uplifts or downturns in happiness are usually temporary.

A major happiness-inducing event such as winning a lottery or getting married does result in a lift, for a few months. After that, a person typically returns to the normal baseline level of happiness for that individual.

Of negative events, only death of a spouse and loss of a job produced a lower level of happiness that lasted more than five years (Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener, 2003). In general, personal relationships make more of a difference to happiness ratings than living conditions.

How might happiness have a "set point"? What events lowered happiness for five years?

People who live in harsh conditions are not necessarily unhappy. The African Maasai rate themselves as very happy, even though they live in dung huts without indoor plumbing or electricity. The Inuit of Northern Greenland are relatively satisfied with their lives despite living in a very harsh climate (Biswas-Diener, Vitters, and Diener, 2004).

The same researchers found that "street prostitutes, the homeless, and people in mental hospitals" were far less happy than average. Those low ratings persisted for a long time.

The researchers speculated that lack of respect and lack of trusted friends made those conditions more difficult than poverty. "This idea can be sub­stantiated by the fact that impoverished individuals in the slums of Calcutta, who live in shacks with their families, score in the positive zone on life satisfaction."

What was true of the "happiest individuals"?

Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, whose article on phobias and preparedness was influential in the field of behavior therapy, later became a specialist in the study of what makes people happy. His book on the subject became a bestseller, then Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.

In 2008 Seligman proclaimed a "new discipline" named Positive Health (Seligman, 2008). A profitable industry sprang up around this idea, with seminars, books, and life coaches offering to help people find their authentic happiness and/or positive health.

As you might expect, there were many criticisms. When Aspinwall and Tedes­chi (2010) wrote an article in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggesting posi­tive psychological states promoted good health, a counter-article appeared in the same issue from Coyne, Tennen, and Ranchor (2010). They pointed out such claims ran contrary to the evidence for cancer patients.

Coyne, Tennen, and Ranchor (2010) also condemned "the marketing of positive psychology by the leaders of the movement who nonetheless claim a grounding in scientific evidence. The ridiculing of pessimists as losers in positive psychology self-help books, money back guarantees on websites offering personal coaches and self-help techniques claiming to promote happiness, and the presentation of pseudoscientific happiness regression equations (H=S+C+V [Happiness=yourSetrange+the Circumstances of your life+the factors under your Voluntary control].

That last part was a dig at Seligman. He had proposed that equation in his book Authentic Happiness (2002).

Seligman reformulated his theories about happiness in a book titled Flourish (2011). His new model emphasized eight ingredients of a fulfilled life: happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accom­plishment, growth and better relation­ships. This effectively reduced self-reported happiness and its cultivation to one element of a successful life.


Aspinwall, L. G. & Tedeschi, R. G. (2010). The value of Positive Psychology for Health Psychology: Progress and pitfalls in examining the relation of positive phenomena to health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, 4-15.

Barber, N. (2011, February 17) Does religion make people happier? Psychology Today. Retrieved from:

Biswas-Diener, R., Diener, E., & Tamir, M. (2004). The psychology of subjective well-being. Daedalus, 133, 18-25.

Brickman, P. D. & Campbell, D. T. (1971) "Hedonic relativism and planning the good society" in M. H. Appley (Ed.) Adaptation Level Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Coyne, J. C., Tennen, H. & Ranchor, A. V. (2010) Positive psychology in cancer care: A story line resistant to evidence. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, 35-42. doi:10.1007/s12160-010-9157-9

Diener, E. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002) Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13, 81-84. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00415

Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003) Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: reactions to changes in marital status. Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

Previc, F. H. (2006) The role of extrapersonal brain systems in religious activity. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 500-539.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2008) Positive health. Applied Psychology, 57, 3-18. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2008.00351.x

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press.

Stone, M. (2016, March 17) Report: World's happiest countries are also least religious. Progressive Secular Humanist. [blog] Retrieved from:

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