Study human flourishing rather than happiness

A well-known psychologist suggests we should study human flourishing rather than just happiness:

In theory, life satisfaction might include the various elements of well-being. But in practice, Dr. Seligman says, people’s answers to that question are largely — more than 70 percent — determined by how they’re feeling at the moment of the survey, not how they judge their lives over all.

“Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful moods, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology,” he writes in “Flourish.” By that standard, he notes, a government could improve its numbers just by handing out the kind of euphoriant drugs that Aldous Huxley described in “Brave New World.”

So what should be measured instead? The best gauge so far of flourishing, Dr. Seligman says, comes from a study of 23 European countries by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So of the University of Cambridge. Besides asking respondents about their moods, the researchers asked about their relationships with others and their sense that they were accomplishing something worthwhile.

Denmark and Switzerland ranked highest in Europe, with more than a quarter of their citizens meeting the definition of flourishing. Near the bottom, with fewer than 10 percent flourishing, were France, Hungary, Portugal and Russia.

Studiers of happiness tend to ask about two areas: immediate happiness and longer-term happiness, typically referred to as “life satisfaction.” But Seligman is suggesting that these questions about satisfaction don’t really move beyond the immediate mood of the respondent. Additionally, the questions need to be adjusted to account for relationships and whether the respondent feels a sense of accomplishment in life.

It is interesting to see some of the cross-country comparisons. How might national or smaller cultures influence how individuals feel about life satisfaction? In the long run, do people actually have to be accomplishing something satisfying or is it more about perceptions? Can living a decent life in the American suburbs be ultimately satisfying for Americans or do they just think that it should be?

I wonder how these findings line up with earlier findings that religion leads to higher levels of life satisfaction.

(I also wonder if people think that the language of “flourishing” seems archaic or overly humanistic.)

More on the study of happiness: the role of priorities

Measuring happiness is a small industry among researchers. A new study suggests another important factor: the priorities that people set for their life affects long-term happiness.

Most of us have thought, ‘If only I could win the lottery, then I’d be happy forever.’ But according to one of the first studies to look at long-term happiness, major life events, like a sudden cash windfall, are not what make us happy, rather, it’s the priorities we set in life.

“The main thing that’s surprising about these results is that it challenges this whole field,” said lead author Melbourne University sociologist Bruce Headey. “This study goes against the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.” The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Previous studies suggest that happiness is predetermined by genetics and early upbringing, and that we eventually revert back to the same level of happiness regardless of changes in our lives. Looking at data from about 60,000 Germans for up to 25 years, however, Headey found that the more people decided to prioritize goals such as good relationships and good health, the happier they were, regardless of major life events.

While there are some critiques of this study (for example, it measures long-term happiness rather than daily satisfaction), it suggests again that the topic of happiness is a complex one to research with many possible factors influencing outcomes.

So should people set easier-to-reach priorities to be happy? What happens to people who set good priorities but aren’t able to reach them?

This also seems to be an interesting dataset with 60,000 people being tracked over the last two and a half decades.

(I’m also curious about the lead author saying that the study challenges “the prevailing wisdom that happiness is fixed.”)