Christopher Peterson’s 2006 book A Primer in Positive Psychology proved to be my own gateway into the science of well-being and related matters.
Weighing in at under 400 pages and written in a largely accessible style, it may represent a good starting point for any ‘layman’ interested in dipping their toes into this topic.
With any field that may pique our interest but is new to us, trying to find a way ‘in’ can be daunting. We may sense that there is a vast amount of information out there, but that alone can make the idea of pursuing the interest feel somewhat intimidating. Peterson’s book does an excellent job of distilling the main concerns of positive psychology, while also referring to numerous key researchers and their work. Using a book such as this as your starting point may well allow interested individuals to sidestep whatever sense of wariness can sometimes accompany a new found interest in an area of study with an ever-widening base of research and theory.
You will not be surprised to read that Peterson’s Primer devotes considerable space to the topic of happiness. One of the most eye-catching tables produced in the book looks at how a range of different variables correlate with happiness and life satisfaction, i.e., rating the degree to which scores on different factors relate to scores on questionnaires measuring happiness and life satisfaction.
Before we continue, it is important to reiterate a point I made in blog post #3, namely that we need to be conscious of the distinction between correlation and causation. Correlation refers to relationships and associations between two or more variables. Any given relationship may be causal in nature, but also it may not, so we cannot assume it to be so. In psychology, as with so many other branches of science, all we can comment on is the variables that we have measured. We can’t rule out that a variable we have not measured may also influence, for example, levels of happiness.
To illustrate the key point on correlation versus causation, recall the example I referred to in that earlier blog post: taking the research finding that married men tend to be healthier than single men and then concluding that this ‘proves’ that marriage has a causal relationship with good health. Based on the variables measured, that may well appear to be a compelling conclusion, but what if it then transpires that healthier men are more likely to get married in the first place. Suddenly, the causal connection doesn’t appear to be quite so clear cut. This core point needs to be borne in mind whenever we are considering research findings examining relationships between variables.
Peterson pools information drawn from several earlier reviews investigating what factors are linked with happiness and life satisfaction and which are not, and presents the findings under three headings: zero to small, moderate, and large positive correlations.
Among the factors in the zero to small list are age, education, social class, income, having children, intelligence, and physical attractiveness.
The moderate list includes number of friends, being married, religiousness, level of leisure activity, physical health, conscientiousness, extraversion, low neuroticism, and internal locus of control (the degree to which you feel in control of your life and able to handle day-to-day challenges).
Among the factors found to have large positive correlations with happiness and life satisfaction were gratitude, optimism, being employed, frequency of sexual intercourse, percent of time experiencing positive affect, and self-esteem.
Just as it is important to be clear on the distinction between correlation and causation, it is also necessary to understand that findings such as those just offered will not necessarily apply to everyone. For example, taking the table at face value indicates that intelligence will impact less on happiness than religiousness, which in turn does not correlate as strongly as optimism. Those ratings may well be accurate for one person, but not for another, i.e., it is entirely possible that for many people the experience of religiousness may impact more strongly than optimism, and perhaps there are people for whom intelligence is going to matter more than religiousness. The point being that we should not view findings such as this as being carved in stone or universal. Instead, they point to trends. A list such as this, compiled from several pre-existing reviews, may contain data drawn from several thousand research participants. Its primary value resides in identifying trends among the various variables being considered, but it should not be taken as offering a definitive prescription of what works for everyone all the time. Individuals are precisely that, individual, but lists such as these help us to identify general trends that emerge when looking at self-report data drawn from large numbers of people.
Reflecting upon the lists presented above, Peterson identifies certain patterns that offer additional insight. He notes that the ‘zero to small’ correlation variables tend to relate to demographic factors. These factors exert a strong influence on the direction of our lives, but it appears that they tend to impact on happiness only to relatively low levels. This observation resonates with our previous discussion on the set-point theory of happiness, which proposed that life circumstances account for only about 10% of our happiness potential, no matter how much time and effort we put into this area. This suggests that, generally speaking, factors such as education level, having children, income, and intelligence will not impact greatly on individual happiness levels, irrespective of the importance we attach to them in our lives.
Peterson also highlights the presence of social or interpersonal factors and also that of personality traits in the moderate and large lists, with the implication being that these variables are more important than demographics when it comes to happiness.
He emphasises that these social factors (e.g., friends, marriage, and religiousness) will usually have the effect of bringing people into contact with others. Arising from this, he offers the conclusion that “Other people matter, and there may be no happy hermits” and that “it looks like good social relationships may be a necessary condition for extreme happiness”.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.