In recent years, it appears that the western world has become increasingly obsessed with happiness – becoming happy, becoming happier, remaining happy, the how and the why of it all. Happiness-related headlines and images scream off the covers of glossy magazines, hardly a month goes by without at least one national newspaper running a happiness-related feature, books clog the shelves with guides on how to make yourself happy, various advertising campaigns communicate the message that you will finally be happy… if you buy whatever product they happen to be selling. The extent of it all would make you assume there is an ongoing happiness crisis in the world, with legions of miserable people scurrying around looking for some solution to their intractable woes. This all begs the question, if so many of us are so preoccupied with becoming happy, then who among us has managed to achieve that goal? Who is happy?
The answer, counterintuitive as it may seem at first glance, appears to be: most of us.
In 1996, Ed Diener and Carol Diener authored an academic article addressing this precise question. The title of the article eschewed the tendency among some researchers to take a simple observation and obscure it behind a wall of impenetrable prose, instead opting to sum up their primary finding in as succinct and plain a combination of words as possible: ‘Most People Are Happy’.
This widely cited article (referred to in more than 1,200 other studies/books over the last 20 years) highlighted international research which found that people tend to self-report positive levels of subjective well-being (SWB), i.e., scoring above neutral on questionnaires seeking to measure the cognitive (life satisfaction) and affective (emotional reactions) elements of happiness.
The authors reported evidence to suggest that tends to be the case across the board, in all bar very poor societies, e.g., 86% of 43 nations for which nationally representative samples existed at the time reported average SWB scores above neutral.
They stressed that these findings also applied to disadvantaged people. For example, they highlighted research showing that individuals who suffer serious spinal cord injuries will be extremely unhappy at first, but that within a matter of weeks, happiness tends to be the strongest emotion reported.
Another interesting aspect of this paper is that the authors highlight that while it appears the vast majority of people are at least somewhat happy, this does not tend to be recognised among the public. They conducted a survey among both working adults, undergraduate psychology students, and postgraduate psychology students, and found that, when asked, all groups seriously overestimated levels of depression in US society, while also severely underestimating the number of people who self-report as experiencing positive life satisfaction.
Quite why people misread the happiness situation is unclear – a media bias towards reporting negative events may be one of several factors at play – but it seems that many people may feel happy in their own lives, but work under the assumption that many/most of those around them do not.
Irrespective of why we appear to underestimate our collective tendency towards happiness, another question to be asked is why we are more likely to be happy than not?
Diener and Diener suggest that there may be a positive baseline for affect in humans, and that we will tend to return to this baseline level after the immediate impact of positive or negative life events. They further suggest that this baseline is set at positive (as opposed to neutral or negative) for reasons associated with evolution, e.g., negative/threatening events will stand out more and therefore be noticed quickly, with this possibly representing a matter of life and death in earlier historical periods. They also suggest that people in the West may be socialised to be happy. A third possible explanation proposed is that we are motivated to achieve positive states because they are pleasant, and that we are therefore ‘wired’ to seek to avoid or reduce unpleasant states.
However, it is important to note that they are not making the claim that most people are deliriously happy all the time, merely that all things being equal most people tend towards being mildly happy, more happy than not, at any given time.
Subsequent research has tended to support these claims. In 2005, Ed Diener returned to this specific question – along with co-authors Robert Biswas-Diener and Joar Vitterso – with a view towards broadening out the findings. One of the questions raised by the 1996 research, given that most of the relevant data had been gathered in industrialised countries, was whether or not they were applicable to non-industrialised societies.
Surveys were undertaken with more than 300 respondents drawn from Kenyan Maasai, United States Amish, and Greenlandic Inughuit – groups of people who lead materially simple lives “in cultures far removed from those of typical survey respondents”.
Allowing for specific cultural nuances and differences, they found that the general pattern held up. As long as certain basic life needs were satisfied, respondents tended to report positive SWB.
It is interesting to reflect upon findings such as these, as they may go against what we intuitively feel to be true. No research will claim to be perfect, but there is a body of evidence which supports the basic contention that most people skew towards a positive default on happiness. This ability of research findings to go against human intuition or so-called common sense is particularly useful as it serves to warn us against the hazards of putting too much faith in our sometimes untested assumptions.