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June 21, 2024

Ask the experts: How can we measure our own happiness?

Given the many sources of stress and anxiety individuals encounter each day, its not surprising that people often wonder if they are happy or not. Yet, how do people define happiness and well-being? What are some ways to view and conceptualize happiness? Michigan State University researchers can answer this question.

Associate Professor Bill Chopik and Professor Rich Lucas are researchers in MSU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Social Science. Chopik, who leads MSU’s Close Relationship Lab, focuses on how factors influence people’s approaches to relationships. Lucas leads MSU’s Personality and Well-Being Lab and focuses research on happiness, personality traits and assessment.

Here, Chopik and Lucas answer questions about how to define and consider happiness, following the release of the 2024 World Happiness Report, a review of the state of happiness in the world today.

Responses and excerpts are from a recording of MSUToday with Russ White.

What are some of the ways we can view happiness?

Headshot of Bill Chopik
Bill Chopik, an associate professor in MSU's College of Social Science, leads the Close Relationship Lab.

Chopik: There are a lot of ways to think about happiness — some people focus on their absolute feelings and mood, but others focus on whether they’re leading a fulfilling and full life. But, people definitely want to be happy regardless of exactly what that means, and that could vary from person to person.

One way that I view happiness is by considering the type of life parents want for their children. When parents try to predict the future for their children and what they want for them, some might have specific ideas like wanting their child to become a doctor or do well in school. However, you can present hypothetical situations that might contradict those expectations. For instance, instead of becoming a doctor, the child might become a lawyer or something else entirely. Parents cannot necessarily predict the exact outcome for their children, but if you really get down to it, what they want is for their children to be happy. When parents say they want their children to be happy in the future, they may not know how that will work out, but their goal is their child’s happiness. This idea captures the essence of happiness itself. We know there are many different paths to achieving it, but if we reach that end state of being satisfied and happy with our lives, we feel like we have succeeded in some way.

What are some of the factors that determine our happiness?

Lucas: Often, strong relationships tend to be associated with happiness. People who have a lot of strong, satisfying relationships tend to be happier, compared to those who do not. A lot of obvious things matter too. For example, there is a big debate about whether money matters for happiness. And the research is pretty clear that money is associated with happiness, even though it might not be the only factor and people may sometimes exaggerate its importance. Health conditions also are associated with happiness. When we do these studies, even though there are big debates about particular things, it comes down to a lot of these intuitive factors that do turn out to matter for how happy we are.

What does the 2024 World Happiness Report offer?

Headshot of Rich Lucas.
Rich Lucas, a professor in MSU's College of Social Science, leads the Personality and Well-Being Lab.

Lucas: There are more surveys from national representative samples that we can use to compare countries on their levels of happiness, to look at time trends in happiness, and to examine age differences in happiness. This helps us get a better sense of whether the factors that matter for happiness are the same across the world or vary across cultures. The goal of the World Happiness Report is to share findings from year to year to determine if there are any interesting time trends. One of the most famous parts of the report is the individual ranking of happiness by country. It is a big deal if countries drop or rise in their happiness ranking. Sometimes, a change in ranking does not mean a big change in happiness, but it is interesting to pay attention to. People and policy makers can think about what might have changed within a country that led to a decline or increase in happiness over time.

What are the differences between usefulness and happiness?

Chopik: We can first think about this in terms of what leaders want to get out of reports like this one. Government leaders are naturally curious and will be asked questions surrounding the economic standing of the country, social standing, and if citizens are happy.  But for individual people, at least part of how they evaluate if they are happy or not is derived from feeling that they are useful and doing something that’s fulfilling and useful. In other words, at least part of their happiness might be derived from a sense of purpose that they go about each day seeking out something or being productive. Some of those ideas have roots in Sigmund Freud’s writings, and the ideas have been around a lot historically in our field. To that end, well-being researchers will distinguish between different types of well-being. Usefulness reflects a sense that you are contributing to society. However, although there are tons of days I feel useful, I am not necessarily the happiest I have ever been.

Are there ways to measure happiness?

Lucas: I think that sometimes those different ways of thinking about happiness and measuring happiness do different things. There is some research, for instance, on unemployment. Unemployment is something that people do not like and can make them feel bad, and it affects their happiness. When we do these long-term studies where we follow people for many years and look at what happens to their happiness after they experience unemployment, life satisfaction goes down and sometimes does not come back up even after they get reemployed. But some studies show that it does not happen with the momentary emotions they are experiencing. In fact, sometimes people, when they are unemployed, have more positive emotions while unemployed because they do not have all the stressors of work. They are at home and not dealing with those things. So even though their life satisfaction might be declining and there might be this long-term hit on their life satisfaction, on a moment-to-moment basis, they do not experience the stressors that people in their jobs deal with.

Chopik: Overall, it’s important to remember social relationships can start affecting people’s happiness. People who are employed or dedicated to serving their community or doing something that will benefit their family or others in the world can feel good because humans are a social species and want to do right for each other.

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