Can customer service providers find happiness? To answer that question, it may help to gain a better understanding of what happiness is. Ed Diener is Alumni Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. He is the Founding Editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society. Dr Diener is past-president of the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, and of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. He won the 2000 Distinguished Researcher Award from the International Society of Quality of Life Studies, and has more than 200 publications, around 150 of which are in the area of well-being.
Excerpts from Frequently Asked Questions About Subjective Well-Being
Ed Diener, Alumni Professor of Psychology, University of Illinois
What is subjective well-being(SWB)?
- Subjective well-being is the scientific name for how people evaluate their lives. People can evaluate their lives in terms of a global judgment (such as life satisfaction or feelings of fulfillment), in terms of evaluating the domains of their lives (such as marriage or work), or in terms of their ongoing emotional feelings about what is happening to them (feeling pleasant emotions, which arise from positive evaluations of one's experiences, and low levels of unpleasant feelings, which arise from negative evaluations of one's experiences).
- The English word "happiness" means several different things (e.g., joy, satisfaction), and therefore many scientists prefer the term "subjective well-being." However, subjective well-being is an umbrella term that includes the various types of evaluation of one's life one might make - it can include self-esteem, joy, feelings of fulfillment, and so forth.
- The key is that the person himself/herself is making the evaluation of life - not experts, philosophers, or others. Thus, the person herself or himself is the expert here: Is my life going well, according to the standards that I choose to use?
Is SWB important?
- Happiness is important in and of itself because it is how people evaluate their own lives. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a good society in which we think people are living in a desirable way, but they are all unhappy and dissatisfied. Thus, SWB seems absolutely necessary for the "good society," although is not sufficient for that society because there are other things we also value and would want in such a place. Thus, it can be said that high SWB is necessary, but not sufficient, for the good life.
- When we ask people, they say that SWB is extremely important. For example, college students the world over rated happiness and life satisfaction as very important or extremely important in the 41 nations we surveyed. In fact, in only one country did students rate money as more important than life satisfaction, and happiness was rated as more important than money in every single country.
- SWB is desirable for another reason - because it seems to lead to many good outcomes. Happy people (those high in long-term average positive emotions) seem to be more sociable and creative, they live longer, make more money and are better "citizens" in their workplace. A host of good outcomes (e.g., marital satisfaction) often follow from happiness. Thus, there are many reasons to suggest that high SWB is extremely desirable.
OK, so people think happiness is important. But is it really desirable? If we are happy, might we achieve less, be bad citizens, or be just plain dumb?
It turns out that, at least in western culture where the studies have been conducted, that SWB (high levels of positive affect, in particular) produces good outcomes in many areas. For example:
- Happy people on average have stronger immune systems, and there is some evidence that they live longer.
- Happy people are more creative, at least in the laboratory.
- Happy people are better citizens at work - they tend to help others more, skip work less, etc.
- Happy people are more successful - they earn more income, have better marriages, get job interviews more, etc.
- Happy people do better in social relationships. They are more sociable to begin with, and other people like them more.
- They seem to be more successful in leadership work positions.
- Happy people are better able to cope with difficult situations.
- Happy people like themselves and other people more, and others like them in return. They are also more helpful and altruistic, on average.
- In judgment and decision making, happy people act efficiently, and spend more effort only when it is truly required (on important problems, and ones where old solutions are not working).
- Happy people can perform well if they are cued that motivation is required and that the task might not be an easy one.
- Happy people can dual task and complete complex tasks better because they will use heuristics for parts of the task, or for one of the tasks, thus allowing more computational power for other parts of the task.
Is there a "key" to SWB; a secret to happiness?
- So many popular writers seem to search for the "key," and sometimes even offer what they think is THE key to happiness. But our research indicates that there is no single key.
- Some things seem to be necessary for high SWB (e.g., solid mental health, good social relationships), but they are not sufficient for happiness (some unhappy people possess these, too). So a variety of things appear to be necessary for happiness even though we have not found any characteristic that is sufficient for happiness.
- The above findings suggest a better analogy than a key - a recipe. Most good recipes call for quite a few ingredients. Some of these ingredients are absolutely essential, and other ingredients are merely helpful. But there is no single key ingredient that by itself gives you the good food. You need to have multiple ingredients put together in the right way. This is like SWB - you need several important and necessary ingredients, but no single one of them by itself produces a happy person.
What is your advice to those who want to be happy?
I have no simple, easy answer that will make everyone happy. Some people with serious problems need to see a therapist and get professional help. And many of us have such deep-grained habits that it won't be easy to change overnight. Plus, we all have our temperaments that will put some limits on how easy it for us to be happy. So there is no magic elixir. Having said this, I think there are some steps people can take to insure that they are as happy as they can be (although nothing will make us happy every moment, fortunately).
- First, we need good friends and family, and we may need to sacrifice to some extent to insure that we have intimate, loving relationships - people who care about us, and about whom we care deeply.
- Second, we need to involve ourselves in activities - work, for example - that we enjoy and value. We are likely to be best at things we value and think are interesting.
- Finally, we need to control how we look at the world. We need to train ourselves not to make a big deal of trivial little hassles, to learn to focus on the process of working toward our goals (not waiting to be happy until we achieve them), and to think about our blessings (making a habit of noticing the good things in our lives).
Can we make ourselves happier?
This is a 64,000 dollar question, about which we have surprisingly little direct evidence. We know that cognitive style correlates with SWB. We also have some studies where cognitive style is altered, and people become happier (or less depressed). So it seems as though people can change their level of SWB with persistent work, but we need much more data.
Michael Fordyce has conducted a few controlled studies to try to raise people's happiness, and finds that a multimodal intervention (get more friends, think positively, don't worry so much, etc.) can increase people's reports of SWB, but these studies too are in their infancy.
What role do values play in SWB?
- People's values influence the goals that they set for themselves. For example, people who place a high value on the environment might set a goal of recycling and composting. People who set goals for themselves that are consistent with their values will experience fewer internal conflicts.
- As people work for their goals, and achieve them, they experience subjective well-being. Thus, SWB can be achieved by seeking those things that one values. Values (including helping others, hard work, contributing to society) are thus not inconsistent with SWB. Instead, people's SWB can be enhanced to the degree that they work for goals that are consistent with their values, and are able to make progress toward those goals.
- Being happy is not just a hedonistic enterprise of "eat, drink, and be merry" - for most people, obtaining high SWB means working for important values. People might not enjoy specific activities that are necessary to achieving their goals. However, these activities in the long-run can lead to satisfaction. Thus, some activities might not produce pleasure or even positive affect at the moment, but might lead to longer-term life satisfaction. There is evidence, however, that people on average do tend to enjoy activities more if they are consistent with their values.
- It is important to understand that there is not a choice between other important values and SWB. If a person is socialized to desire values and goals that are positive, the person will achieve SWB by moving toward those values. Thus, achieving SWB is not a sort of search for hedonistic pleasures, but instead can be best achieved by working for the things that a person values. Being happy does not stand in contrast to basic values - the choice need not be between one or the other. Instead, SWB can derive from working for one's values.
What are the most important things scientists have learned about SWB?
We have learned some important things about SWB, but there is much that is still uncertain. Oftentimes people will ask us questions for which we simply have no good answer. But here are a few of the important things we have learned. Below I list my favorites:
- We seem to be able to measure the components of SWB with some level of validity.
- Temperament is an important predictor of a person's SWB, but conditions can matter too. Some conditions have long-lasting effects on SWB (e.g., unemployment, living in a very poor nation), and many situations can dramatically influence SWB in the short run.
- Culture makes a difference to SWB; some cultures have higher levels of SWB than others. One reason for this seems to be that in some cultures happiness is valued more than in other cultures.
- People in unstable and very poor societies avow lower levels of SWB.
- The happiest people all seem to have good friends.
- On average most people are at least slightly happy. But everyone has up and down moods - nobody is happy every moment. Even the happiest people sometimes get unhappy.
- Negative and positive emotions are to some extent independent. Thus, one can have a lot of positive affect, but this does not tell us with certainty whether one is low on negative affect. Similarly, a person high in negative affect might also be high in positive affect. Thus, "happiness" cannot be simply understood as a single dimension, but is multidimensional.
- There seems to be no single key to happiness - no one thing that guarantees high SWB once you possess it. Instead, there are many necessary conditions that together seem to contribute to high SWB.
- High average positive affect is not a bad thing; instead, it seems to have desirable consequences (as outlined earlier). Furthermore, high SWB can follow from the values that people cherish, and is not simple hedonism.
- Emotional intensity seems relatively independent of average happiness. Instead, happiness is based more squarely on the frequency of positive moods and emotions - on being in a good mood (even though not intense) most of the time.