What’s the meaning of happiness?

Satisfaction? Contentment? Excitement? Peace? All of the above?

Earlier this week, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) published findings from its initial investigation into the UK’s subjective well-being. It tested out various types of questions, asking people about their satisfaction with life, whether they felt that the things they do in their lives are worthwhile, and whether they felt happy on the previous day and whether they felt anxious on the previous day. The answers to these questions were related, but there wasn’t an exact correlation, for example, in general, people tended to be more likely to give higher scores when asked about how worthwhile their lives were rather than how satisfied they were. 

The ONS also showed that you would get different results depending on whether you ask people if they were happy rather than joyful, and even if you asked them if they were calm rather than relaxed or peaceful.

Is there one definition of happiness or do we all experience happiness in different ways? Previous studies have shown that what people think of as happiness varies across culture and age. For example a study by Cassie Mogilner, Assistant Professor of Marketing, suggested that the meaning of happiness steadily shifts over the course of life from excited-happiness when one is young to peaceful-happiness as one gets older.

In a more recent paper, researchers Cassie Mogilner , Jennifer Aaker and Sepandar Kamvar explore the idea that the reason why the meaning of happiness appears to change with age is because young people are more focused on the future – and therefore equate excitement with happiness, whereas older people are more focused on the present – and therefore equate calm with happiness. Now, I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t seem immediately obvious to me.

Does this excite you?

But they do in fact show that getting younger people to focus on the present leads them to equate calm with happiness, and getting older people to focus on the future leads them to equate excitement with happiness. And what people think happiness means influences what they think will make them happy, and therefore can change their buying habits. For example, young people were more likely to choose a “calm” herbal tea (Sweet Dreams, a relaxing blend of chamomile and mint) , when they were primed to focus on the present – rather than the more “exciting” option (Peppermint, a refreshing peppermint blend). I don’t tend to think of any types of herbal tea as “exciting”, but maybe that’s just me.

All these different meanings of well-being and happiness mean that there are lots of questions we need to answer if well-being is to become more useful in helping Governments make better policy. Luckily it’s something advertisers are interested in too. There’s nothing like commercial incentives to advance human knowledge.

The full paper, “How Happiness Impacts Choice” is available here: http://gsbapps.stanford.edu/researchpapers/library/RP2084-1.pdf

The ONS study is here: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_244488.pdf

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One Response to What’s the meaning of happiness?

  1. Pingback: How Happiness Impacts Choice « Health and Medical News and Resources

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