It’s our God-given, inalienable right, defiantly proclaimed by our nation’s founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence. And history validates Adams, Jefferson, et al., in their belief that Americans’ longing for happiness ranks right alongside their desire for life and liberty.
It’s something that we’ve proven time and again we are willing to fight and even to die for.
Nearly 240 years later, the people of the United States are still chasing their happy dream as diligently as ever — but some believe we’re slipping when it comes to achieving our goal. According to the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index, last year for the first time ever the U.S. did not place among the top 10 happiest nations.
Legatum based its analysis on a study of 142 countries comprising 96 percent of the world’s population, using 89 indicators in eight categories such as personal freedom and economics. The U.S. dropped two spots between 2011 and 2012 — from No. 10 to No. 12 — pulled down by the “Entrepreneurship and Opportunity” sub-index.
Many respondents said they no longer believed in the idea that hard work gets you ahead.
But do studies such as Legatum’s truly reflect how most of us feel? This also begs the question: Why do Americans, in particular, seem so obsessed with finding happiness — and for that matter – and with having fun?
We went to Indiana State University professor Virgil Sheets for the answers. A social and environmental psychologist who earned his doctorate from Arizona State University 20 years ago, Sheets has long been fascinated by how interpersonal relationships develop and are maintained. He also wants to know how external factors drive our behavior and internal processes.
ISU Magazine: Let’s begin with the basics. In psychology, what is considered happiness and what is fun?
Sheets: There is no simple answer. Fun and happiness are closely connected, but they aren’t one and the same. When we study happiness we typically look at it as a general long-term gauge of satisfaction, whereas fun is much more immediate focused and may have a little more arousal or excitement connection to it.
ISU Magazine: Does that mean you can be having fun but not really be happy overall?
Sheets: I think so. Fun can happen in a circumstance or situation, but it’s more transient. Happiness, on the other hand, involves how your life is going overall.
ISU Magazine: Are these mental states only, or is there a physical cause for them, too?
Sheets: That’s kind of tricky because there’s a physical basis for every mental state in terms of something is going on in the mind — there is a biological process. I think you’re asking whether the causes of happiness and fun are external versus internal, and the answer is there’s a little of both. Clearly they reflect your reaction to what’s going on in the outside world, but it’s also possible to interpret things mentally and modify the experience to make them seem better than they are. So the external is important, but the internal — your interpretation of what’s happening to you — plays into your emotional state, too.
ISU Magazine: Is there any difference in how age groups rate happiness? For instance, does the college crowd seem more concerned with finding happiness than someone in, say, their 50s?
Sheets: I’m not sure we have a lot of data on the age affect, but this distinction between fun and happiness — the immediate versus long-term distinction — partly gets into an issue of gratification. To be happy long-term, sometimes you have to set aside immediate fun in order to do things like go to college. Not that you don’t have some fun in college, but on a given night you may have to forego having fun to study.
The ability to delay gratification can be developed and practiced, and younger people seem to have a harder time with that than adults.
ISU Magazine: Why are people so concerned with happiness?
Sheets: I’ll answer in terms of my field. When psychologists study happiness, they often look at how it affects the evolutionary process. Happiness is an indicator of enjoyment and satisfaction with life, and having a general sense of happiness is important to both your psychological and your physical wellbeing.
It’s also important to human survival to experience immediate pleasure in response to immediate goals. An example of this is eating a good meal when you are hungry, which also can help you get and remain healthy.
But we also must have the ability to make changes if things are going bad. That’s where negative — unhappy — emotions come in. They tell us there’s a problem and we need to make changes, while positive emotions reinforce when things are going well. So both the happy and unhappy emotions work together to feed you information about whether you need to make immediate or long-term changes in your life.
Fun hasn’t been studied as much, but we have examined particular types of positive or fun experiences. There is a concept called the “flow experience,” where you’re in the moment and really enjoying what you’re doing. It seems to contribute to a sense of wellbeing.
ISU Magazine: Is it possible to do something that’s fun and at the time seems like a good idea, then you wake up the next day and it’s like, “Uh-oh, I don’t think I’m so happy doing that anymore?” Take binge drinking by college students, for example.
Sheets: Binge drinking is a good example. In fact, almost any addiction is a good example, where the fun overrides the happiness. It makes us do things that actually hurt our long-term happiness.
What’s happening is there’s a sort of disconnect between the systems. The brain’s system that focuses on immediate gratification is saying, “Yeah, this is great. Give me more,” and that’s overriding the longer-term system for delay of gratification.
This relates to the question about whether there is a danger of a happy society becoming a complacent society. I think a fun society is more likely to become a complacent society, because if people begin focusing on what they can get right now at the expense of, or by ignoring a life goal that they must work toward to contribute to long-term happiness, then yes, I think you might see complacency. But if people are invested in long-term sources of happiness, then I don’t think you’re likely to see that. You’re going to see people who are really dedicated and working toward their goals.
ISU Magazine: So do you think happiness heightens productivity and creativity? Or do you think people need to feel they’re lacking something — they have a hunger — and this in turn motivates them to search for answers and leads to innovation?
Sheets: An immediate hunger might lead to some productivity if the immediate payoff were to relieve that hunger. So, yes, if I’m going to get paid in an immediate, pleasurable response, then being hungry could motivate my behavior more. But if we’re thinking about my long-term productivity, I’m not sure keeping me hungry is going to do that because I’m not moving toward long-term goals. I’m moving just toward the immediate goals.
So it’s only if you can structure it so that these two always align, then being a little needy could be helpful. But the thing is, we can’t — and there are times when the two are in conflict with one another.
ISU Magazine: Does today’s society seem more obsessed with having fun than perhaps adults in the 1940s and ‘50s?
Sheets: That’s a little tricky. Older people often say they feel as if the younger generation is not following the same values and traditions, and perhaps is pursuing something different. One of the trends we’ve seen is that, compared with college students in an earlier generation, today’s students are more concerned with wealth, materialism and money sorts of things, whereas previous generations were concerned in college with thinking, learning and more generally with developing a meaning and philosophy in life rather than with wealth.
That might be because there’s been a broadening of who goes to college today. But some experts argue that it reflects a change in society — that we are moving toward a society that is more focused on immediacy and material wealth as opposed to the truer sources of happiness.
What’s been really interesting is that studies have shown that as we get wealthier, we don’t get any happier. Our happiness both as a society and as individuals seems to stay fairly stable.
There’s something in psychology known as the “adaptation level phenomena,” which refers to the fact that we seem to adapt psychologically to whatever is currently normal and whatever is currently happening will become normal.
For instance, when someone gets a raise they’re happy for a short time – maybe the first paycheck or two – but then the raise becomes normal and after a few months they are no happier than they were before. Similarly there’s a lot of media coverage of how winning the lottery doesn’t make the winners happier over the long-term. There’s an immediate bump in pleasure, but the happiness level seems to come back down as they get used to whatever their new conditions are.
So while people have become more materialistic as a focus of their happiness, in reality it doesn’t seem to lead to greater overall happiness in society or for the individuals.
ISU Magazine: Are some people their own worst enemy when it comes to being happy? I’m thinking of a friend who hates his job, but when he got an offer for early retirement he didn’t want to take it.
Sheets: One of the things that contributes to our satisfaction is being able to predict how things are going to work. Even if it’s unpleasant, for some people that predictability is better than the uncertainty that comes without it.
ISU Magazine: Maybe some people are just happy being unhappy. Is that possible?
Sheets: There is a sort of long-term stability to it — not that people can’t try to change how happy or unhappy they are, but I think we oftentimes see inertia there. On the other hand, I’ve certainly seen people who were quite happy in situations that I’m not sure I could deal with, but they just roll with it. People can be amazingly flexible.
And as I mentioned earlier, interpretation can come into play. Sometimes just reinterpreting what’s happening to you can change the feel of it, especially if other people are the source of your dissatisfaction. If you think a bit about their behavior and can reinterpret it, oftentimes it doesn’t seem nearly as subversive.
ISU Magazine: How do family, friends and your support system factor into the happiness equation?
Sheets: Social relationships are very important. People who don’t have good social relationships and connections, good friendships and good family relationships, struggle a lot more with issues than do people who do.
As I said earlier, happiness gives us a sense of whether the direction we’re taking in life is a good one. Family and support systems are very important, both as a source of fun and as a source of long-term happiness because oftentimes that’s where we get our meaning and purpose in life.
Also, when you become a parent a lot of the focus comes off you and instead is placed on your kids. Being able to have that long-term meaning and purpose are clearly connected to happiness — and kids are certainly one place where you have to begin to think about a long-term source of happiness, because there definitely will be times when they make you unhappy.
ISU Magazine: What is the media’s role in this? We constantly watch television shows where people have all this time to go out and solve crimes on their own or get caught up in soap opera romance and drama. They never have to worry about the day-to-day grind. What expectation does this set up for us?
Sheets: There are numerous studies in psychology that suggest the media often sets an unrealistic standard of expectation. If everybody you see on television is wealthy and successful and you can’t get access to that, it seems reasonable that’s going to play into your sense of happiness and success.
But, again, I think if you have good relationships in life, the media probably plays less of a role because you have that connection to reality and what real people are like.
ISU Magazine: That wraps into the question about whether Americans might be more obsessed than other countries or cultures with the pursuit of happiness and fun?
Sheets: I spoke earlier about how some researchers have looked at the relationship between materialism and happiness and satisfaction, and there’s certainly been data to suggest that we are more interested in self-gratification and the immediacy of the experience than other cultures. This also suggests that we may not be as happy, even if we are a little more obsessed with trying to get there.
But I think everybody in the world wants to be happy. It’s simply a matter of finding a route to achieve that.
ISU Magazine: Speaking of the world, how do current events — for example, the Middle East conflicts — affect our happiness?
Sheets: Certainly, we know this impacts people and certainly something like a war affects us. Many people have family and loved ones on active duty, which is going to provide a source of stress and challenge their happiness.
But overall, are people less happy during those times? I’m not sure. It certainly changes the context and may therefore change what it takes to enjoy happiness simply as a result of the contrast— that is, if there’s all this miserable stuff going on, you might find some pleasure in a little less than what would be required for your pleasure if things were going well. But, I honestly don’t have a good answer for that one.
ISU Magazine: Do you think a person who doesn’t directly suffer a negative impact from current events — let’s say, somebody who doesn’t know anyone serving overseas – might still suffer from guilt, since you know your peers are over there in danger while you’re maybe enjoying a day at the beach?
Sheets: Our minds are amazingly flexible. We’re pretty good at trying to find the rainbow in the storm clouds so that if something bad is happening to somebody else, we often won’t admit it, but because it’s not happening to us it gives us a little sense of relief and that may be interpreted as pleasantness.
It’s not that we want negative things to happen to other people, but when it comes down to it better them than us. You might feel sort of guilty doing that, but if that’s all we have, that’s all we have, and we’ll use that to make ourselves feel a little better.
Laurel Harper is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky. Her daughter’s engagement to a fantastic man and a bottle of Malbec make Laurel happy.