I recently downloaded the results of the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. The Gallup organization interviewed more than 146,000 people in 145 countries in 2014. Participants were asked questions about the following domains of well-being.

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Regions of the world and individual countries were ranked as to the percentage of the survey participants that were thriving in each of these domains. In addition, regions and countries were ranked as to the percentage who were thriving in three or more areas.

Panama was the country that ranked first in overall well-being, followed by Costa Rico and Puerto Rico. Seven of the top 10 countries were Latin American; the only exceptions were three European nations–Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria. For the most part, the Latin American countries ranked high on the purpose, social, community, and physical dimensions, while the European countries were highest in the financial realm.

As a resident of the United States, I immediately noticed that the US is not in the top 10 in any domain of well-being. I found us down in 23rd place overall, with 30.5% of our residents thriving on three or more dimensions. We ranked moderately high in the purpose, social, and financial areas (ranks of 22, 24, and 22 respectively). Not surprisingly for a highly individualistic country, we were lowest in the area of community, though even there our rank of 41st puts us in the top third of nations surveyed.

Here are the top 10 countries in each realm of well-being:

Well-being index

The report’s authors suggest that the high ranks for Central and South American countries may be due in part to the “Latin American cultural predisposition that is associated with higher levels of positivity than other regions” Referring to results from a Gallup survey on daily positive experiences, the authors indicate that Latin Americans are particularly likely to report such experiences as smiling or laughing, enjoyment, and feeling that they were treated with respect each day.

Perhaps this tendency for positivity is responsible for the relatively high ranking of some countries for which press reports (I’m speaking of the US press here) tend to emphasize social, political, or economic turmoil much more than anything favorable–countries like Guatemala (ranked eighth), Mexico (tenth), Brazil (fifteenth) and El Salvador (eighteenth). A positivity bias certainly doesn’t provide total protection from social problems, but it seems to make life more pleasant and satisfying while dealing with such problems. Maybe more of us should try walking on the sunny side of the street.

Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl

Recently, Emily Esfahani Smith published an article on the Atlantic website titled  “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”  In it, she describes the ideas of Victor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who was sent to a German concentration camp during World War II and later wrote about prisoners’ reactions in Man’s Search for Meaning. The key factor determining whether prisoners survived the experience, said Frankl, was whether they had some purpose or meaning in their lives that required them to survive.  Frankl quoted Nietzsche’s succinct statement of this perspective:  “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  Smith closes the article by describing why Frankl chose to stay in Vienna and face possible imprisonment by the Nazis rather than leave for America.  Not surprisingly, he did so because he put the welfare of others (his parents) ahead of his own.  For those unfamiliar with Frankl, I recommend Smith’s brief introduction to the man and his thought.

Most of the rest of Smith’s article describes a recent study by Roy Baumeister, social psychologist at Florida State University, and his colleagues concerning the differences between happiness and meaning.  Her summary doesn’t do justice to the researchers’ methodology, but she does provide a helpful link to a paper based on the study that will be published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.  The psychologists paid 397 Americans to take three online surveys over the course of a month.  They measured self-reported happiness (sample item: “In general I consider myself happy, with responses made on a 7-point scale), self-reported meaning (sample item: “In general I consider my life to be meaningful.”), and a variety of other variables.  They found considerable overlap between reports of happiness and of meaning—the correlations between composite measures of meaning and happiness were +.63 when the questions were first asked, and +.70 when they were asked again a month later.  Most of the other questions asked were chosen because the authors thought that those high in happiness and those high in meaning would answer them differently, and indeed quite a few differences were found.  Here’s a sampling—quotes are from the original paper:

  • “Considering life a struggle was negatively correlated with happiness but approached a significant positive relationship with meaningfulness.”
  • “The more often people felt good, the happier they were. The more often they felt bad, the less happy they were. Neither was related to meaning.”
  • “The more time people reported having devoted to thinking about the past and future, the more meaningful their lives were — and the less happy. . . . In contrast, the more time people reported thinking about the present, the happier they were, although this was weak and only marginally significant at p=.07.”
  • “Two key items asked people to rate whether they were givers or takers. Being a giver was positively related to meaningfulness, while being a taker was negatively related to it. Meaning is thus about being a giver rather than a taker. With happiness, the correlation trends were in the opposite direction.”
  • “Another item asked to what extent the participant generally tries to help others in need. More helping was strongly related to meaningfulness, but it had a nonsignificant trend in the opposite direction with happiness.”

The authors conclude that having one’s needs met and having a high frequency of positive emotions are related to happiness but not to meaning.  Meaning, instead, is related to taking a long-term temporal orientation, to doing things for others, and to living a life of purposeful involvement.

I have always been more interested in pursuing the meaningful life than the happy one.  I wonder, though, whether the differences these researchers found between those rating themselves high in happiness and those rating themselves high in meaning have to do largely with the tendency for people in our society to have a shallow sense of what happiness is—one that relies almost entirely on having frequent positive emotional reactions.  This view of the nature of happiness has been decried by writers such as Erik G. Wilson, whose book Against Happiness suggests that we are better off not making vacuous emotional pleasantness a significant life goal.

Maybe happiness and meaning can be reconciled by going back to Aristotle’s concept of eudiamonia (translated as happiness), which he thought was the goal of life.  As I discussed here, eudiamonia consists of living well, which in turn means living according to the proper function of human beings.  A person living this way not only experiences positive emotions, but has a life of purpose that is deeply satisfying.  For Aristotle, a life of happiness is a life of meaning.

Surveys find that reported life satisfaction and positive emotions tend to increase as we age, at least until we reach the point where infirmity starts detracting significantly from our quality of life.  Most of the elderly are fairly optimistic about their remaining years.  In fact, author Paula Span suggested in a recent New York Times article that many of them are much more optimistic than circumstances warrant.  She cites findings from the “United States of Aging,” a telephone survey of Americans over age 60.   Among those over 70, 23% thought their overall quality of life would improve in the next five to ten years, and 49% thought it would stay the same.  Eighty-six percent of those over 70 thought they would be able to stay in their home for five to ten years without making significant modifications.  The vast majority of survey respondents thought that they would be able to maintain their health over the next five to ten years and that, should an accident or unexpected medical problem occur, they would be able to pay the associated expenses.  Span says, “I see much grimmer tidings elsewhere on a daily basis,” citing statistics showing paltry savings and frequent medical problems among the elderly.   She tries to puzzle out the reasons for the respondents’ optimism, concluding that it reflects at least in part a developmental change associated with aging.

Right now I’m something of an exception to the rule that we become more happy and optimistic as we age.  I’ve had a dip in life satisfaction over the past six months or so as I’ve retired from my primary job and moved to Michigan to be of assistance to my parents.  I still work part-time; my three part-time jobs  together equal about three-quarters of a full-time job.  My income is reduced, and I’m driving back and forth between Michigan and North Carolina frequently.  Less money and a peripatetic lifestyle trouble me some, but the biggest change is that I’ve developed more negative expectations about the future.  That in turn comes from the time I spend with my parents.  It’s not so much that their advanced age reminds me that they’ll soon die—and that I’ll eventually follow them.  Thinking about death is disconcerting only for those who haven’t quite come to terms with their inevitable mortality.  There is actually a substantial body of research indicating that thoughts of death can have beneficial effects on how we live our lives (see a report of this research here).  I’m less troubled by death than by what might come before death.

My parents are in their own home and, for now anyway, are able to cover their expenses reasonably well.  That doesn’t mean that they have a very pleasant life, though.  My dad has dementia.  He still knows who he is, recognizes family members and some friends, and can feed himself and help dress himself.  However, he has to be told the most basic things, remembers very little (even the household schedule, which is repetitive to the point of monotony), and is miserable whenever away from my mom.  He fears being alone, and, whenever my mom is away, he anxiously awaits her return.  At night, he always needs to be reassured that someone will come to get him in the morning.  My mother works hard to keep up the household and keep dad satisfied.  She is plagued with various physical limitations, tires easily, and is clearly weary of the task of answering the same questions and trying to comfort someone who can’t be comforted for more than a moment.  My mom has said, “I think we’ve just lived too long.”  I understand why she has that view.

So I’m no longer much of an optimist when it comes to the end of life.  Perhaps I’m even a pessimist, in the sense of having mostly negative expectations for what it will be like should I live to my mid-eighties or beyond.  I would say that I’m a hopeful pessimist, though.  Health may deteriorate, memory may fade, and friends may die, but I hope to still be sustained by qualities that can survive all these losses.  The Christian tradition talks about the fruit of the Spirit—qualities that God’s Spirit develops in those who open themselves to his activity.  The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians lists these as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Take the first three of these—if my heart were to constantly be filled with love of others, if I were to be always joyful about God’s faithfulness and mercy, and if I had an abiding sense of peace that is unperturbed by life situations, then deprivation and decrepitude would matter much less.  Some days, I seem to be showing exactly the opposite of the qualities that Paul cites.  I know that spiritual formation is a lifelong process, though, and I trust that God’s Spirit knows better than I do how to develop these characteristics in me.  So, at this point I’m a hopeful pessimist, the in-breaking kingdom of the heavens being the only real reason I see for hope.

recently wrote about self-love, using the term in the sense of pursuing one’s own self-interests.  I was interested to find a pertinent chart from the Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey (see a report of the survey here).  When asked whether people are generally motivated by self-interest or by altruism, 77 percent said self-interest, and only 20 percent said altruism.  Thus, most of us Americans tend to think that those around us are self-serving rather than concerned with the welfare of others or the common good.

Had I been asked the question, I think I would have been in the three percent who didn’t choose either self-interest or altruism.   I think we’re motivated by both; most of us are in turns self-serving and self-giving.  Certainly there are exceptional individuals who habitually tend to choose the welfare of others over their own, but ordinary, unsaintly individuals may be more considerate of those around them than we realize.

An example of such consideration occurred in a recent flight I was on from Seattle to Atlanta.  The plane was arriving a little after 10 p.m. and was about 15 minutes late.  The flight crew announced that a number of those on the plane had a short time to make another flight, and the late arrival could result in some missed connections.  They asked that everyone who had no connection to make, or who had considerable time between flights, stay in their seats until those with close connections had left the plane.

Usually when a plane arrives at the gate nearly everyone tries to disembark as quickly as possible.  I wondered whether the crew’s request would change anyone’s behavior.  After all, we passengers were ignorant as to who had to rush to make a connection, so we wouldn’t know whether someone who tried to leave immediately had a legitimate reason to do so or not.  In the absence of social pressure, who was actually going to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of those in danger of missing their next flight?

I was on the aisle, and when the plane came to a stop I got up to let out the two people seated next to me, who were headed for Tampa and Jacksonville, respectively.  I sat back down and looked around.  At least half of the passengers were still seated, waiting while the others scurried out the exit.  Only after that group of passengers left did the rest of us get up, squeeze into the aisle, and head out the door.

Some of those who left immediately may not have needed to hurry to another flight.  Still, I was impressed with how many of the passengers surrendered a few minutes of their time in deference to fellow travelers who had little time to spare.  So, to all the good folks on Delta flight 1220: Well done.

On April 9, I attended the Carolinas Psychology Conference, a venue for undergraduate psychology students to present research that they’ve done.  We had four students from our program at Methodist University who were presenters.  As I watched them and the other students present, I appreciated both the hard work they had done on their projects and the efforts of the sponsoring faculty members to teach them about research methods and guide them through the research process.

One of the presentations I saw concerned happiness, a focus of this blog.  The study raised some interesting questions, so I’ll summarize the presentation and discuss its findings.  The student who presented was Alexander Rodgers, from North Carolina State University; the sponsoring faculty member was Shevaun Neupert.  The focus was on the relationship between busyness and happiness.  College students (aged 18-24) and older adults (aged 60-92) rated their level of busyness and feelings of happiness over 8 consecutive days.  For the young adults, there was no relationship between self-reported busyness and happiness.  For the older adults, though, higher levels of busyness were associated with greater happiness.  The researchers looked at factors that might have explained the relationship.  It couldn’t be accounted for by the participant’s tiredness or by the number of physical ailments they had.  Older participants gave higher ratings overall on the item, “I spend my time doing what I want,” but there was no relationship between that item and happiness.

All of the adults had been recruited at senior centers or retirement communities; none were working.  I suspect that busyness wouldn’t be associated with happiness in a sample of working older adults.   I know at least a couple of employed older adults whose employment keeps them quite busy and who are dissatisfied when they compare themselves to age-mates with more opportunities for leisure.  I’m not surprised that, once older adults retire, there isn’t a relationship between doing what one wants and happiness.  I would imagine that most retirees have the leeway to do as they please, so the correlation with happiness would be attenuated. 

What might produce the association between busyness and happiness in retirees, though?  Since the finding is correlational, we can’t be certain that it’s the increased activity that causes happiness.  The causal relationship could be reversed (happy people get involved in more activities), or some other factor, such as self-efficacy or the size of one’s social network, might influence both busyness and happiness.  One possible reason for the association is that a sense of purpose might result both in an increased activity level and more life satisfaction.  It’s known that retirees who have planned out what activities they will engage in after leaving the workforce make a more successful adjustment than those who don’t make such plans.  I’m always struck by how busy most of the retirees I know are.  The ones who are volunteering their time at church or for community organizations seem particularly fulfilled.  My parents volunteered quite a bit for about fifteen years after retirement, though they have slowed down as they’ve gotten older and had more health problems.  Still, my dad seems quite satisfied when he’s able to play the piano for nursing home residents or speak to elementary school classes about World War II.  Research has found a relationship between helping others and happiness.  This study didn’t try to parcel out the sorts of activities that the older adults were engaged in; I wonder whether it is particularly those busy contributing to the welfare of others who are happiest.  That would be fitting; for altruistic elders, doing good would be its own reward.

Dad at 83--Happy? You bet.

“What a drag it is getting old. . . .”  So sang the Rolling Stones in “Mother’s Little Helper,” their 1966 ode to prescription drug abuse.  I wonder what their take on aging is now that they are in their late 60s?

I recently ran across a description of a study on happiness and aging that suggests that, far from being a drag, getting old is a pretty good thing.  The study analyzed data from a 2008 Gallup survey of adults from 18 to 85 years of age.  Survey participants were asked to rate life satisfaction on a 10-point scale.  They were also asked which of 6 feelings (enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, and sadness) they had experienced the previous day.  The idea behind the latter measure is that reporting on one day’s emotions is a better measure of emotional well-being than is a global rating of satisfaction since it is less susceptible to biases.

Scores on the measure of life satisfaction declined from age 18 to age 50, at which point they start increasing, so that 85-year-old participants report being more satisfied with their lives than do 18-year olds.  Findings for reports of the previous day’s emotions were varied.  A similar trajectory was found for enjoyment and happiness: they both decreased gradually until age 50 but then rose until age 75.  There was a slight decrease from 75 to 85.  Stress declined progressively starting at age 22, while anger declined beginning at 18.  Worry remained fairly steady from 18 to 50, but then showed a marked decline.   Sadness increased to a peak at age 50, then declined to age 73 but rose again to age 85.  Overall, then, there were more positive and fewer negative emotions in older survey participants than younger ones, with sadness being the only negative emotion experienced at similar levels in younger and older participants.  

 Since the survey design was cross-sectional, differences may in part be due to cohort effects and can’t be used to predict the path that now-young individuals will follow in their self-evaluations and emotional experiences throughout the course of adulthood.  Nevertheless, the results do fit fairly well with my experience and with what I’ve observed in others.  There aren’t nearly as many angry seniors as there are angry young adults.  I frankly don’t recall experiencing a lot of stress in my early 20s, but I sure see lots of it in my students who are that age.  The stress of getting adulthood going probably exceeds by a considerable margin the stresses of winding down a career and figuring out what to do in retirement.  As for worry, I probably worried more from the time my first child was born until the time my youngest child graduated from college—that took me from age 28 to age 53—than I did either before or after.  I don’t know why sadness would increase to age 50 and then decline.  Personally, I never had much sadness either before or after that age.  I suspect that sadness increases again late in life because of the increased likelihood of deteriorating health, disability, and death of one’s mate. 

 Aging is something that few of us look forward to.  According to this study, though, old age is a destination that looks worse from a distance than it does when we arrive.  When older, we may have more difficulty remembering names, reading the fine print, and driving at night, but it seems we’ll be enjoying life rather than worrying about what we can no longer do.  As Robert Browning invited us, “Grow old with me!  The best is yet to be.”

Whitney Larrimore recently alerted me that still another list has been released purporting to tell the world what countries are happiest.  Costa RicaLeading the happiness parade in this accounting is Costa Rica.  The article that Whitney sent the url for had a slide show of the top ten countries.  I was surprised that none of the European social democracies that usually top these lists was in evidence.  Instead, there were countries like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.  What gives?  The land of sclerotic cold-war Communism is a place of joy?  I expected to see Sudan or Zimbabwe show up next.  

It turns out that the list—named the Happy Planet Index—was calculated by the New Economics Foundation, an English advocacy organization concerned with social issues and the environment.  The index isn’t designed to measure which places are happiest.  Instead, as the index’s website states, it aims to show “the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.”   To get the index, its developers in essence divided each nation’s “Happy Life Years” by its “Ecological Footprint.”  An “Ecological Footprint” is a variant of the per capita carbon footprint.  The authors don’t explain precisely how they calculate “Happy Life Years,” but they do indicate that it is a function of two indicators:  life expectancy at birth and answers to the life satisfaction question on the Gallup World Poll.  In other words, if you say you’re satisfied with your life and you’re likely to have a long life span, you have lots of “Happy Life Years.”  The statistic seems flawed.  If I’m totally dissatisfied with my life but will live a long time, I would have more Happy Life Years than if I was miserable and am expected to die young.  In the first case, shouldn’t I be said to have lots of “Miserable Life Years” rather than “Happy Life Years?”  

Anyway, the US doesn’t fare so well on the Happy Planet Index.  We have plenty of Happy Life Years, but use up a ridiculously large amount of carbon.  Thus, we land in 114th place, right between Madagascar and Nigeria.  Almost all the nations below us on the index are in sub-Saharan Africa, where Ecological Footprints are low but there aren’t many Happy Life Years to be had.

It’s easy to fault the Happy Planet Index for not really being a measure of happiness at all.  To do so, though, would be to accept the currently prevalent conception of happiness (i.e. as self-reported life satisfaction) in preference to another way of thinking of happiness that dates to Aristotle.  In that view, happiness is about a life well-lived, a life of virtue.  Certainly, there is more to virtue than limiting one’s impact on the environment, yet I don’t fault the Happy Planet folks for starting there.

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