April 30, 2009

Optimal happiness level

Shigehiro Oishi and Minkyung Koo have written the interesting chapter 'Two new questions about happiness - "Is happiness good?" and "Is happier better?" in The Science of Subjective Well-Being. In it they explore the possibility that the effect of happiness is curvilinear. They discuss several studies which suggest that the optimal level of happiness may not always be the highest level. These studies showed that on several performance criteria the highest performing indivuals were not the most happy ones but people just below that level of happiness.


  1. I guess it also depends on what on what you understand by happiness.

    "Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
    - Helen Keller

  2. thanks Peter, This quote by Helen Keller resembles some quotes by other wise people, like John Stuart Mill, who said: "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life ... (1873)

  3. Martin Seligman in his book "Authentic Happiness" describes three types of happiness which might be relevant here.

    1. Pleasure - everything your five senses can enjoy
    2. Flow - getting into that "zone" state in which you don't notice time passing
    3. Meaning - from seeing a higher purpose in what you do

    I think that having "happy feelings" I would categorize as pleasure and I agree that being filled with that kind of happiness all the time does not necessarily lead to high performance. In fact, I've seen studies that show all kinds of information biases when in a "good mood." For example when in a good mood stereotyping is stronger and people are more easily persuaded. Here's a link to a review of studies of mood and stereotype bias http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a758772557&db=all

    As an aside, it's also been shown that implementations intentions can overcome stereotype bias generally but also when in a good mood. See Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

    I think it might be good to consider that our human minds were not designed to make us happy. Happiness is a property of the human mind because it helps us survive. It's often an inner reward for outer actions. We get pleasure from eating because eating helps us live. We get pleasure from sex because sex keeps the next generation in existence. We derive meaning from future goals and plans and purposes because these keep us from doing things that would feel good today but keep us from surviving in the long term.

    I'll have to read the book, but I wonder which type of happiness the researchers in the book you mention were measuring or if they distinguished among the different types.

    The second type of happiness... that from flow I would think might increase performance no matter how much a person experiences it became as top performers usually perform in this state.

  4. Coert,

    Do they refer to the math that Fredrickson mentions in her book Positivity? She says that an 11:1 ration of positivity to negativity might lead to some negative effects.


  5. Hi Rodney, They do mentin Fredrickson's broaden and build theory but they don't mention the 11:1 ratio of positivity to negativity

  6. OK. I'll have to check out that chapter in The Science of Subjective Well-Being to see what they say. Might be interesting.


  7. I found this article, which covers roughly the same topic: http://bit.ly/a4jn4s


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