Most People Don’t Really Want to Be Happy, Says Nobel Prize-Winning Psychologist

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Ask people what they want most in life and the majority will say they want to be happy. Yet cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics claims this isn’t true. Kahneman says that many of us are working toward some other goal, satisfaction. He believes that happiness and satisfaction are separate and different from each other.

Happiness, according to Kahneman, is something that is only momentary and fleeting, something that comes about spontaneously. Satisfaction is more long term. It is established over time and builds up according to our goals and aspirations as we work to create the life that we want. Kahneman explains that when we work towards one goal, this can prevent us from being able to experience fully the other.

For example, when we constantly try to experience happiness, as it is something short term, this can undermine our ability to establish long-term positive emotions and life satisfaction. Similarly, when we only focus on the long term, we can miss out on experiencing day-to-day happiness as we ignore or bypass opportunities.

Kahneman’s conducted research measuring everyday happiness, investigating what experiences make people feel good and long term happiness or satisfaction. Affective response or how the subjects felt at a particular moment from measure by the reconstruction of their day. Life satisfaction reflected how happy respondents were in different areas of life across time.

Findings indicated that spending time with friends was one of the greatest influences on happiness. Additionally, local features of an interaction such as time pressure or the person with whom the subject was interacting had a powerful influence on affect.

Life circumstances, a satisfaction measure, was found to have a relatively small effect on the emotional experience of happiness unless one was affected by them at the moment (e.g. time pressure). Findings also indicated that those who focused more on long term strategies for achieving life satisfaction often didn’t prioritize socializing or spending large amounts of time with friends and family. Instead, they focused on the bigger picture.

Other results indicated that overall job satisfaction did not strongly relate to the enjoyment of job-related tasks. Kahneman interpreted this to suggest that we can be satisfied with where we are in terms of a career even if we don’t necessarily enjoy the day-to-day tasks we need to do and vice-versa.

Our career is satisfying when it seems to be going the way we expect it to in order to reach a longer-term goal than the ones we have already achieved. Even if we enjoy the day-to-day activities involved in our work, we not feel satisfied if the job isn’t like to get us where we want to go long term.

Kahneman concluded from these findings that we’re not as interested in happiness as we claim. He states, “Altogether, I don’t think that people maximize happiness in that sense…this doesn’t seem to be what people want to do. They actually want to maximize their satisfaction with themselves and with their lives. And that leads in completely different directions than the maximization of happiness.”

Other research by Kahneman explored the age-old question of whether or not money can buy happiness. Here he distinguished between two types of well-being thought to mirror happiness and satisfaction. Emotional well-being, another measure of happiness, refers to the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience; the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.

Life evaluation, a satisfaction measure, refers to the ways in which people perceive their lives and life goals. For this study, the authors analyzed over 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 US residents conducted by the Gallup Organization. Results indicated that emotional well-being (measured by questions about emotional experiences yesterday) and life evaluation and satisfaction had different factors associated with them.

Income and education were more closely associated with life evaluation, but health, caregiving, and loneliness were stronger predictors of daily emotional happiness. As income rose so did life evaluation and satisfaction as well as emotional happiness.

However, emotional happiness stopped increasing at an income of around $75,000. Low income seemed to multiply the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. The authors concluded that higher income was associated with life satisfaction but not happiness, while low income was associated both with low life evaluation and satisfaction and low emotional well-being or happiness.

Kahneman believes that life satisfaction is based primarily on comparisons.“Life satisfaction is connected to a large degree to social yardsticks–achieving goals, meeting expectations.”

He cited his findings which suggest that money has a significant influence on life satisfaction, whereas happiness is affected by money only when it is lacking. While being poor creates suffering in terms of emotional well being as well as long term life satisfaction, above a certain level of income that is adequate to satisfy our basic needs, money doesn’t increase happiness though it is tied to a more positive life evaluation.

In other words, if you aren’t hungry, and if clothing, shelter, and your other basic needs are covered, you’re capable of being at least as happy as the world’s richest people. Fleeting feelings of happiness, however, don’t add up to life satisfaction. When looking back on one’s life, a person who has had many happy moments may not feel pleased or satisfied with the way their life turned out on the whole.

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