Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

How do we know when people are actually happy?

Posted 15 Jan 2016 / 0
2016-01-15aImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

ScienceConservatives report, but liberals display, greater happiness

This paper was published back in March, but I just discovered it.

I am somewhat fascinated by psychological studies of happiness, because happiness is so hard to pin down. What is happiness, and can we rely on people to accurately report how happy they are?

The authors of this study, interpreting their interesting findings, clearly want to say “no”. They showed an incongruence between self-reported happiness and objective measures of facial expressions and language usage: those who self-report as happy actually use language and display facial expressions that the authors of this study categorize as less happy than people who self-report as less happy. What’s more, there’s a correlation between being politically conservative and self-reporting as happy and a correlation between being politically liberal and self-reporting as less happy. What’s going on here?

Let’s start with the trend in self-reporting. It is fascinating that political leanings correlate with levels of self-reported happiness. Perhaps there are common cultural ideas amongst conservatives that suggest an internal narrative of contentedness, and common cultural ideas amongst liberals that suggest an internal narrative of discontentedness. Or are we seeing — expressed in both political leanings and internal narrative — fundamental psychological variants in the human population? Whether this is culturally-mediated or mostly biological, the distinction is fascinating!

And what about the incongruence? Why the seeming contradiction in self-reported happiness versus actual behavior? We might be tempted to say conservatives are actually quite unhappy, whereas liberals are actually quite happy, as actual behaviors are usually more reliable than self-reported mind states. But when you look at the behaviors that this study analyzes, the reality is a bit more complicated. Again, it is interesting to note that there are trends in language usage and facial expressions along the liberal/conservative continuum. But are liberals really more happy than conservatives?

Only if you think that online language and facial expressions are a better indicator of happiness! Perhaps liberals use more “happy language” and have more genuine smiles because they are trying to compensate for deep-felt unhappiness through their online interactions. Although I share the suspicion that self-reported mind states are unreliable, I am also not ready to accept that you can tell if a person is actually happy based on what their profile picture on LinkedIn looks like or what kind of language they use on Facebook posts. Like self-reporting, these measures are at best vague reflections of what is actually going on inside.

I wonder if the entire “happiness research” endeavor is a bit doomed. I think that it is important to understand what makes people feel satisfied, contented, and secure. But even as an internal state subjectively experienced, “happiness” is an elusive quantity.

A Minor Post, Articles, Behavior, Belief, Data Limitation, Emotion, Happiness, Psychology, Uncategorized

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