The environment affects your happiness and wellbeing, and research has identified 9 general factors that have the greatest influence.
Welcome to part three of our exploration into the nature of happiness. In this article, we turn our attention to the psychology of happiness and findings by professor Peter Warr at the University of Sheffield. In his 2019 book of the same name, Warr draws on thousands of happiness and wellbeing studies to suggest nine primary environmental factors that impact your happiness. We can draw many parallels, for example, from self-efficacy theory and theories of resilience. Notwithstanding this, these environmental influences apply to all areas of our lives, including business, work and career, sport, and home life, and have a major impact on our subjective wellbeing.
How We Measure Happiness
From moment to moment, we are either victims or beneficiaries of our environment. Some of us are buffered by circumstance, and despite our best intentions, there seems little way out of our predicament. Others of us are energised by challenging conditions and take greater control by assuming responsibility. As such, we become active agents in our own lives. Is this the difference between happiness and unhappiness? Does our state of well-being come down to subjective experience alone?
Perhaps not entirely.
The human experience of happiness has become a central focus for the science of human behaviour. In fact, arguably, we can say that psychology is the study of happiness and unhappiness. But despite the burning question; how can we live happy and fulfilling lives? Thousands of research studies later, perhaps we are no closer to the answer. Maybe there is no single answer. However, we have learned a lot about the human condition in the process. And these discoveries have informed research and helped improve the lives of many people.
Researchers recognise that when we speak of personal happiness, we are usually, if not always, referring to an object, a person, a place or an experience. Our point of focus widens as move from feature-specific, to domain-specific, to global measures of happiness. It seems we measure our personal happiness as experience moves out from us into the world of people, things and events. Before we explore the nine factors that influence your happiness, let's take a closer look at these levels.
Different Ranges of Happiness Experience
Happiness and unhappiness are complex subjective experiences combining thoughts, memories, ideas, perspectives, social influences and many other components. We can examine these through measures of satisfaction, stress, strain, depression and so on, and can apply what we learn to the specific domains of experience; feature, domain and global.
As the name suggests, feature-specific happiness refers to the continuous stream of preferences, likes and dislikes of everyday life. It refers to your feelings about a story you just heard, or a person you work with, of the soft drink you reach for at lunchtime. Feature-specific happiness refers to your positive and feelings, and although you may say these things to not make you happy or unhappy, they relate to happiness nonetheless.
Beyond the range of single features associated with feature-specific happiness, we have domain-specific measures. These feelings relate to a given area of life. For example; work, home and religious groups, political and social ideas. Within this range of consideration, we measure feelings related to work colleagues or the members of a community sub-group.
Global (Context-Free) Happiness
Global, or context-free, happiness relates to our overall feelings of happiness. When you consider everything in your life currently, how do you feel? You may consider your work, your family life, romantic relationships, social group interactions, and health & fitness. In this global assessment, feature-specific and domain specific influences combine to give us an overall gauge of personal wellbeing.
Worldly Factors That Impact Your Happiness
In examining the apparent ranges of happiness experience and the components of each, it can be tempting to assume that these ways of thinking about happiness are absolute. But we must remember that in all scientific examination, we leave things out. Despite our need for order, life does not occur in discrete handy packets. Life is complex beyond the ability of human brains to understand ultimately, therefore, we must accept that these concepts merely allow us talk about things.
Therefore, as we discuss these nine environmental factors that impact your happiness, keep in mind that we are generalising. Warr (2019) 1 takes into account thousands of studies in settling on his nine factors influencing happiness, and although they may be considered accurate, the compromise is never final.
1. Personal Influence
The personal feeling that you can impact or change your life conditions is a primary factor in personal happiness. You must feel that you have the ability, in some small way, to remove yourself from harm or to gain a pleasurable experience. Bandura's concept of self-efficacy considers this component in depth. At The Performatist, I have written about this as having the feeling of being the active agent in your life. We don't need to change the world, but we must feel powerful enough to change our own lives.
2. Application of Skills
We acquire physical and psychological skills over time and experience, and they culminate in our development of personal expertise. It is what we become known for. It is what we do best when we are in our element. We apply these skills to solve problems, achieve goals, and often to merely engage in activity for its inherent enjoyment. These skills develop over time, become automatic and bring about feelings of competence feeding our sense of self-belief. From the application of skills comes the feeling of wellbeing despite perhaps the challenging nature of the work.
3. Demands & Goals
From the role we occupy in life comes demands from the environment. For example; you may be a health worker in a setting that demands you to come up with solutions for someone in a position of need. They cannot care for themselves and by virtue of your role, the conditions demand you to take a course of action that you otherwise may not. Certain roles in life, after a while, become automatic – they no longer force us to improve, and we plateau. A happy and engaging life must make demands on us otherwise we may get too much of a good thing.
Low variety conditions breed boredom. Repetition is a good thing in the formation of any skill set. However, as mentioned above, without the demands of a challenging environment, stagnation and sameness can breed boredom.
5. Clear Requirements & Outlook
Without a clear outlook, anxiety can overtake us. As such, the fifth factor that impacts your happiness is clear requirements or actions, and outlook. In a sports setting, for example, the boundaries are set and the goal is clear. We've practiced the actions relentlessly so requirements on us are unambiguous.
6. Human Interaction
Perhaps an obvious prerequisite to happiness and fulfilment is the presence or absence of other people. Engagement with others be they friends, family, work colleagues or team mates helps form a sense of belonging and community. Goals are often pursued through collaboration with others. however, just as other people can positively influence our happiness, they can also create unhappiness. In all, human interaction is an integral part of life and is one of those factors that impact your happiness in a variety of ways.
Our world is, to both a fortunate and unfortunate extent, constructed on a means of physical exchange. Whether we like it or not, money is an important factor in our happiness and unhappiness. When a standard of living demands a certain level of income, and that income is no longer achievable, we may suffer. Likewise, if our income levels rise, we may enjoy an improved standard of living. Research has continually shown that distress and unhappiness are worse amongst the poor and disadvantaged. Money on its own won't ultimately solve those problems, but it helps.
8. Physical Setting
Recognised by Abraham Maslow first in 1943 in his paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation 2, our physical surroundings are a crucial influence on happiness and wellbeing. Without a safe haven, a warm and comfortable place to live and perhaps recede from a challenging world, happiness can be elusive. Combined with a lack of money and personal influence, wellbeing may be unachievable.
9. Valued Role
We all need to have the feeling that we are valued. Linking in with factor number six in environmental factors that impact your happiness, occupying a valued role in society is significant. How do you see yourself as a member of your community? Are you making a valued contribution? It doesn't need to be a job, it can be a voluntary role in a community effort. You may offer your time to a charity, or regular time to older folks on your street. Whatever it may be, our sense of belonging and of positive impact on our world is influenced by the role we play.
These nine environmental factors that impact your happiness have been compiled and confirmed by research conducted over many years. Therefore, we can be confident that they are a reliable general summation of the factors that impact our subjective wellbeing. They are not discrete and their impact for any individual may vary depending on stage of live and subjective interpretation. They may group together differently depending on social setting and their absence or presence may not ultimately dictate any individual's happiness. In other words, you may be wealthy or comfortable, but you may not be happy with life.
Finally, from my own particular life experience, I have found happiness to be a moving target–one that we cannot hit. It flows rather than stands still and it's ultimate realisation is unachievable, because without its opposite we cannot experience it. Therefore happiness will only ever arise as a result of relationship. That is what life is – relationship. Pursuing happiness is futile and naive. By pursuing it we say we don't have it, and as such, we never have it. Happiness cannot be predefined because to do so is conceited. Happiness comes about as a result of life, it is the sum-total of life experience, both apparently good and bad, and not a one-sided objectification.