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, Warr draws on thousands of happiness and well-being studies to suggest nine primary environmental factors that impact our happiness. These environmental influences apply to all areas of our lives, including business, work and career, sport, and home life, and majorly impact our subjective well-being. But they don't act alone; how we perceive ourselves and the world plays a role.
Larry G. Maguire
MSc. Org Psych., BA (hons) Psych., M.Ps.S.I., M.A.C.
I'm a work & org psychologist, writer and researcher. From an academic base in psychology and 20+ years in business, I aim to assist workers, the self-employed, executives and organisations to find clarity and direction in daily work.
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 of 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 many people's lives.
Researchers recognise that when we speak of personal happiness, we are usually referring to an object, a person, a place or an experience. Our focus widens as we 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 or the soft drink you reach for at lunchtime. Feature-specific happiness refers to your positive feelings, and although you may say these things not to 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, and 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 well-being.
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Worldly Factors That Impact Your Happiness
In examining the apparent ranges of happiness experiences 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 examinations, we leave things out. Life does not occur in discrete handy packets despite our need for order. Life is complex beyond the ability of human brains to understand ultimately; therefore, we must accept that these concepts merely allow us to talk about things.
Therefore, as we discuss these nine environmental factors that impact your happiness, keep in mind that we are generalising. Warr (2019) 2 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 can, in some small way, remove yourself from harm or 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 an 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, culminating in our personal expertise development. 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 well-being 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, actions, and outlook. In a sports setting, for example, the boundaries are set, and the goal is clear. We've practised the actions relentlessly, so our requirements 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 teammates, 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.
To both a fortunate and unfortunate extent, our world is 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 3, our physical surroundings are a crucial influence on happiness and well-being. Happiness can be elusive without a safe haven, a warm and comfortable place to live and perhaps recede from a challenging world. A lack of money and personal influence may make well-being unachievable.
9. Valued Role
We all need to have the feeling that we are valued. Linking 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 positive impact on our world is influenced by our role.
Research conducted over many years has compiled and confirmed these nine environmental factors that impact your happiness. Therefore, we can be confident that they are a reliable general summation of the factors that impact our subjective well-being. They are not discrete, and their impact on any individual may vary depending on the stage of life and subjective interpretation. They may group together differently depending on the 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 not happy with life.
Finally, from my own life experience, I have found happiness to be a moving target–one we cannot hit. It flows rather than stands still, and its 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 – relationships. 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.
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Susan Decker says
Our constitution guarantees our right to pursue happiness.
This however, is a personal quest with respect for others rights in all moral areas.
I have changed my course of travel through life several times as others circumstances you list above began burying my dream of happiness , or “my place” as I have visualized it. This came about
unfortunately, because the others I was associated with, tried to forced me into their ideas of life happiness and took the largest share of my accomplishments,( $),when I walked away onto my own path once again.
Today, I am 76 with arthritis and starting over once again.
I sit in my recliner chair with a view of Table Mountain out one open window and the smell of the pines and sound of the wren who just arrived back from his southern wintering in my ears to the west oft the deck.
This day I am reading and learning and drifting into my world of the painting I am working and living in. At this time, this moment, I am Happy.
Latter today I will start up the worry about how to pay the rent with a new manifestation of “my place” of happiness. I see a studio with glass windows all around with light and sunshine on my easel and my recliner.
” He who binds to himself a joy does the wingeth life destroy
but he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Blake
Your writing makes me happy right now.
David Terrell says
So in the end, Thoreau’s quote is right? “Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.”
You seem to be giving steps to happiness, or at least defining areas of life and thought that often are elements of happiness, and at the end of your essay you posit the inability to find or even define happiness. My entire Western civilization-drenched being is disappointed, drowned in depression, and imprisoned in hopelessness for the rest of my miserable life.
Happiness never existed anywhere in the past, there is no possibility of happiness existing at any time in the future. It may or may not exist now.
Happiness is in the end, you seem to imply, the sound of one hand clapping.
Well, Mr. Terrell, it seems you’ve figured me out!