Wednesday, February 06, 2008

High Levels of Happiness: Too Much of a Good Thing?

An interesting report of research passed along by a reader suggests that people who are happy enjoy many benefits over those who are unhappy. Specifically, those who report high levels of happiness tend to be more successful in their work and social lives than those who claim low levels of happiness.

But what of the group of people who rate their happiness at the very top of the continuum? Do extreme levels of happiness lead to exceedingly happy outcomes?

According to the research of Ed Diener and colleagues, the answer is mixed. Those who report very high levels of happiness fare worse in achievement measures than those who claim high, but more moderate levels of happiness. How can this be?

One possibility is that the people who claim to be very happy are responding in a defensive way, refusing to acknowledge any life problems. Rather than reflect a true surfeit of happiness, the questionnaires might be capturing an elevated—and inaccurate—self- image.

Mitigating against this interpretation is the fact that the very high happiness group does report higher degrees of relationship success than other groups. It is in the area of achievement that they seem to fall short.

This raises another possibility. To be extremely happy, one must be fully content with one’s present situation. All of us have enjoyed moments of joy when everything just seemed to be perfect.

My experience with very successful traders is that few of them exhibit such joy. They experience pride in their success, but “content” and “satisfied” would not be words I would use to describe them. Once they reach their goals, they tend to move the goalposts. They view contentment and satisfaction as enemies, as emotional traps that can lead to stagnation.

That isn’t to say that successful traders are perfectionists: many times their goals are realistic (though challenging), and they don’t belittle their own achievements. Rather, they seem interested in achievement for the sake of achieving: they love the process of surmounting peaks. Once at the summit, they naturally look for other mountains to climb.

It takes a certain level of discomfort to move us to action—even if that discomfort is nothing more than perceiving the gap between the real and the ideal. Extreme happiness may represent a relative absence of discomfort: satisfaction with the real as it is. Is that a bad thing? It may yield a fine quality of life and seems to work well for relationships.

But it doesn’t seem to be the hallmark of the highest achievers.


Subjective Well-Being

Improving Well-Being