Research roundup: Striving for happiness

This issue looks at some of the current research on happiness and strategies for finding it.

By Nicole Owings-Fonner, MA

Happiness, well-being, contentment. We are all searching for it. Internet advice articles on how to achieve it abound. Its pursuit is even written into the Declaration of Independence. It’s no surprise that many professionals, from economists to sociologists, have spent large amounts of time studying why some individuals are happier than others. Recent research in the field of psychology has pointed to a variety of paths individuals can take to increase their odds of finding happiness.

The following studies examine multiple approaches for facilitating happiness and consider several factors that may hinder the efficacy or ease of engagement of these activities.

In addition to reviewing the following research summaries, psychologists are encouraged to explore the literature more completely to determine what may be useful to them in practice.

Schiffer, L.P., & Roberts, T.A. (2018). The paradox of happiness: Why are we not. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(3), 252-259.

Previous research has documented that happiness is best obtained through “flow” activities that require active psychic and physical investment by the individual (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). In a culture increasingly attached to passive entertainment and electronic devices, Schiffer and Roberts conducted two studies to help identify whether people are aware that engaging in flow activities best facilitates long-term happiness, and then, with this knowledge, are they engaging more in flow activities or in passive activities on a weekly basis. They further explored what reasons individuals had for choosing more passive activities.

In Study 1, 95 participants ranging in age from 22 to 60 years old, with a mean age of 34, completed a survey asking them to rate 36 activities on how enjoyable, how much effort is required to initiate, how daunting it is to get started and how often they engage in the activity in a typical week. Eighteen of the activities were previously rated as requiring high physical and psychic involvement (exercising, journaling, making art, cooking) and while an additional 18 had been appraised as more passive (checking social media, watching T.V., surfing the internet, listening to music). After completing the ratings, participants were then asked to pick five of the activities that they thought best facilitated long-term happiness and five that were least conducive to long-term happiness. Participants reported that flow activities facilitate long-term happiness better than passive activities. However, participants rated the individual flow activities as significantly less enjoyable, requiring more energy, and as more daunting or intimidating to initiate. The authors were surprised to find that it was not the effort variable that predicted people’s weekly engagement with flow and more passive activities, but that enjoyment alone predicted the frequency with which people engaged in passive leisure. For flow activities, enjoyment predicted frequency of engagement and a high daunting-ness rating was a significant barrier to enjoyment.

Study 2 wished to explore whether limiting participants’ nominations of which activities were most or least conducive to happiness to five activities may have biased the findings in Study 1. Participants may have nominated what they perceived to be the more representative or inclusive activities and not evaluated each activity individually (i.e., selecting exercise and not also individual sports, or choosing surf the internet and not also check social media). Two hundred and two participants ages 19 to 68 with a mean age of 33 participated by rating each activity in terms of enjoyment, effort, daunting-ness and frequency of engagement per week. They were then asked to rate how conducive each activity was to facilitate long-term happiness on a Likert scale. As in Study 1, results showed that participants rated the passive activities as significantly more enjoyable and the flow activities as requiring more effort and being more daunting to undertake than the passive ones. Passive activities were also engaged in more frequently in a typical week than flow activities. Using a Likert scale system instead of the nomination system from Study 1, participants rated the flow activities as significantly more conductive to facilitating long-term happiness than the passive activities. An analysis of frequency of the two types of activities using rated enjoyment, effort and intimidation (“daunting-ness”) resulted in findings similar to Study 1 — enjoyment alone predicted the frequency with which people engaged in passive leisure and, for flow activities, enjoyment predicted frequency of engagement, and the daunting factor was a significant barrier to enjoyment.

Lee, M.A. (2018). Volunteering and happiness: Examining the differential effects of volunteering types according to household income. Journal of Happiness Studies. Advance online publication.

A variety of studies have documented the positive association between volunteering and self-rated happiness and life satisfaction (e.g., Binder 2015; Han 2014). But does the type of volunteering matter? And does the volunteer’s economic standing influence the association? In the following study, Lee aimed to examine those questions.

Data analyses were conducted using 1396 responses to the 2012 Korean General Social Survey, a nationally representative cross-sectional survey conducted in South Korea using procedures that conform to those used for the General Social Survey funded by the National Science Foundation in the U.S. Three different types of volunteering were explored: improving a residential community (environmental improvement, crime watch, community revitalization, etc.); having an educational purpose (coaching sports, promoting traditional culture, providing technical knowledge or skills, etc.); and helping socially vulnerable groups (individuals with disabilities, children, elderly, people in poverty, immigrants, etc.). Happiness, sociodemographic factors and other covariates such as personality traits, generalized trust and health were all self-rated/reported.

Results showed that about 24 percent of respondents participated in at least one type of volunteering. Mean happiness was significantly higher for those participants when compared to nonvolunteers. After controlling for sociodemographic factors, volunteering for residential communities and for socially vulnerable groups were each significantly associated with happiness; volunteering for educational purpose was not. However, when controlling for personality traits, generalized trust and self-rated health the significant association disappeared. Further analyses suggested that personality traits influence participation in volunteering for socially vulnerable groups and self-rated health influences participation in volunteering for residential communities.

An inspection of the interactions between volunteering types and household income revealed that the association between volunteering for socially vulnerable groups was more positively associated with happiness as income level increased. Further examination demonstrated that for those having high income levels, volunteering for vulnerable groups was strongly beneficial to happiness, but for those with lower income levels, volunteering for vulnerable groups had the opposite effect- volunteers with lower income levels had lower levels of happiness than nonvolunteers with the same income levels.

Whillans, A.V., Dunn, E.W., Smeets, P., Bekkers, R., & Norton, M.I. (2017). Buying time promotes happiness. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(32), 8523-8527.

As incomes have increased in multiple countries, so have reported levels of “time stress” (Hamermesh & Lee, 2007), and with it, reduced happiness (Roxburgh, 2004; Hoge, 2009). The authors discussed and hypothesized that using discretionary income to buy free time through the purchase of time saving activities like cleaning and cooking services would reduce time stress and, thereby, promote well-being.

To test their hypothesis, they utilized multiple surveys of large, diverse samples of adults from the United States, Denmark, Canada and The Netherlands. In all of the surveys, participants reported demographic information as well as annual household income and the number of hours they worked per week. They also completed two items regarding their spending to increase their free time by paying someone else to carry out chores and rated their satisfaction with life. Additionally, the Canadian and Dutch respondents completed a measure of time stress. Of the 4,469 respondents, 28 percent spend money to buy themselves time each month (averaging $147.95). Respondents who spent money in this way reported significantly greater life satisfaction, both as a whole and within each national sample. The effect was not moderated by income or wealth. Further analysis with the 2,376 Dutch and Canadian samples found a significant interaction between time-saving purchases and time stress suggesting that using money to buy time does in fact buffer people from the negative effects of time stress on well-being.

The authors conducted additional studies to further test their hypothesis. A new sample of 1,802 working adults in the United States reported their spending on other purchases such as groceries and material and experiential purchases to ensure that it wasn’t simply having a higher discretionary income that accounted for the increased happiness of those who spent money on time-saving purchases. The previous results that respondents who spent money on time-saving purchases reported greater life satisfaction were confirmed regardless of the amount of money spent on other purchases. To determine a causal path between buying time and happiness, a final two-week within-subjects experiment was conducted with 60 working adults from Vancouver. Participants were asked to spend two payments of $40 on two consecutive weekends — one on a purchase that would save time, the other on a material purchase. The order of the spending weeks was counterbalanced to control for threats to internal validity. After making each purchase, participants reported their feelings of positive affect, negative affect and time stress. Analysis found that participants reported greater end-of-day positive affect and lower levels of negative affect and feelings of time stress after making a time saving purchase than after making a material one. Tests of indirect effects demonstrated that time-saving compared with material purchases increased positive affect by reducing feelings of time stress and that the same pattern held true for negative affect.

Clinical implications

The studies presented above offer a deeper look at steps individuals can take to increase their well-being or to pursue happiness. Psychologists may wish to incorporate encouragement of these activities into their therapy sessions, patient education, or as homework assignments for their clients.

Simply encouraging flow activities instead of more passive leisure may not be enough for some clients, and clinicians could spend time during sessions working with the client to help reduce the initiation effort or daunting-ness of these activities. Helping individuals ease the physical transition into flow activities is one technique — for example, have clients pack for the gym the night before and/or pick a gym location close to home or work; discuss setting up required materials in advance such as a journal and pen by their bed; or preparing an easel and paintbrushes when they are at their most energetic. Discussions regarding the conflict between immediate pleasure and delayed enjoyment (after the initial minutes of biking or running, or after an activity is actually over) may also be helpful.

While the benefits of volunteering have been documented, psychologists may want to consider the characteristics and contexts as well as the social conditions that volunteers experience to best assist in increasing their client’s well-being. Although beneficial for other reasons, volunteering for educational purposes was not significantly associated with happiness. Further, volunteers with economic difficulty might experience frustration and hopelessness if they identify themselves with the socially vulnerable groups they are assisting.

Practitioners with clients who are experiencing stress related to every-day time pressures may wish to educate them regarding the potential benefits of making time-saving purchases. This may require discussions surrounding cultural obligations or expectations, particularly of women, to complete household tasks themselves. Additionally, psychologists could encourage organizations and policymakers to move beyond their focus on promoting financial affluence to promoting time affluence as well.