Measuring Happiness

About Positive Emotions and Life satisfaction



Positive emotions serve as markers of flourishing or optimal well-being. They are described as the central component of happiness. People who enjoy frequent positive emotions and experience few negative emotions, along with a judgement that their life is satisfying, are considered happy. A number of studies shows that people in a positive mood act quite differently than when they are in a bad mood. Certainly moments in people's lives characterized by experiences of positive emotions—such as joy, interest, contentment, love, and the like—are moments in which they are not plagued by negative emotions—such as anxiety, sadness, anger, and despair. Consistent with this intuition, the overall balance of people's positive and negative emotions has been shown to predict their judgments of subjective well-being (Diener, Sandvik, &Pavot, 1991). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests that positive emotions (viz. enjoyment/happiness/joy and perhaps interest/enthusiasm) broaden one's awareness and also encourage novel, varied and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. According to William (2005) the negative emotions provoke prompt, narrow and immediate survival-oriented behaviours. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival. On the other hand, positive emotions do not have any immediate survival value, because they take one's mind off immediate needs and stressors. However, over time, the skills and resources built by broadened behavior enhance survival. According to Fredrickson (2001), when a life-threatening event occurs, people typically have a narrow range of possible responses or urges. Having a limited number of urges, called specific action tendencies, quickens a person’s response time in these situations.  While negative emotions experienced during life-threatening situations narrow an individual’s thought-action repertoire, positive emotions present new possibilities, providing the individual with a wider range of thoughts and actions to choose and act upon. It shows that those experiencing positive affect show an increased preference for variety and accept a broader array of behavioural options (Kahn &Isen, 1993). The distinct types of positive emotions serve to broaden people's momentary thought–action repertoires, whereas distinct types of negative emotions serve to narrow these same repertoires. Research has shown that people experiencing positive affect show patterns of thought that are notably unusual flexible, creative, integrative, open to information and efficient. They have also shown that those experiencing positive affect show increased preference for variety and accept a broader array of behavioural options. In general terms, positive affect produces a broad, flexible cognitive organization and ability to integrate diverse material effects linked to increases in brain dopamine levels (Isen & Means 1983; Isen et al. 1991). According to broaden and build theory the positive emotions broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. This suggests that positive emotions guide the thoughts to life satisfaction.
Life satisfaction is a judgemental process in which individual assess the quality of their life such as health and successful relationships. Individual are more likely to assign different weights to these components. It is the way a person perceives how his or her life has been and how they feel about where it is going in the future. Life satisfaction has been measured in relation to economic standing, amount of education, experiences, and the people's residence as well as many other things. Seligman (2002) uses a formula for happiness that encompasses the factors that go into general happiness. The formula is H = S + C + V. therefore life satisfaction depends upon these three factors.
H stands for a person's enduring level of happiness
S is the set range (or biological boundaries)
C is the circumstances of a person's life
V is the factors under a person's voluntary control
1. Enduring level of happiness:  It is a sense of well-being and joy that lasts rather than a temporary or momentary sense of gratification.  It is easy to find instant pleasure or gratification experiences, but living a life of enduring happiness is much more of a challenge – and only humans have the capacity to experience it. There is a huge role of positive emotions in increasing the enduring level of happiness. When people start experiencing positive emotions they experience happy and satisfied with their life.
2. Set Range: A “Biological Set Point” is described as one’s inherited potential for happiness and it accounts for approximately 50% of our happiness. The biological set point helps to explain why some people “naturally” see the glass as half-full while others see it as half-empty.  In research involving identical twins, psychologists discovered that each person has a genetically produced natural bent to be either optimistic or pessimistic and there is nothing that can be done to alter it.  A person’s level of happiness can temporarily rise above or fall below their natural set point during unusual circumstances such as winning the lottery or losing a loved one.  However, when their life gets back to normal, their level of happiness gradually makes its way back to their biological set point. Although most people attribute the bulk of their happiness to the conditions in their life, studies reveal that they only account for about 10% of our happiness.  So regardless of your gender, race, geographic location, financial status, quality of marriage or the weather, only a small fraction of your happiness is negatively or positively impacted. Thus positive emotions can increase your life satisfaction.
3. Circumstances of the Person: Our circumstances, like health, wealth, social life and education do impact our level of happiness. Researchers have identified many of the long term circumstances that are elements of happiness and contribute to ones feeling of happiness.
4. Person’s Voluntary Control: There are some factors on which a person has their voluntary control like their thoughts and actions. Making all the voluntary actions positive will contribute in person’s life satisfaction.
Suh and colleagues (1998) examined the direct links among positive emotions, negative emotions, and life satisfaction judgment in two large sets of international data. Using the World Values Survey data from 41 countries, they found that across nations, positive thinking was, on average, as strongly correlated with life satisfaction as negative thinking. However, in their second study, the responses of college students from 40 countries indicated that positive emotions were more strongly correlated with life satisfaction as compared with negative emotions. Also Lucas et al. (1996) found that the correlations between life satisfaction and positive emotions were always greater than correlations between life satisfaction and negative emotions
Research has shown that when people make judgments about life satisfaction, hedonic balance (i.e., the proportion of positive/pleasant emotions to negative/unpleasant emotions experienced) serves as an important source of information. Above all, many studies conclude that positive emotions have influence on life satisfaction of a person as a whole. Positive emotions provide happiness of optimal level that is needed for a person to become satisfied. According to broaden and built theory positive emotions are the central component of happiness. People experiencing positive states are in a good mood so they feel very satisfied and happy. Life satisfaction for a human being is a process in which he/ she has reached a level that he/she can say that he/she is not unhappy or there is not any  sadness left in them. Only then they can say that they have reached the level of life satisfaction. Positive emotions may not completely eradicate the negative emotions from a person’s life, but   have a strong and permanent influence on life satisfaction.
Author is Clinical psychologist and Researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Reach him at

Lastupdate on : Tue, 14 May 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Tue, 14 May 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Wed, 15 May 2013 00:00:00 IST

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