January 29, 2002

Exploring Life at the Top of the Happiness Scale

In the annals of psychology, misery has always taken center stage.

Textbooks are replete with accounts of the melancholy, the fearful, the neurotic and the delusional. The dysfunctional have been minutely deconstructed, the despairing given unstinting scrutiny.

But what about those at the other extreme of the emotional spectrum? Who has bothered to take stock of the especially gladsome and buoyant? Who has plumbed the mysteries of the utterly content?

If systematic investigation is used as a benchmark, the answer is: Not many.

But in a new study, two psychologists have begun to address this legacy of neglect.

The researchers, Dr. Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, identified 22 college undergraduates who scored in the top 10 percent on a variety of measures of happiness. They then compared those very happy students with 60 others who were average in happiness and 24 who were very unhappy.

The happiest students, the study found, differed from the other groups in consistent ways. They were more social, spent less time alone and reported strong relationships with friends, family and romantic partners. They were more extroverted, more agreeable and less neurotic than their unhappy or somewhat happy peers.

And on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a personality test whose scales measure a smorgasbord of mental pathologies, they scored the lowest of the three groups. (One exception was the test's hypomania scale, an index sensitive to high energy and ebullient spirits, on which six very happy participants received high scores.)

Satisfied with their lives, the very happy students "had virtually never thought about suicide, could recall many more good events in their lives than bad ones and reported many more positive than negative emotions on a daily basis," wrote Dr. Diener and Dr. Seligman in their report, which appears in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

But the researchers found no link between happiness and behaviors that in previous studies had been associated with general well-being. The happiest students did not exercise more, get more sleep or attend church services more frequently than their less happy counterparts.

Dr. Diener said that although strong social bonds appeared necessary for happiness - every very happy student had them - a rich social life was not in itself sufficient to guarantee happiness. Some members of the very unhappy group also reported good relationships and frequent socializing. Nor was it clear from the study if being very happy led to more satisfying relationships or vice versa.

And lest anyone conclude that an abundance of happiness equals uninterrupted bliss, the psychologists noted that even the happiest students had their bad days and low moods, confirming that their emotional systems were in working order, not stuck in a single, blithesome mode.

"Virtually none of them are at a 10 and nobody stays at a 10," Dr. Diener said. "So many people say, `I want to be happier than I am now.' There is this expectation of being super happy."

In fact, Dr. Diener said, unpleasant emotions not only signal that something is wrong, but motivate people to make necessary changes.

Dr. David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich., said the study's findings underscored the importance of "our deep need to belong and to connect with others in deep relationships."

But he said it was curious that, given the results of previous work, neither exercise nor religious practice seemed associated with being happier than average.

For his part, Dr. Seligman said jokingly that he was somewhat dismayed by the results of the study.

"These were not the findings I was hoping for," Dr. Seligman said. "As an introverted intellectual who spends a lot of time reading, it tells me that I'm not going to be a good candidate for the upper 10 percent."

He added, however, that in his view, there were probably different forms of happiness. One type, Dr. Seligman said, has more to do with raw feelings, "the giggles and pleasures and joys," of life. The other is closer to what Aristotle called "eudaemonia" ("good spirit"), a state characterized by engagement, flow and immersion in life activities.

In a study that asked "How often are you immersed in what you are doing?" Dr. Seligman said, he might even make it into the happiest group.