Do you need to be happy to lead a fulfilling life?

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What's more important: Being happy? Or dealing well with sadness? Two leading experts take different views

For more than 30 years, University of Illinois Professor Ed Diener has been collecting and synthesising data on happiness and wellbeing at the population level. His findings validate the wisdom that many less credentialed people have been sharing for generations: Happiness is good for you.

Diener argues that happiness is not merely the result of success, achievement, good health or strong relationships; but that in many cases it precedes these things. Good things happen to happy people.

“There’s a virtuous circle—when people are in a good mood they are more likely to be altruistic—but when you give money, that makes you feel better too,” Diener says. “When people are in a good mood they're more creative; their thinking is more flexible than when they are in a neutral mood.”

Happy people live significantly longer, and have a higher quality of life too.

Diener cites research such as the famous ‘nun study’ published in 2001, where researchers analysed the emotional content of autobiographies written by 180 nuns when they were in their early 20s, just as they entered convent. Sixty years later, the  nuns who had the most cheerful disposition at the start of adulthood lived on average more than 10 years longer than those who had been least cheerful.

photo courtesy of Ed Diener

photo courtesy of Ed Diener

That study is no anomaly, although a decade is certainly on the high end of findings. The life expectancy gap between unhappy people and very happy people in economically developed nations seems t.o fall between four and 10 years, Diener and colleague Micaela Chan report. In 2012 they published a review of empirical evidence from dozens of international studies in a diverse range of populations.

"The evidence was clear and compelling that happiness leads to longevity, but not only do people live longer, they’re healthier too,” Diener sums up. 

Even when you control for negative emotions, happier people have stronger cardiovascular systems, they seem to have less plaque in their arteries, less inflammation, and stronger immune systems, making them better able to fight off cold or flu.

“We know there are exceptions,” he qualifies.  “It’s not a guarantee any more than smoking is a guarantee you’ll die of cancer.”

Listening to Diener speak, you get a sense of bigger perspective: he uses the data he collects to advocate passionately for government policy aimed at improving wellbeing at the population level. He acknowledges the role both genetics and external factors play in happiness, but says there’s still much that is within our control.

But some of his colleagues suggest that happiness may be over-emphasised.

Professor Todd Kashdan never mentions Diener by name, but listening to him speak at the same conference, there’s an implication he believes such focus may be misplaced.

Todd Kashdan, photo provided by Happiness & its causes.

Todd Kashdan, photo provided by Happiness & its causes.

“When I’m asked around the world, what can you do to increase someone’s happiness, the answer I always give is to increase their capacity to experience pain and tolerate distress,” Kashdan says.

“We know there’s an abundance of research that if you have a preponderance of negative emotion in your life you tend to have poor outcomes,” Kashdan says. “But there’s a problem with this research in that it’s focused on averages.”

“The average person with a lot of negative emotions has problems, but what I want to argue is that it’s not only too simplistic, it leads to erroneous conclusions,” he continues.  “Because if you have a preponderance of negative emotions but you’re good at being aware of them, understanding them and clarifying them, they’re no longer toxic; they’re just information that you can actually use…”

Some people only express their emotions in general terms such as good or bad, while others can identify the nuances, for example distinguishing between sad, anxious, angry, tired, distracted or fatigued.

Different emotions lead to a propensity toward different actions—for example shame may create the desire to cower, while guilt may lead to desire to repair wrongdoing.  

By clarifying and precisely defining our feelings, we know which action tendencies are being activated, says Kashdan, and that can create freedom to pause and decide whether to alter your behavior or change directions.

A few years ago Kashdan and some of his colleagues conducted a study to see whether peoples’ ability to differentiate between emotions would correlate to their likelihood of self-medicating with alcohol. Over a three-week period, they monitored 106 social drinkers between the ages of 18 to 20 in the US and assessed their propensity to label and clarify their negative experiences.

They found that when participants experienced intense negative emotion before drinking, those who were poor at differentiating their emotions had a 54% probability of a binge-drinking episode. By contrast, participants who were skilled at differentiating emotions in more nuanced ways. had a 22% chance.

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People who excelled at differentiating emotions averaged 49 drinks in a 30 day period, while their peers who were poor at it averaged 81 drinks over the same period.

Kashdan’s research has highlighted the usefulness of emotional literacy in other contexts, including recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, minimising aggression when angry, and overcoming phobias.

He believes resilience takes precedence over happiness—and developing emotional intelligence may be one tool toward achieving that.

As for Diener, he says the data speaks for itself.

“Todd is right in that most research, virtually all, deals with averages,” he says.  “We are not to the point of sophistication where many of these conclusions are qualified…So in general anger and sadness are bad for performance, relations, and health… At least chronic negative emotions are bad, and that seems pretty general across studies.”

But are there people who frequently have negative emotions, yet know how to handle and direct them in such a way that the gaps in longevity and health are negated?

“I would say that is certainly possible, but know of no evidence to support this,” Diener says. “Unlike many, I am mostly an empiricist-- I look for findings. I am not smart enough to simply figure things out in my mind. So if there are individuals who are unhappy a lot and handle those emotions well and then do well-- I would say that could be true. But I do not know.”

What do you think?

Find out more about next year’s Happiness Conference here.