Many scholars across the globe including philosophers and theologians have pondered for centuries to finding out what really makes for a good life but to no avail. In recent times, health psychologists are gradually turning their spotlight on the subject by investigating what they called subjective well-being.
One may ask, what is subjective well-being? Many psychologists have described subjective wellbeing as people’s evaluations of their lives in terms of both their thoughts and their emotions. According to Tsaousis et al (2007), the concept subjective well-being is a measure of how happy people are. In our part of the world where some people easily take undue advantage of others, happiness and sadness are opposite sides of a coin for it is widely speculated that, “Whenever one man is happy here another man is equally sad somewhere”.
Research on the topic of well-being and happiness indicates that happy people share several characteristics (Otake et al, 2006). These unique traits include high self-esteem, firm sense of control, optimism, sociability and personal attractiveness.
High self-esteem: Particularly in western cultures, which emphasize the importance of individuality, people who are happy tend to like themselves. They see themselves as more intelligent and better able to get along with others than is the average person. In fact, Taylor et al (2000) opined that, happy people often hold positive illusions or moderately inflated views of themselves as good, competent and desirable.
Firm sense of control: Happy people feel more in control of events in their lives, unlike those who feel they are pawns of others and who experience learned helplessness.
Optimism: Individuals who experience happiness are perceived to be optimistic and their optimism permits them to persevere in the highly sophisticated technological world and ultimately achieve more in life. Peterson (2000) was of the view that, happy people have better health than those on the other side of the equation.
In terms of Sociability, happy people like to be around others. They tend to be extraverted and have a supportive network of close relationships. As for personal attractiveness, consensus seems to have been building strongly among the general public that happy people are generally more pleasant in their physical outlook.
Are there any sources of happiness? Yes, sources of happiness vary across cultures. Individual difference also plays a significant role. In a materialistic world like ours, a sizeable portion of the population holds the view that, well-being and happiness are about personal wealth, absence of diseases or infirmity, getting a romantic partner, obtaining excellent grades in school among others.
In fact, to the party footsoldier in a highly partisan, polarized society, well-being and happiness are about having one’s political party of affiliation being in power. God saves Ghana! However, in the religious sense of the word, happiness is all about being faithful and doing the will of one’s creator.
It appears the pursuit of happiness is a right given to humanity by nature. But the question is, is there any human being who does not yearn to be happy in this world? I doubt! Experts have warned that anybody who seeks happiness must be careful because according to them (experts), not all roads to happiness are smooth. There is evidence that seeking pleasure as a way to be happy could actually be the wrong focus in life.
Seeking and living a life of pleasure might make you happy in the short run, but without deeper meaning it could make you miserable over time. Like sugar, it is sweet and gratifying while consumed, but has undesirable side effects in the long run. Drugs, sex without love, and rich food all provide short-term gratification since they might make you happy for a while only to be followed by a feeling of emptiness over time.
Research shows that people who pursue happiness are takers. They take from life as much as possible, in any way that will gratify them, and as soon as possible. When a person who is dependent on instant gratification is not given the pleasure they insist on having, they feel like a baby who is pulled away from their mother’s breast. They cry with or without tears depending on their age.
So, what really makes people happy? Available empirical evidence shows that people who have a meaningful life are givers and not takers. At times they may be miserable. Giving and sacrificing are hard work, but in the long run they fulfill. Take parenting as an example, it does not make you happy to have a rebellious teenager, but over time there will be moments of absolute happiness, like when grandchildren arrive. So, pursuing happiness by seeking immediate rewards is instantly gratifying, but can make you miserable in the long run.
According to rational motive theory propounded by Albert Ellis (19773-1995) thoughts may be rational or irrational. Many psychological problems stem from how we think about and interpret events in our lives. Positivity about ourselves and others is a key step to achieving psychological well-being and happiness.
Finally, as a budding psychologist drawing inspiration from the psychosocial development theory propounded by Erik Erickson, I personally believe that true psychological well-being and happiness are fully achieved when we make positive impact on the lives of the needy and vulnerable in society.
David Banaaleh (King-Dave)
Founder/CEO, Generational Advocates for Psycho-Solutions (GAPS)