February 28, 2011

How do you score on a happiness test? Here’s a simple test designed by Ed Diener to measure your subjective sense of well-being. Score each question 1 to 7, with 7 representing “strongly agree,” 6, “agree,” 5, “slightly agree,” 4,”neither agree nor disagree,” 3, “slightly disagree,” 2, “disagree” and 1, “strongly disagree.”

1)    In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

2)    The conditions of my life are excellent.

3)    I am satisfied with my life.

4)    So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

5)    If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Add up your score. People who score high on scales such as this report positive emotions, such as curiosity, joy, delight, interest and contentment, most of the time. If your total score is below 20, you could be a lot happier.

There is an interesting notion embedded in Diener’s little test: happiness has more to do with satisfaction with one’s self and one’s life than any particular achievement, attribute, or status. People often enter therapy having unsuccessfully tried to achieve happiness through some other means. Some have pursued and achieved “success,” which they defined as gaining higher status, earning a certain amount of money, or achieving recognition at work or in other endeavors. And yet, they found reaching the goal empty of meaning. Some have imagined they would feel good if they were the right weight, or in a better relationship, only to find they were no more contented thin than fat, married than single. Others have simply sought temporary comfort and refuge from pain and self-loathing in food, alcohol, or drugs. None of these strategies predictably leads to satisfaction with one’s self and one’s life, the twin correlates of self-reported happiness.

Are some of us just predisposed to be happier than others? Nature certainly has something to do with it. As mothers will affirm, some babies are calmer, cry less and adapt more easily to changes in their environment than others. Adding to the argument of genetic predisposition are studies of identical twins separated at birth. If one twin has an anxiety disorder, for example, the other has a much greater chance of having an anxiety disorder than would be expected in the general population, and that incidence is also higher than among fraternal twins.  Yet, nature is not, in itself, determinant—though Identical Twin #2 may have the same genetic tendencies as his brother, he may never develop an anxiety disorder—which brings us to the “nurture” argument. Studies show environmental factors which result in chronic and severe stress, such as illness, poverty, neglect, abuse, loss of a loved one, divorce or loss of a job, are correlated with higher incidence of depression and anxiety.