There’s a theory that the only way to maximize well-being is by being consistently happy.
Some countries even use happiness indicators to measure how well their political and economic systems are working out for their citizens. Happiness researchers tell us that even though we look forward to major life events such as getting married and having children, when we actually experience them we are inevitably disappointed—and that’s bad. (No matter that it’s hard to imagine how anyone would truly be in ecstasy every time a diaper needed changing.)
Think about the happiest moments in your life, whether with family, on your own, or enjoying a huge success at work. In all honesty, as good as those times were, were you ever truly overwhelmed with 100% pure joy? Let’s say you’re having a romantic moment with your partner, feeling perhaps more love than you’ve ever felt in your life. Are you happy? For sure. However, can you state with certainty that no emotions of sadness were in your consciousness? Or that a part of your mind didn’t wander off to the fact that tomorrow you’ve got to go out of town? Or that the thought didn’t creep into your awareness that the moment would inevitably end soon?
Obviously, there’s more to life than simple happiness. As I’ve found in my own research, fulfillment doesn’t always equal happiness. You can be completely miserable on any given day but still feel that you’re working toward achieving important goals that will promote your fulfillment. Sure, a diaper may not be fun to change, but that little person gives you a deeper sense of pleasure than all the carefree nights you’ve spent out with your friends. That person needing your care doesn’t have to be little, either. Research on caregiver in later adulthood shows that as stressful as it can be, those who provide assistance to spouses or relatives often report feeling higher levels of subjective well-being than happiness theory would predict.
It’s quite likely that we need to learn over the course of our lives that happiness isn’t the be-all and end-all of feeling reasonably satisfied with our experiences. Further, we also learn that it’s pretty difficult to feel 100% happy, so we come to accept the particular blend of joy and sadness that many of life’s moments provide. According to Differential Emotions Theory, with age and experience, our thoughts and feelings become more complex and elaborated. Our appreciation for the subtleties of experiences and events allows us to live more comfortably with the fact that nothing is ever 100% positive or negative.
The University of Southern California’s Stefan Schneider and Arthur Stone (2015) tested for the presence of mixed emotions by age group using two nationally representative survey panels of individuals living in the United States aged 15 to 90. They asked participants to recall the events of the previous day and then to rate three of those events for happiness using two different rating scales. One scale posed the question: “From 0 to 6, how (happy/sad) did you feel during this time?” The second scale used a slightly different prompt: “From 0 to 6, where a 0 means you were not (happy/sad) at all and a 6 means you were very (happy/sad), how (happy/sad) did you feel during this time?”