Humans have a complicated relationship with happiness. Consider this study on the subject: Scientists found that valuing happiness can lead to less happiness when you feel happy. It’s an emotional rollercoaster fueled by unhelpful expectations.
Yet the relationship gets more complex still. According to a recent paper published in the journal Psychological Science our current state of well-being can interfere with our perception of the past. Overall, researchers observed an asymmetrical pattern: Happy people tend to overreport an improvement in their well-being, while unhappy people tend to exaggerate a worsening sense of well-being.
First author Alberto Prati is an economist and research fellow at the University of Oxford. Life satisfaction, he explains, is increasingly used as a non-monetary measure of progress. Take, for example, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative that publishes the World Happiness Report. This report ranks countries by how their populations feel, and these metrics, in turn, are used to guide public policy and measure its effectiveness.
Critically, the question “how satisfied are you with your life?” encompasses a person’s past, present, and expected state of well-being, Prati explains. “So, if we want to understand life satisfaction, we need to understand how people reconstruct past happiness,” he says.
An evaluation of four multi-year surveys revealed several insights. These surveys included more than 60,000 adults living in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
One common theme was the tendency to underreport past happiness. This suggested to the researchers that present feelings of happiness come with the implication that the individual feels happier now than they were yesterday. People tend to overstate their improvement in well-being over time.
Most people were also “pretty satisfied” with their life, Prati says. On average, study participants reported a seven on a zero-to-ten happiness scale.
“Most people believe themselves to be happier than they were before,” he says.
The team also observed that — among less happy people — underreporting happiness is more common than overreporting. Prati provides this example: If someone rates their life a three out of seven, they have almost a 20 percent probability of underreporting happiness and about a 10 percent probability of overreporting.
Meanwhile, “happy people recall the evolution of their life to be better than it was,” the study team writes. This finding may explain why happy people tend to perceive risks as lower than average, are more open to new experiences, and are more optimistic. Optimism, in turn, is associated with living a longer, healthier life.
Prati hopes these observed patterns can help inform future surveys of recalled happiness.
“People cannot change their past, but they can — and do — change the way they think about it,” he says. “We need to better understand this process to improve wellbeing measurement.”
Is it possible to be happier?
While we’ve already discussed the paradoxical effects of over-valuing happiness — and it’s discourteous to yourself to think that you should exist in a sustained state of happiness — there are steps you can take to increase your sense of well-being.
While happiness can be a part of well-being, they are not the same: Well-being is a state constructed from many components, including a sense of satisfaction, a sense of control over your life, and the feeling that you enjoy your relationships.
To that end, there are certain actions you can take to cultivate this feeling:
Appropriately, Prati and his colleagues titled their study “Feeling Good is Feeling Better.” And that might be good enough.