Happiness reconsidered

Happiness reconsidered

by Robert Biswas-Diener of www.intentionalhappiness.com

A group of experts on happiness representing economics, marketing, public policy, psychology, history and philosophy recently had our third meeting. The issue that captured our collective imagination was the question of whether happiness is an “inside-out” or “outside-in” phenomenon. How much do our circumstances matter to our happiness, and how much of our happiness is a matter of attitude?

A very good case can be made for “outside-in.” There is little question that people’s surroundings impact their happiness. The amount of public trust in government, one’s income level, the happiness of those around you, the quality of health care, the presence or absence of war, one’s health….. all of these matter to your happiness. If you believe that government should exist, and one function of government is to enact policies that will increase collective well-being, then this is an implicit endorsement of the idea that circumstances matter.

Circumstances cannot be the last word, however. Happiness is a subjectively experienced phenomenon and happiness judgments are arrived at through our understanding and interpretation of the events around us. We may get a better return on investment by trying to adjust our attitude rather than adjusting our circumstances.

In the end, it probably matters whether we are talking about the happiness of an individual or the happiness of society. Whether we are trying to impact our own levels of happiness or the happiness of others. For individuals, happiness may largely be an “inside-out” phenomenon and adjusting attitudes and mindsets may be helpful for maximizing happiness. For the collective and when affecting the happiness of others, on the other hand, there might be a better return on investment by addressing life circumstances.

Where in your life do you strive for better circumstances, and where do you shift your attitude? How do you know when to do each?