What is it that makes someone feel that theirs is a “good life”? Of all the ideas put forward over the past few millennia, two are most often extolled and researched today. The first is hedonistic wellbeing, often called simply “happiness”, which is characterised by plenty of positive emotions and general life satisfaction. The other is “eudaimonia” — feeling that your life has meaning and that you are realising your potential. Now in a new paper in Psychological Review, Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia and Erin Westgate at the University of Florida suggest that we’ve been missing something: “psychological richness”.
Awe, compassion, love, gratitude… research papers and media stories about these emotions abound. Indeed, the past decade has seen an explosion in work on positive emotions — essentially, emotions that involve pleasant rather than unpleasant feelings. However, very little has been done to explore which distinct feelings, thoughts and motivations characterise each one, argue Aaron Weidman and Jessica Tracy at the University of British Columbia. In a new paper in Emotion, they report their detailed investigation into these subjective experiences — an investigation that has led them to drop some commonly accepted positive emotions from their master list.
After the age of about 75, people tend to feel more anxiety, sadness and loneliness, and less in the way of positive emotion. Strategies to prevent or at least counteract these deteriorations are badly needed, and new research by a team in the US, published in the journal Emotion, has now identified one apparently promising strategy: so-called “awe walks”.
There’s a commonly held notion that young people are more hopeful about the future than any other group — you might have heard this referred to, either positively or negatively, as “youthful optimism”. Even Jane Austen picked up on it: “There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions”, she wrote in Sense and Sensibility.
But is this actually the case? According to a new study from William J. Chopik and colleagues published in the Journal of Research in Personality, optimism actually continues growing well past youth — and it’s only later in life that it begins to decline.
When it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, many of us focus on long-term goals: what job we want, whether or not we want children, or how to reach a certain level of skill at a particular hobby or interest. There’s a reason so much research looks at how to achieve the things you value in life.
As such, we often (try to) eschew short-term pleasures, deeming them a distraction from loftier goals. But according to a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the pursuit of those more immediate pleasures could be just as important for our wellbeing.
There are fairly good arguments for optimism and pessimism both. Optimists, who see the best in everything, are likely to have a sunnier disposition; pessimists, on the other hand, would argue that their negative expectations never leave them disappointed when the worst actually happens.
Last year we published a list of ten psychology findings that reveal the worst of human nature. Research has shown us to be dogmatic and over-confident, we wrote, with a tendency to look down on minorities and assume that the downtrodden deserve their fate. Even young children take pleasure in the suffering of others, we pointed out.
But that’s only half of the story. Every day, people around the world fight against injustices, dedicate time and resources to helping those less fortunate than them, or just perform simple acts of kindness that brighten the lives of those around them. And psychology has as much to say about this brighter side of humanity as it does the darker one. So here we explore some of the research that demonstrates just how kind and compassionate we can be.
An increasing number of people are taking up recreational running. It often starts with a slow, painful canter around the block, followed by a wheezy vow to get into better shape. Maybe this was you, and you’ve since marshaled enough grit to complete runs of a sufficient length and frequency that you’re now comfortable telling people that you’re an actual, real-life runner. Do you leave it there, or is it time to train for and take part in a proper, organised race?
A recent study suggests it’s worth a go – Marzena Cypryańska and John Nezlek report in The Journal of Positive Psychology that recreational runners were happier and more satisfied with life during weeks in which they had taken part in an organised race. The pair believe this is because the main aim for most people who take part in (non-elite) organised races is simply to complete the course (which virtually all entrants do). Therefore “no one loses, no matter how long they take to finish” and finishers usually get some kind of medal or award and come away with a powerful sense of camaraderie and achievement. The researchers add that “In this sense, mass road races, however unwittingly, potentially represent a positive psychology intervention.”
Volunteer! Universities, community groups and even the NHS recommend it, citing benefits for society and also yourself. The claimed personal outcomes include boosting your health and subjective wellbeing, but while the former is slowly gathering experimental backing, the wellbeing research is overwhelmingly correlational, making it hard to prove that volunteering is causing the gains (it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that happier people are simply more inclined to give up their time for free). Now the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has published a more robust test: a randomised study. The researchers looked for evidence to support the mental wellbeing benefits from volunteering … but they looked in vain.