In most cultures, it's considered a weakness or sign of failure to admit unhappiness. If you're not happy, you're a loser in the horse race of life. Additionally, we generally assume that people get what they deserve, so if you're not happy, it's probably your own fault. Those assumptions are totally wrong, of course, and contribute to much unnecessary misery. Plus, the question "How happy are you?" demands that we think about happiness experiences, and that probably skews the answer.
All wellbeing is subjective
Our feelings about what psychologists refer to as 'subjective wellbeing' are enormously sensitive to influence. Olympic bronze medallists report higher satisfaction than silver medallists. Presumably the silver winners are comparing themselves to gold medallists, while bronze medallists are pleased to have won anything at all.
Overall, researchers have found that two things consistently influence our self-reports of happiness: one is the human tendency to see ourselves as better than average; the other is our mood at the time we're asked.
Take the wellbeing quiz
Below are five statements that you may agree or disagree with. Using the 1–7 scale below, indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number in the box preceding that item. Please be open and honest in your responding.
7 - Strongly agree
6 - Agree
5 - Slightly agree
4 - Neither agree nor disagree
3 - Slightly disagree
2 - Disagree
1 - Strongly disagree
[ ] In most ways, my life is close to my ideal.
[ ] The conditions of my life are excellent.
[ ] I am satisfied with my life.
[ ] So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
[ ] If I could live my life over again, I would change almost nothing.
35–31 Extremely satisfied
21–25 Slightly satisfied
15–19 Slightly dissatisfied
5–9 Extremely dissatisfied.
If you take that test every year, your scores are going to be pretty similar every time. That finding, and a great deal of other research data, suggests that each of us has a "set point" for happiness. Like a thermostat, it is a self-regulating mechanism that returns us to our own characteristic subjective well-being point after the ups and downs of immediate joy and misery have worn off. Next week, we will start learning how we can adjust it.