Improving Well-Being By Having Attainable Goals

Human happiness generally is among the most important of initiatives, and this new research on achievements contributes to that cause.

Those who set realistic goals can hope for a higher level of well-being. The key for later satisfaction is whether the life goals are seen as attainable and what they mean to the person, as psychologists from the University of Basel report in a study with over 970 participants.

Wealth, community, health, meaningful work: life goals express a person’s character, as they determine behavior and the compass by which people are guided. It can therefore be assumed that goals can contribute substantially to how satisfied people are in life — or how dissatisfied if important goals are blocked and cannot be achieved.

A team of psychologists from the University of Basel conducted a detailed examination on how life goals are embedded in people’s lives across adult; the results are now published in the European Journal of Personality. The researchers used data from 973 people between 18 and 92 years old living in German-speaking parts of Switzerland; more than half of the participants were surveyed again after two and four years.

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Life goals with predictive power

The findings of the study revealed that perceiving one’s personal goals as attainable is an indicator for later cognitive and affective well-being. This implies that people are most satisfied if they have a feeling of control and attainability. Interestingly, the importance of the goal was less relevant for later well-being than expected.

Life goals also hold predictive power for specific domains: Participants who set social-relation goals or health goals were more satisfied with their social relationships or their own health. The link between life goals and subsequent well-being appeared to be relatively independent of the age of the participants.

Younger people want status, older people want social engagement

What are the goals that people value the most in a respective age period? The goals that people value in a particular life stage depend on the development tasks that are present at this stage: the younger the participants were, the more they rated personal-growth, status, work and social-relation goals as important. The older the participants were, the more they rated social engagement and health as important.

“Many of our results confirmed theoretical assumptions from developmental psychology,” says lead author and PhD student Janina Bühler from the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology. Life goals were strongly determined by age: “If we examine, however, whether these goals contribute to well-being, age appears less relevant.” Hence, adults, whether old or young, are able to balance the importance and attainability of their goals.

Worse Air Pollution Found to Decrease Happiness Levels

Another reason that the world should convert to renewable, clean sources of power in the fight against climate change. Happiness is one of the most important things in life, and therefore it’d be good if the world’s political systems better prioritized the general happiness of people instead of largely prioritizing big business profits.

Now researchers at MIT have discovered that air pollution in China’s cities may be contributing to low levels of happiness amongst the country’s urban population.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, a research team led by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate, and the Faculty Director of MIT China Future City Lab, reveals that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.

The paper also includes co-first author Jianghao Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California, Cong Sun of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Xiaonan Zhang of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Despite an annual economic growth rate of 8 percent, satisfaction levels amongst China’s urban population have not risen as much as would be expected.

Alongside inadequate public services, soaring house prices, and concerns over food safety, air pollution — caused by the country’s industrialization, coal burning, and increasing use of cars — has had a significant impact on quality of life in urban areas.

Research has previously shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes. But air pollution also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behavior, according to Zheng.

To avoid high levels of air pollution, for example, people may move to cleaner cities or green buildings, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors.

“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”

On polluted days, people have been shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng.

“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities,” she says.

To this end, the researchers used real-time data from social media to track how changing daily pollution levels impact people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities.

In the past, happiness levels have typically been measured using questionnaires. However, such surveys provide only a single snapshot; people’s responses tend to reflect their overall feeling of well-being, rather than their happiness on particular days.

“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.

The researchers used information on urban levels of ultrafine particulate matter — PM 2.5 concentration — from the daily air quality readings released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary air pollutant in Chinese cities in recent years, and PM 2.5 particles, which measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter, are particularly dangerous to people’s lungs.

To measure daily happiness levels for each city, the team applied a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo.

The tweets cover a period from March to November 2014. For each tweet, the researchers applied the machine-trained sentiment analysis algorithm to measure the sentiment of the post. They then calculated the median value for that city and day, the so-called expressed happiness index, ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood, and 100 a very positive one.

Finally, the researchers merged this index with the daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data.

They found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. What’s more, women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.

When the researchers looked at the type of cities that the tweets originated from, they found that people from the very cleanest and very dirtiest cities were the most severely affected by pollution levels.

Joy of Giving Found to Last Longer Than the Joy of Getting

It’s rather striking that this is recent research with how important human happiness is (becoming happy may be the most important thing in life) and with how much focus there’s been on happiness. The research is incomplete, but it is part of a growing series of evidence demonstrating the value of kindness.

The happiness we feel after a particular event or activity diminishes each time we experience that event, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. But giving to others may be the exception to this rule, according to research forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In two studies, psychology researchers Ed O’Brien (University of Chicago Booth School of Business) and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management) found that participants’ happiness did not decline, or declined much slower, if they repeatedly bestowed gifts on others versus repeatedly receiving those same gifts themselves.

“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new. Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it,” O’Brien explains.

In one experiment, university student participants received $5 every day for 5 days; they were required to spend the money on the exact same thing each time. The researchers randomly assigned participants to spend the money either on themselves or on someone else, such as by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity every day. The participants reflected on their spending experience and overall happiness at the end of each day.

The data, from a total of 96 participants, showed a clear pattern: Participants started off with similar levels of self-reported happiness and those who spent money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness over the 5-day period. But happiness did not seem to fade for those who gave their money to someone else. The joy from giving for the fifth time in a row was just as strong as it was at the start.

O’Brien and Kassirer then conducted a second experiment online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent across participants. In this experiment, 502 participants played 10 rounds of a word puzzle game. They won $0.05 per round, which they either kept or donated to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Again, the self-reported happiness of those who gave their winnings away declined far more slowly than did the happiness reported by those who kept their winnings.

Further analyses ruled out some potential alternative explanations, such as the possibility that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”

Adaptation to happiness-inducing experiences can be functional to the extent that it motivates us to pursue and acquire new resources. Why doesn’t this also happen with the happiness we feel when we give?

The researchers note that when people focus on an outcome, such as getting paid, they can easily compare outcomes, which diminishes their sensitivity to each experience. When people focus on an action, such as donating to a charity, they may focus less on comparison and instead experience each act of giving as a unique happiness-inducing event.

We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

These findings raise some interesting questions for future research — for example, would these findings hold if people were giving or receiving larger amounts of money? Or giving to friends versus strangers?

The researchers have also considered looking beyond giving or receiving monetary rewards, since prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences.

Using Work Sharing to Improve the Economy and Worker Happiness

An important policy idea of reducing average necessary work hours (with at least similar wage levels ideally due to increased value via more productivity growth) that will keep becoming more important as technology continues to advance.

The United States is very much an outlier among wealthy countries in the relatively weak rights that are guaranteed to workers on the job. This is true in a variety of areas. For example, the United States is the only wealthy country in which private sector workers can be dismissed at will, but it shows up most clearly in hours of work.

In other wealthy countries, there has been a consistent downward trend in average annual hours of work over the last four decades. By contrast, in the United States, there has been relatively little change. While people on other wealthy countries can count on paid sick days, paid family leave, and four to six weeks of paid vacation every year, these benefits are only available to better-paid workers in the United States. Even for these workers, the benefits are often less than the average in Western European countries.

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Part of the benefit of work sharing is that it can allow workers and employers to gain experience with a more flexible work week or work year. It is possible that this experience can lead workers to place a higher value on leisure or non-work activities and therefore increase their support for policies that allow for reduced work hours.

Work Hours in 1970: The United States Was Not Always an Outlier

When the experience of European countries is raised in the context of proposals for expanding paid time off in the United States, it is common for opponents to dismiss this evidence by pointing to differences in national character. Europeans may value time off with their families or taking vacations, but we are told that Americans place a higher value on work and income.

While debates on national character probably do not provide a useful basis for policy, it is worth noting that the United States was not always an outlier in annual hours worked. If we go back to the 1970s, the United States was near the OECD average in annual hours worked. By contrast, it ranks near the top in 2016.

In 1970, workers in the United States had put in on average 3 to 5 percent more hours than workers in Denmark and Finland, according to the OECD data, by 2016, this difference had grown to more than 25 percent. Workers in France and the Netherlands now have considerably shorter average work years than workers in the United States. Even workers in Japan now work about 5 percent less on average than workers in the United States.

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It is also important to consider efforts to reduce hours as being a necessary aspect of making the workplace friendlier to women. It continues to be the case that women have a grossly disproportionate share of the responsibility for caring for children and other family members.

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In this respect, it is worth noting that the United States went from ranking near the top in women’s labor force participation in 1980 to being below the OECD average in 2018. While other countries have made workplaces more family friendly, this has been much less true of the United States.

Shortening Work Hours and Full Employment

There has been a largely otherworldly public debate in recent years on the prospects that robots and artificial intelligence would lead to mass unemployment. This debate is otherworldly since it describes a world of rapidly rising productivity growth. In fact, productivity growth has been quite slow ever since 2005. The average annual rate of productivity growth over the last twelve years has been just over 1.0 percent. This compares to a rate of growth of close to 3.0 percent in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973 and again from 1995 to 2005.

So this means that we are having this major national debate about the mass displacement of workers due to technology at a time when the data clearly tell us that displacement is moving along very slowly.[2] It is also worth noting that all the official projections from agencies like the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget show the slowdown in productivity growth persisting for the indefinite future. This projection of continued slow productivity growth provides the basis for debates on issues like budget deficits and the finances of Social Security.

However, if we did actually begin to see an uptick in the rate of productivity growth, and robots did begin to displace large numbers of workers, then an obvious solution would be to adopt policies aimed at shortening the average duration of the work year. The basic arithmetic is straightforward: if we reduce average work hours by 20 percent, then we will need 25 percent more workers to get the same amount of labor. While in practice the relationship will never be as simple as the straight arithmetic, if we do get a reduction in average work time, then we will need more workers.

As noted above, reductions in work hours was an important way in which workers in Western Europe have taken the gains from productivity growth over the last four decades. This had also been true in previous decades in the United States, as the standard workweek was shortened to forty hours with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1937. In many industries, it had been over sixty hours at the turn of the twentieth century.

If the United States can resume a path of shortening work hours and get its standard work year back in line with other wealthy countries, it should be able to absorb even very rapid gains in productivity growth without any concerns about mass unemployment. While job-killing robots may exist primarily in the heads of the people who write about the economy, if they do show up in the world, a policy of aggressive reductions in work hours should ensure they don’t lead to widespread unemployment.

Physical Activity Tentatively Linked to Positive Mental Health in New Study

Exercise’s notable effect on reducing negative mental health problems should be more widely known, but this new study tries to examine whether there’s a similarity between exercise’s effects on negative and positive mental health. Scientifically, even walking produces endorphins, which lends credence to the phrase “Walk it off” after experiencing a painful physical sensation.

Physical activity has long been known to reduce depression and anxiety, and is commonly prescribed to prevent or cure negative mental health conditions.

However, less is known about the impact of physical activity on positive mental health conditions, such as happiness and contentment.

Weiyun Chen, University of Michigan associate professor in kinesiology, wanted to know if exercise increased positive mental health in the same way it reduced negative mental health. Specifically, researchers examined which aspects of physical activity were associated with happiness, and which populations were likely to benefit from the effects.

To that end, Chen and co-author Zhanjia Zhang, a doctoral student, reviewed 23 studies on happiness and physical activity. The 15 observational studies all showed a positive direct or indirect association between happiness and exercise. The eight interventional studies showed inconsistent results.

The studies included health information from thousands of adults, seniors, adolescents, children, and cancer survivors from several countries. A couple themes emerged.

“Our findings suggest the physical activity frequency and volume are essential factors in the relationship between physical activity and happiness,” Chen said. “More importantly, even a small change of physical activity makes a difference in happiness.”

Findings suggest a threshold effect for the relationship of happiness and physical activity — several studies found that happiness levels were the same whether people exercised 150-300 minutes a week, or more than 300 minutes a week.

Specifics: Active and happy?

The review of observational studies found that compared to inactive people, the odds ratio of being happy was 20, 29 and 52 percent higher for people who were insufficiently active, sufficiently active, or very active, respectively.

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More details can be found in the study, “A systematic review of the relationship between physical activity and happiness,” which was published online March 24 by the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Scientific Research Into Happiness

I am unsure how much I agree with the conclusions of this happiness research, but it is interesting to read nonetheless.

Over the past two decades, the positive psychology movement has brightened up psychological research with its science of happiness, human potential and flourishing.

It argues that psychologists should not only investigate mental illness but also what makes life worth living.

The founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, describes happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, excitement and contentment, combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose.

It implies a positive mindset in the present and an optimistic outlook for the future.

Importantly, happiness experts have argued that happiness is not a stable, unchangeable trait but something flexible that we can work on and ultimately strive towards.

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Recent research indicates that psychological flexibility is the key to greater happiness and well-being.

For example, being open to emotional experiences and the ability to tolerate periods of discomfort can allow us to move towards a richer, more meaningful existence.

Studies have demonstrated that the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives has more influence on our happiness than the events themselves.

Experiencing stress, sadness and anxiety in the short term doesn’t mean we can’t be happy in the long term.

Two paths to happiness

Philosophically speaking there are two paths to feeling happy, the hedonistic and the eudaimonic.

Hedonists take the view that in order to live a happy life we must maximise pleasure and avoid pain. This view is about satisfying human appetites and desires, but it is often short lived.

In contrast, the eudaimonic approach takes the long view. It argues that we should live authentically and for the greater good. We should pursue meaning and potential through kindness, justice, honesty and courage.

If we see happiness in the hedonistic sense, then we have to continue to seek out new pleasures and experiences in order to “top up” our happiness.

We will also try to minimise unpleasant and painful feelings in order to keep our mood high.

If we take the eudaimonic approach, however, we strive for meaning, using our strengths to contribute to something greater than ourselves. This may involve unpleasant experiences and emotions at times, but often leads to deeper levels of joy and contentment.

So leading a happy life is not about avoiding hard times; it is about being able to respond to adversity in a way that allows you to grow from the experience.

Growing from adversity

Research shows that experiencing adversity can actually be good for us, depending on how we respond to it. Tolerating distress can make us more resilient and lead us to take action in our lives, such as changing jobs or overcoming hardship.

In studies of people facing trauma, many describe their experience as a catalyst for profound change and transformation, leading to a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth”.

Often when people have faced difficulty, illness or loss, they describe their lives as happier and more meaningful as a result.

The ConversationUnlike feeling happy, which is a transient state, leading a happier life is about individual growth through finding meaning.

It is about accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, enjoying the positive emotions, and harnessing painful feelings in order to reach our full potential.