I'm Happy, But What If I'm Supposed to Be Miserable?

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Originally posted on February 20, 2015.

This morning my wife, our one-month-old daughter, and I went to a local diner. It was a snow day, my University was closed, and we were enjoying a rare morning together. Before our food arrived, I took a sip of coffee, looked outside, and said, “I’m so happy.” The story should end there, with our tiny family devouring pancakes and running errands. But then I returned to my house, opened my email, and received some bad news. I was supposed to be miserable.

Or so suggested the latest Gallup Report, “The State of American Well-Being: 2014 State Well-Being Rankings.” For the sixth straight year, my state, Kentucky, ranked 49th of 50 U.S. States. Only West Virginians have lower well-being than my fellow Kentuckians do.

My first impulse was to try to make sense of all of this. Was I conning myself when I said I was happy? Can you ever really measure happiness? Let’s not fool ourselves. You can’t measure happiness the same way you can’t measure your weight in gold. But I agree with one of my favorite social psychologists, Dan Gilbert, who said, “maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining” (Stumbling on Happiness, p. 65). So, I accepted my happiness.

This is when I started to understand why I’m throwing off the statewide dish of depression. Here are the five elements of well-being (taken from the Gallup site):

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

This is when I started to understand, and my heart began to sink. I max out on each ingredient. I love my daily activities, both personal and professional. I have relationships that allow me to have the diner experience I mentioned. I’m neither the richest nor the poorest person in my state, but my wife and I manage our finances so that we can feel secure and have rewarding experiences. I love where I live, and enjoy showing people our great state. I take care of myself physically, at least enough so that I can make words move across the page. All of that is annoying to read and even harder to write. But it’s true.

Then why did my heart start to sink? I have a theory of mind and a concern for others. Unlike my dogs, a blowfish, or the horses I drive by on my way to work, I can simulate another person’s experience. And when I simulated how it felt to be deprived of purpose, meaningful relationships, financial security, community pride and safety, and physical health, I realized the seriousness of today’s Gallup results. We need chang e.

The good news is that each well-being ingredient can be mended. To have higher well-being, people don’t need to grow a third leg or become enthralled with the taste of cod liver oil. Those things are impossible. Psychological science provides clear answers about how to improve our well-being. The biggest challenge is that the scale of change needed to buck our spot in the well-being basement could take years. Kentucky will never be Hawaii, but we can improve. Is it worth a try? I think so.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”