Explaining happiness

November 08, 2018

It is widely believed that each person finds the source of happiness within themselves and nowhere else. To determine just how true this is, research psychologists of the Higher School of Economics conducted a survey on 600 individuals. The results of the study were published in the article Why Do I Feel This Way? Attributional Assessment of Happiness and Unhappiness.

The researchers based their work on Bernard Weiner's Causal Attribution Theory. This helps determine to which causes a person attributes his or her successes and failures.

This theory posits that causal attribution can be classified using three different dimensions.

First is the locus of control. This can be external, in which a person attributes his or her emotional state to external conditions, or it can be internal, where a person sees themselves as the cause of success or failure.

Second is the stability or instability of cause over time. There are certain factors that are constant - for example, personality traits such as laziness or a strong work ethic. There are also conditions that are unstable over time, such as help or overzealousness in the subject themselves.

Third is a person's ability to control a situation. For example, a delayed flight is outside a person's control, while cooking food is not.

In addition to attribution, researchers also factored in the phenomenon of self-serving bias, which preconditions people to attribute their successes to themselves and failures to external factors. If an individual had a successful job interview, they attribute this to their professionalism and work ethic. If the interview was not successful, it is because of the interviewers' ill will and unprofessionalism.

The authors of the study conducted three online surveys on different groups of people. This mostly included students between the ages of 18 and 22, and primarily women.

The first group, which consisted of 281 respondents, had to recall and describe moments of their lives when they felt happy or unhappy. It was clear from their answers that they explained their happier moments using the locus of control, as well as factors that were stable over time and largely within the respondents' control. The opposite was true for unhappy moments. The survey participants said these were caused by external factors outside of their control.

The 169 individuals in the second group had to talk about happy or unhappy feelings brought about by their relationship with someone. The researchers noted a lack of a clearly expressed internal or external locus of control. The phenomenon of self-serving bias was also not observed. This shows that the respondents recognise the importance of the other person's involvement in the relationship.

In the third group of 142 individuals, the psychologists initially assessed the level of the respondents' subjective well-being, and a few days later asked them to explain what they attribute their results to. Additionally, the subjects were misinformed. A portion of them said their level of subjective well-being was very high, while others said that it was average or low. The survey respondents whose actual level of subjective well-being did not correspond to their stated level said this was the result of external situational factors. Those whose actual level corresponded to their stated level did not find anything surprising in this. They attributed their results to internal factors that are both stable over time and under their control.

The results of the study showed that despite the popular belief that each person holds the key to happiness in their own hands, the majority of people only agree with this idea if they are already happy. If someone has a lower level of well-being, they are more likely to blame external factors than take responsibility for this.
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National Research University Higher School of Economics

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