Happiness is about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, right? Well, according to a rather formidable new piece of research, what you really need are the emotions that fit who you are.
It’s about “feeling the emotions you want to feel,” says Maya Tamir, the study’s lead author and the director of the Emotion and Self-Regulation Laboratory at The Hebrew University in Israel, rather than “simply feeling emotions that are more pleasant and less unpleasant.” So if you really think you’d be better off with more anger and less love, you really might be—or so her team’s data indicates.
For a paper out today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Tamir and her colleagues recruited more than 2,000 college students across eight countries—the U.S., Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland, and Singapore—to participate in the study. This represents seven of the world’s eight cultural regions— Anglo, Latin American, Confucian, West European, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Central European, and South Asian—meaning this research is what you’d call globally representative.
These college students completed self-report ratings on how often they actually experienced different emotions and how much they desired different emotions across four different categories: self-transcending (or more relational) emotions like love, affection, empathy, trust, compassion; negative self-enhancing (or more individualistic) emotions like anger, contempt, and hatred; opening emotions like interest, curiosity, and passion; and conserving emotions like calmness, relaxation, and contentment. They also took measures of subjective well-being and mental health.
The researchers then calculated the discrepancy between the emotions people wanted to experience and the ones they actually experienced. They consistently found that smaller differences between the desired and experienced emotions were linked to greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms across almost all countries. But intriguingly, a gap between desired and experienced self-transcendent emotions—love and the like—didn’t have as strong an effect on life satisfaction for people in China and Ghana.
“What we show is that regardless of what country you are from or what culture you belong to, as long as you feel what you personally consider to be desirable—you are happier,” Tamir explains, careful to note that while feelings like anger and hatred aren’t exactly pleasant to feel, they can serve a healthy function, like propelling us to fight injustices. (Consider the bumper sticker wisdom of If You’re Not Outraged You’re Not Paying Attention.)
All this lends credence to the suspicion the more contemplative or melancholic among us have long held: that slavishly dedicating yourself to the maximization of pleasure can be misguided, depending on the life you want to lead. Armed with these findings, we should ask ourselves what emotions are meaningful to us, and seek to cultivate those, she says.
“If you care deeply about other people (those close to you or strangers)—feeling their pain sometimes might be painful, but right for you. If you care about social justice feeling anger about injustice might be painful, but right for you,” she adds. “To be happy, we should strive to feel emotions that we believe are meaningful and desirable, given our own unique cultural, social, and personal characteristics—those that feel right to us.” One size does not fit all.