Consequences of enjoying life or not

Ruut Veenhoven (ed)
Universitaire Pers Rotterdam, 1989, The Netherlands, ISBN 90 237 228.09 , 137p

Chapter 11: full text

Ruut Veenhoven

This book started with three questions about the possible consequences of enjoying life or not: 1) can any causal effects of happiness be demonstrated? 2) how do such effects come about? and 3) to what extent are these effects to be considered beneficial or harmful? How far did we get in answering these questions? Modest advance was made in answering the first one: we found empirical indications for several effects of happiness and in two cases even convincing evidence. With respect to the second question we were less successful: various hypotheses about possible mechanisms behind possible effects of happiness have beenproposed, but none of these could be demonstrated convincingly. We were in fact most successful in answering the last question. We found no evidence of the reputed negative consequences of enjoying life and many indications of positive effects.

Observed effects of happiness
The possible effects of happiness considered in the above chapters can be grouped into six categories: 'outlook', 'health', 'marriage', 'work', 'vigilance' and 'events'. In all of these categories we came across indications of causal effects of happiness. In two cases can that evidence be considered convincing.

The appreciation of life-as-a-whole affects the evaluation of various aspects of life.Chapter 10 provided sound evidence of effects on satisfaction with marriage, job and the standard of living. However, not all domain satisfactions appear to be influenced by happiness: satisfaction with health and with social support were not. Chapter 10 also showed that happiness produces a more positive assessment of the fit between one's situation and expectations, aspirations and entitlements. Chapter 8 demonstrated a similar effect of happiness on the assessment of the consequences of unemployment. Chapter 10 also showed that happiness fosters a sense of relative superiority, which means that it strengthens subjective self-reliance.
The degree of these effects can only be roughly estimated. The rigorous controls of chapter 10 mark a minimum explained variance of 4% in the case of separate satisfactions and 15% in the case of self-perceived competence. Zero-order correlations mark a maximum of about 30%

Three chapters considered the effects of happiness on health. Chapter 6 showed fairly convincingly that happy people live somewhat longer. Happiness at age 60 explains 1 to 8 % of the variance in longevity. The longer life of the happy is probably not the result of a lower vulnerability to stress. Chapter 2 fairly convincingly rejected the hypothesis that happiness buffers stress. Is the longer life of the happy a result of better recovery chances in case of illness? Chapter 3 suggests it is not. Yet the data presented in that chapter cannot decide the issue, because they specifically concern cancer and do not quite fit the concept of happiness being used here. Hence this possibility remains open for the time being.

Chapter 6 presented several indications of an effect of happiness on marriage chances. The happy seem to have a better chance of finding a spouse and seem to be less prone to divorce. Yet the evidence was not quite conclusive. The size of this effect is maximally some 5% of the variance in marital status.

There are indications that happiness fosters employment chances and work productivity, but again evidence is not conclusive (chapter 6 resp. chapter 9). If relevant at all, the size of the effects tends to be quite small. Possibly the effects of happiness on work performance is more sizable at the higher occupational levels.

The chapters 4 and 7 suggest that happiness does not make people docile and may even foster active action both in private matters and in public issues. Yet the evidence presented in these chapters is not conclusive: the study designs do not allow the identification of independent causal effects and the data do not concern happiness in the strict sense of the word.

Life eventsThere are indications that happiness affects good luck. Chapter 10 showed that a positive appreciation of life predicts the report of relatively many favorable life events. It is as yet unclear to what degree this effect is a mere perceptual phenomenon.

Proposed causal mechanisms
In the foregoing chapters we met with several suggestions about possible causal mechanisms behind the presumed effects of happiness. The claims concern perceptual matters in the first place and further 'activation', 'social contacts' and 'personality development'. Only in the first case is there convincing empirical evidence.

Several contributions mentioned 'outlook' as a possible causal mechanism. Chapter 2 set out with the suggestion that happiness buffers stress by fostering a more positive outlook on the problems of life and on one's ability to cope with them. Likewise chapter 3 proposed that happiness may help to overcome disease, because its perceptual effects prevent people giving up prematurely. In the same vein chapter 4 suggests that the slightly greater self-care of satisfied patients comes about through a more positive outlook on themselves and on their control of the situation. These latter mechanisms are also mentioned in chapter 6 as links in the relationship between happiness and marriage chances.
As we have seen in chapter 10 there is good evidence that happiness does induce a more positive outlook. However, it is not yet established that this effect on outlook materializes in less stress, better recovery, moreself-care or better marriage chances.

In two of the contributions effects of happiness by way of 'better health' were suggested. Chapter 2 mentions the possibility that the happy can take more knocks because they tend to be healthier. Chapter 8 mentions health effects of happiness as a possible reason for the slightly better employment chances of the happy. As we have seen there is some evidence that happiness does indeed tend to foster health: we can at least be reasonably sure that happiness lengthens life. However, there is not yet proof for the proposed intermediary effects.

Several contributions suggest effects through greater 'alertness' and 'activity'. All refer to earlier research showing the energizing effects of pleasant affect. In this context chapter 2 proposes that the happy cope with stress better because they cope more actively. Chapter 4 mentions greater energy as the reason why satisfied patients take better care of themselves. Chapter 6 refers to this matter in the context of marriage chances and chapter 8 in the context of employment-chances. Chapter 10 also hints at this effect in the discussion on the possibility that the happy are more satisfied with various aspects of life because they have in fact created better living conditions for themselves. None of the contributions could demonstrate these explanations empirically.

Social contacts
Facilitation of social contacts was also mentioned as a mediator variable. Chapter 6 presented evidence that happiness facilitates social contacts, among other things because cheerful people are better liked. Chapter 2 suggests that this facilitates the mobilization of social support, which in its turn facilitates coping with stress. Chapter 8 mentions social contacts as a possible reason for better employment chances: finding a new job is facilitated through smoother social contacts because it gives better access to the informal job market; the chances of keeping one's job may be strengthened through better contacts with colleagues. Chapter 10 also hints to this effect in the discussion on the possibility that happy people create themselves better living conditions.
Though it is quite plausible that happiness facilitates social contacts, this effect has not been demonstrated conclusively as yet. There is no empirical evidence at all for the claimed ntermediate effects. Thus, for the time being, this remains pure hypothesis.

Personality development
Finally there is the claim that happiness affects personality development and thus involves long term consequences in many spheres of life. This possibility is mentioned in chapter 6 in the discussion of the reasons for the better marriage chances of the happy. It is suggested that a positive appreciation of life facilitates the development of traits like 'empathy', 'self-esteem' and 'inner-control' which are crucial requirements in the modern relationship pattern. The same argument can also be applied to observed differences in 'self-care', 'political vigilance' and 'work performance' .
Yet it is not at all sure that happiness seriously affects personality development. Though there is good evidence for strong correlations over time it is still largely unclear what is cause and what effect. Therefore this explanation remains hypothetical as well.

Indications of harm and benefit
The introductory chapter to this book set out with an enumeration of claimed harmful effects of happiness (page 2) . Subsequently several claims to the contrary were presented: claimed benefits of happiness (page 2-3. Let us now take stock of the evidence provided by the later chapters:

No harm demonstrated
Three possible harmful effects of enjoying life were mentioned: contentment'. a 'too rosy view' and 'social isolation.'

  • Passive contentment
    The first of these claimed harmful effects was that happiness turns people into contented cows, who passively enjoy life but do nothing. This claim was not confirmed in any of the contributions in this book, Chapter 7 in particular showed that contentment does not lead into political apathy. Rather we met with several indications to the contrary. Chapter 4 showed that satisfied patients are more - rather than less - active in matters of self care. Chapter 6 suggests that the greater marriage chances of the happy result from their greater activity. Likewise chapter 8 mentions thepossibility that the greater employment chances of the happy are due to their greater activity.

  • Too rosy view
    The second claim was that a positive appreciation of life gives raise to an unrealistically rosy view on life, which blinds people to long term dangers and injustice. This claim was not confirmed either. Though chapter 10 did confirm that happiness does indeed foster a more positive outlook, we did not meet with any evidence that this more positive view is less realistic. In this context we must again keep in mind chapter 7 which found happy citizens to be no less critical and chapter 4 which showed that satisfied patients are no less well informed.

  • Social isolation
    The third claim was that happiness weakens social bonds: misery would unite people whereas happiness would atomize them. We did not meet any evidence for this claim but chapter 6 provided strong indications to the contrary. There is good (though not convincing) evidence that a positive appreciation of life adds to the chances of finding a spouse and sustaining the marriage. Happiness probably strengthens bonds with a wider network of kin and friends as well.

Several indications of beneficial effects
Six possible positive consequences of enjoying life were mentioned: More 'intimacy', greater 'activity'. sharper 'awareness', less 'vulnerability to stress', protection of 'health' and better psychological development'.

  • More intimacy
    Contrary to the claim of egoistic isolation, humanistic psychology sees happiness as a facilitator of social contacts: of intimate contacts in particular. As noted above this view is supported by the findings reported in chapter 6 (which are not, however, convincingly proven).

  • Greater activity
    Humanistic psychology also claims that enjoyment of life stimulates active involvement. Several contributions in this book provide support for that view. Chapter 4 observed greater self care among satisfied patients. Chapter 6 suggests that the happy have better marriage chances because they take more initiative in matters of love. Likewise chapter 8 suggests that the better employment chances of the happy are due to more active job hunting and - if employed - greater work involvement. That latter suggestion is also raised in chapter 9.

  • Sharper awareness
    In the same vein humanistic psychology also sees the happy as more perceptive and alert. As mentioned above, we did not meet with evidence that the happy are less attentive but we did not meet with evidence of any greater attentiveness either. At best chapter 6 carries the suggestion that the better marriage chances of the happy reflect their greater empathy.

  • Buffer to stress
    Cognitive psychology offered the view that a positive appreciation of life may help to cope with demanding life situations. The evidence at this point is contradictory. On the one hand it suggests that happiness protects against overacting and panic because it fosters a positive view. Chapter 10 convincingly demonstrated that happiness fosters a positive outlook in general. Chapter 8 demonstrated the same in the case of unemployment. On the other hand chapter 2 showed that happiness does not mitigate the (slight) adverse health effects of burdening life-events
  • Protection of health
    The related doctrine from psychosomatic science was that happiness decreases the vulnerability to disease. Here again the indications contradict. On the one hand we met with two rejections of the claim. As noted above chapter 2 found no evidence of less health damage following stress among the happy and chapter 3 costs doubt on the belief that happiness fosters recovery from illness, at least where cancer is concerned. On the other hand chapter 5 rather convincingly shows that the happy tend to live longer. This result strongly suggests that some kind of health protection is involved, though we do not know exactly what this is
  • Better psychological development
    Humanistic psychologists have depicted happiness as an accelerator of 'psychological growth' while in some clinical writings it figures as one of the things that may help to avoid 'pathological development'. None of the contributions in this book bears direct evidence to support these claims. Yet several explain their results in such terms. Chapter 6 mentioned possible developmental effects of happiness as one of the reasons for the better marriage chances of the happy; chapter 10 strongly suggests that the rosier view of life held by the happy may be partly due to the fact that their life situation is in fact better because they are more effective psychologically. Though not implausible, these explanations are not proven.

In short
There are no indications that the claimed negative effects of happiness exist, but there are good indications for several of the claimed positive effects. All in all: happiness does not appear to be that detrimental.