This Feeling Matters More Than Happiness

Why happiness may not be the best metric to measure how happy you are in life.

The pursuit of happiness has become mandatory.  As much as we are told that happiness is elusive, that we are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and that we overestimate how happy we used to be in the past, happiness remains a top priority and the most typical method people use to assess the quality of their life.

But there is a feeling that matters more than happiness.  This feeling may be a better gauge of the quality of your life, than the moment-to-moment, transient emotional experience of happiness: life satisfaction.

Life satisfaction is a cognitive, global evaluation of the quality of your life (Pavot & Diener, 1993).  It is a more robust measure of well-being because it is less subject to mood fluctuations.  Life satisfaction is associated with better physical health, higher performance, and stronger social relationships.  How satisfied you are with your life is important for your well being, easier to answer than how happy you are, and a more meaningful approach to evaluating the quality of your life.

A periodic assessment of your life satisfaction provides you with a mirror on which you can reflect your accomplishments, your desires, and your unfulfilled needs all at once.  It provides a global picture of your progress in life in relation to your own expectations, and it becomes a good starting point to begin exploring in more depth what contributes to the quality of your life and what is taking away from it.

The research on life satisfaction reveals that how satisfied you are with your life is influenced by two important factors: your personality and your satisfaction in specific areas in your life. 

There is some evidence that suggests different personality types report different levels of life satisfaction.  Extroverted types report higher satisfaction with life, while people high in negativity report lower satisfaction.  However, personality alone does not explain the whole story.  Do not forget that the way we currently measure personality depends on your self-assessment of how you feel, think, and react in certain situations.  As a result, if you tend to view yourself and the world in a negative light on a personality test, you are more likely to maintain that same negative view when you think about your life overall as well.

The second factor is a lot more influential and makes more sense.  Your overall life satisfaction is to a large extent determined by your satisfaction in specific areas in your life.  These domain-specific satisfaction ratings collectively influence your total satisfaction with life and consequently the quality of your life.  There is a caveat, however.  What matters most for your overall life satisfaction is how satisfied you are in areas of your life that you deem more important.  Consider, for example, these two domains: home ownership and marital relationship.  You may be doing very well in both of these areas.  You may be the owner of a home and not even have a mortgage to pay off.  And your marriage may also be going really well.  But, if relationships are more important to you than home ownership, your happy marriage is contributing more to your life satisfaction that owning your home.  As long as you are with the person you love, you would be happy in any kind of living arrangement, within reason, of course.  Conversely, if home ownership is more important to you, then no matter how much you love the person you are married to, you would still feel like something is missing in your life, if you were still living in a rental.  Your dissatisfaction with home ownership is going to have a negative impact on your overall life satisfaction.  The quality of your life is relative to what’s important to you.

Another way to look at these findings is that your life satisfaction depends on how much progress you are making on your most important life goals in specific areas, like your career, your family, your social life, your finances, your physical health, and so on.  When you feel that your needs in each specific and important life domain are being met, you will feel better about your life overall.

What makes life satisfaction a good measure of assessing the quality of your life is that your judgments are completely subjective.  They are based on your own standards and expectations, rather than social norms and expectations set by others.  You may be perfectly content at work and not care much about promotions, despite the fact that someone with your seniority and qualifications could be in a much higher position.  To feel good about your life, you may not need a promotion, you may not need a 7-digit balance in your bank account, and you may not need the name of an Ivy League on your degree.

Another reason why assessing life satisfaction is a good proxy for assessing the quality of your life is that it gives you a global index of how good you feel about the life you live.  Measuring satisfaction with life is like taking your temperature.  The thermometer will tell you if you are feverish or hypothermic.  It won’t tell you what’s causing the temperature dysregulation, but it motivates you to cool down or get warm, and to find what’s causing the deviation from your normal temperature.  Similarly, assessing your life satisfaction gives you a good global indicator of how happy you are with your life, and then motivates you to discover how to increase it by making changes in specific and important areas of your life. 

Here is a quick measure to assess your life satisfaction.  Indicate how much agree or disagree with the following statements on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) and add up the scores.  If your score is 26 or higher, you are in good shape!  If not, it may be a good opportunity to explore where the leaks in your life satisfaction are.

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal
  • The conditions of my life are excellent
  • I am satisfied with my life
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing

These statements come from  the Satisfaction with Life Scale, created by Diener and his colleagues (1985).  This scale is one of the most widely used and well-validated life satisfaction measures, and it is a good starting point to help you measure and calibrate how “happy” you are with your life.

Life satisfaction is an important component of well-being, which in turn affects your physical and mental health, your ability to reach your goals, and the strength of your relationships. So, how happy are you with your life? Or, better, how satisfied are you with your life?


Originally published at Psychology Today