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It turns out that there is no one way to measure ‘happiness’ and what it actually means depends a lot on where we live in the world.

In today’s episode we’ll be talking with William Tov who is Associate Professor of Psychology at Singapore Management University.

Arguably, everyone wants to be happy – and people who experience mental health problems may find this more challenging than most.

But what is happiness?

We chat to Professor Tov about definitions of happiness and the varying meanings that this word has in different parts of the world. Then we move onto the question of how experiences of happiness may differ for people who have mental health problems.

Follow us on Twitter and more at https://www.bio.link/livelyminds

Find out more about our show at https://www.anyamedia.net/livelyminds

Transcript

W: Hello, my name is Will.

E: And my name is Ellie.

W: Lively Minds is a UK-based podcast about mental health challenges that go beyond the ebb and flow of the everyday.

E: Led by people with lived experience, this podcast is less about how we deal with our
mental health and more about how we understand it in the first place.

W: If anything comes up in this show that you need support with right away, for signposting
to services including those outside the UK and Ireland, please visit our website, anyamedia.net/livelyminds.

E: In today’s episode we’ll be talking with William Tov, who is Associate Professor of Psychology
at Singapore Management University.

W: Arguably everybody wants to be happy, and people who experience mental health problems
may find this more challenging than most. But what is happiness?

E: We chat to Professor Tov about definitions of happiness and the varying meanings that
happiness has in different parts of the world. At the end of the conversation, we move on to the question of how experiences of happiness may differ for people who have mental health problems.

W: We begin by asking Professor Tov to introduce himself and his work.

WT: I’m an associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University and my research area is focused on happiness, life satisfaction, personality. I’m especially interested in
how this plays out in our everyday lives. So a lot of the studies that I do involve some
ethical experience sampling where we ask people maybe a few times a day or every day for a
couple weeks how they’re feeling, how satisfied they are with their day, how, how meaningful the
day was and just try and understand how these fluctuations in their well-being from day to day might be associated with the other things that are going on in their lives, the things that they experienced that day could be their personality as well and to sort of set their memory. So the kind of experiences that they remember and how important those are for the judgments about how happy or unhappy they are with their day or with their life as a whole. I’ve also been very interested in meaning, the experience of meaning in everyday life and how people derive meaning from their experiences, especially the negative experiences that, that we all have, you know, in one form or another, some more intense, some not so bad, but still kind of negative. So some of my recent studies have been focused on this question of when we experience something bad, how do we think about it in ways that allow us to derive some meaning from that experience. So a lot of the questions that I ask tend to be focused on just everyday life and our feelings about the things that we’re experiencing from day to day.

W: Can you define what happiness is?

WT: Happiness in the broadest sense, I’d say it’s all the different ways that people can experience their life positively or all the different ways that they could evaluate their lives positively. So that definition is probably going to capture many, many different ways that people think about happiness. Some psychologists might prefer to use the term well-being and that’s probably a term that I’m, in the scientific literature, that’s what we tend to use, we talk about doing research on the, the well-being of people or the well-being of society. But most people in the general public think of it as happiness. And I would say, whether you call it happiness or whether you call it well-being, I think one of the important things that we sort of appreciated over the past 20, 30 years of research, when psychologists really started studying this systematically and sort of taking it seriously as something that, that, is worth studying scientifically. The one thing that we’ve appreciated more and more is that there’s no one way to measure this thing called happiness. There’s many different types of happiness. It’s something similar to, when we talk about health, there’s no one way to be healthy. There’s no gold standard measure of a person’s health. You just have to measure health in a lot of different ways and all of those different ways tell you something about a person’s health. And it’s the same thing with happiness. So, you know, when we talk about experiencing life positively, evaluating life positively, that’s what happiness is. And it’s going to include a lot of things, like the happiness that you get from eating a chocolate chip cookie, it includes the happiness that you get from making enough money to support your family and from having friends who care about you. Some people might call that life satisfaction. And it includes the happiness that you get, or it’s more like a sense of relief that you might get from avoiding a car accident or avoiding some sort of bad outcome. So, so all of these different ways that people can think of where they feel good about something or they feel good about their life in some way, that to me is how I think about happiness.

E: When you’re doing your research, and, it’s because you mentioned every day happiness,
like eating a chocolate chip cookie or seeing a funny TV program or something maybe, but
I just wondered how you’ve researched or how you found sort of what we think of as
just a general mood day to day intersects with that concept of happiness. You know sometimes
you, the phrase “get it up on the wrong side of bed” where you sort of wake up and are
generally in a bit of a bad mood that day for no particular reason, but the same thing
happens with a good mood, some days you’re particularly chirpy, but it may not be due
to an identifiable little happy thing that’s happened. I just wondered how mood intersects
with what you’ve researched.

W: We sometimes make a distinction between moods and emotions. You know, I think a lot of my studies you could say actually we’re looking at mood. We ask people at the end of the day how happy they felt, how cheerful they felt that day, how grateful they felt. So very often there’s a list of different kinds of positive feelings that people could have or that they tend to have and we don’t often provide much context to that question. It’s just sort of like, you know, looking over your day, how often did you experience these emotions? And when you ask it in that way, it’s something that some psychologists would consider to be a mood, which is just sort of a feeling that we don’t exactly know where this feeling is coming from, but we know that we feel this way.
Whereas an emotion is very often tied to some sort of specific event, and I study those as well.
So we ask people to tell us what happened today, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. And then we give them a list of feelings.
How angry did you feel?
How happy did you feel when this event happened?
And that is more what some researchers would call an emotion.

W: You alluded to earlier, but I thought one thing that was quite interesting in a video that
I watched about your research before this interview is the connection between meaning
and life satisfaction and the correlation between those two things, feeling that your
life has meaning or activities, actions that you do have, have meaning, combined with being satisfied by those actions, kind of those things correlate to, to, to support happiness. Would that be fair to say?

WT: Yeah, I mean, they have a similar basis. So when we think about whether we’re satisfied with life, or even when I’m asking respondents at the end of the day how satisfied they were with their day, the idea is that we’re thinking about what we wanted that day to be like. We’re thinking about what we want our life to be like, so we’re thinking about the standards that we have, what’s the ideal situation that we’d like to have, and satisfaction is this judgment where we’re sort of like comparing how the day went or how our life is going versus how we want it to go, right? So we are measuring up our current situation with these standards that we have. And meaning, when we talk about having a sense of meaning in life or having an experience that’s meaningful, there’s a lot that goes on into that judgment, but there’s also some overlap with satisfaction because whether we find something meaningful or not also is going to be influenced by our standards, our values, our goals, what we want out of life. Um you know if a student who really cares about being the top student and they really care about their academic, you know, an A+ is going to mean a whole lot more to that student than another student who’s maybe not so focused on grades but maybe just focused on this particular class and learning something that he’s really interested in learning. And so, so when we talk about standards, standards also influence what we find meaningful in our everyday lives and what we find meaningful in life. And so, so, what you tend to find is that, you know, whether it’s from day to day or whether you’re asking in life in general, people who feel satisfied with their lives also tend to have a sense of meaning, a strong sense of meaning in life. They feel like their lives are meaningful. And I would say it’s because in both, both cases, these are people who feel like they’re coming pretty close to meeting those standards that they set in life.
They’re doing things that they value, that they think are important. Even in daily life, if we’re just taking a step back to say,
“Okay, don’t think about your life as a whole, but just think about today and the things that you are doing today.”
It’s a similar kind of process people have sort of like things that they want to accomplish today or things that they wanted to do and how well they actually are able to do those things or to actually able to do that at all is going to implement how satisfied they feel about that day and how meaningful they feel the day was. So, so this idea of standards and values, it’s something that we tend to think about when we’re thinking about both how satisfied we are and also how meaningful the day, the day was, or how meaningful our life was.

E: That’s so interesting about the aspect of expectations for the day or for life or whatever because I guess for most of us that’s, we don’t necessarily consciously wake up and start the day thinking what are my expectations and aims, it’s a subconscious thing that you are constantly doing. And yeah, you’re totally right. If you think about a day where your mood, you’re suddenly in a bad mood later in the day, it’s often because something has derailed what you expected to happen that day.

WT: Right. Yeah. And that’s, you know, I mean, I think you’re right, we don’t necessarily think about it so consciously. But that’s what values are actually. Values are, it’s just sort of like these, they’re kind of like goals that we have that are just, they permeate our lives. You value something, it’s an everyday thing. So if you value family, you know it’s not really a goal that you accomplish in any one particular instance.
You don’t say, “Okay, I’m going to take my son to the zoo,” and then you’re like, “All
right, that’s it, I’ve done it. accomplished my value, I value, I’ve shown that I value family, I’ve accomplished, you know, like, you know, because there’s another day after that. And this child is going to be around for a lot longer than one day. Right. So, so values are things that really, you know, they’re, they’re sort of like guideposts for, for our lives. They’re sort of like guiding our preferences and priorities, every day, not just any particular day or a single day.
W: I think it’s really interesting as well in terms of the connection between people feeling
satisfied because they find meaning in, in their lives. And I wonder how that plays out the other way around. And I wonder, sometimes I’ve wondered whether there’s as much of a connection to the other way around. In other words, if somebody is feeling very much meaning in their life, whether that will be likely to lead to satisfaction. I’ve heard a couple of war, war journalists, for example, war correspondents, talking about how when they’re in the field, when they’re in that war zone, they feel an immense purpose and an immense meaning to what they’re doing. They’re really driven to do that and to be in that war zone, but they certainly don’t find it satisfying, you know, they find it incredibly scary. And I, and so I just wonder if there’s, yeah, can you speak to that for a moment?

WT: Yeah, so that’s where that’s where it becomes really interesting to think about these two kind of, these two concepts of meaning and satisfaction. And there’s a broader theory, theoretical perspective in this literature on well-being that distinguishes, you know, what some people call hedonic, hedonic forms of well-being and for lack of a better term eudaimonic well-being. And actually we don’t really have a good definition of what eudaimonic well-being is. It’s just sort of like all these other aspects of well-being that are not, they’re not clearly about feeling good or bad, you know. Hedonic wellbeing is it’s, it tends to be, you know positive emotions, negative emotions, satisfaction, adjustments it’s, it’s it’s when we tend to judge how good or bad things went so, so you know, and that’s one way to think about happiness and well-being but we don’t always do things because they feel good and we don’t always avoid things because they feel bad. It plays out a lot in our everyday life, but, but there are times where we just sort of like, to force ourselves to do certain things even if it’s difficult, but because it’s important to do, and then that’s where you start to see that some things that are meaningful are not always satisfying and you know the, the, where this plays out in everyday life for most people is when something bad happens or just, it’s maybe not bad but just something difficult, you spend all day long working on a project or just trying to get something done and it doesn’t feel, you don’t feel that great at the end of the day but you had, you know you had to do it, and you had a good reason to do it and from that perspective it was meaningful and so so what that tells us that meaning, what what people are thinking about when when they’re deciding whether something is meaningful or not? Sometimes that judgment goes beyond the goodness and badness of the feelings, you know, it goes to other things that you know, I think the psychologist Roy Bohmister says that when we talk about what meaning is at a very basic level meaning is about finding a connection, it’s, it’s a connection between our actions and our values, our ideals, our future and our past. So when we’re experiencing something and we don’t feel this connection between what we’re doing and our future, we don’t see like there’s a purpose to it, then we’re not going to feel like it’s very meaningful. Or if we’re doing something and it doesn’t connect with our values, we don’t understand why it’s important, we’re not going to find it very meaningful. So, so that fundamentally is, is what people are, I think I would say, that is ultimately what drives meaning judgments. So I’ve asked my students, for example, if a soldier, for example, is fighting a war to defend his or her country and this person ends up getting killed before the battle has even been won, we we don’t even know if the country has been successfully defended.
And this person has died before that has been resolved. Has this person lived a meaningful life? And the majority of them say, “Yes, because even though this person died before accomplishing the goal of defending their country, the, the act of what they were doing was meaningful, was purposeful.”
So, so the judgment of something being meaningful doesn’t always come down to you know, how satisfying or dissatisfying it was or how good or bad the outcome is. Right? People are considering other things like that connection between a higher purpose
or a connection to something that they value when they’re making this judgment.

W: I think as well actually thinking about my earlier question again, I might have even been slightly misdefining satisfaction. So the next stage is we need to define satisfaction. (laughter) Because actually, I guess being satisfied about something doesn’t necessarily mean that you enjoyed it, right? Just as I said that about the war correspondent example, I realised actually, you could kind of be satisfied whilst doing something that you’re finding really scary. Of course, it’s complicated.

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W: I was really fascinated by the work that you’ve been doing around cultural differences in happiness. Can you tell us about that?

WT: This is really work that so many social and cultural psychologists have been doing in this space of wellbeing. And it’s an important question because one of the challenges that researchers face when they want to study happiness, or they’re interested in studying happiness around the world in different cross-national samples, the question is always, well, is, you know, is the kind of happiness that people are talking about in the US, for example, the same kind of happiness that people are talking about in Japan, or in Brazil or, or in, in Denmark. And it’s a really important point because we all understand that people have different ways of doing things and different ways of seeing the world and different values and beliefs. And so it’s quite difficult to think that happiness would be any different, right?

I think at a very basic level, we can all, we can all talk about feeling positively, and everyone around the world understands that there are good feelings and there are bad feelings. But some of the, the recent literature on cultural differences’ well-being give us, I think, a more nuanced perspective on what happiness means in different parts of the world. So when we talk about happiness as feeling good, actually everybody around the world wants to feel good. You know, you don’t really find any cultures where people say they want to feel mostly bad. We all want to feel good in some way, but what varies across culture might be the very specific kinds of feelings that people think are good to have. You know, feeling proud of yourself, feeling pride is an emotion that people have, people in the US and Australia, for example, if you ask Australians and Americans, “Is pride a good emotion to have?” Over 80% will say, “Oh yeah, pride is wonderful. It’s good to feel good about yourself and proud about yourself.” When you ask people in China or you ask people in Taiwan, there’s a lot of ambivalence about this emotion of feeling good about yourself. And, one explanation for that is this cultural dimension of individualism and collectivism. So some cultures put more emphasis on defining the individual in relation to his or her relationship so there’s no William Tov that exists as just William Tov the individual. There’s William Tov who’s the father of two kids. There’s the William Tov who’s the professor who teaches students. There’s William Tov who’s the researcher and supervises graduate students. And so in a, in a collectivistic view of the world, each individual is defined in terms of their social roles because how you behave or how you act is going to depend on your particular role at that moment, right? And and whereas in individualistic cultures, this idea of an individual who’s unique and separate from others is sort of like assumed, I mean, it’s something that makes sense, we’re all individuals, we’re all unique, we’re all different. In that context, feeling an emotion like pride, it, it fits in perfectly because if it’s important for me in this culture to be unique, to be special, to distinguish myself from others, then feeling proud about my unique accomplishments, it, it complements that cultural goal. But if I’m living in a society where, you know, it’s much more important to think about my social roles and, and my obligations to other people, then pride in my own achievements is not so important. That’s not, that’s not the focus of everyday life. The focus is on, okay, you know, what are your responsibilities to this person, this situation. And now when you’re wearing a different hat, what are your responsibilities in that role in that situation? And so there’s a lot of adjustment that, that, if you’re living in, especially in Asian collectivistic society, there’s a lot of adjustment that you’re expected to make from context to context. So thinking of being proud of yourself as an individual completely separate from the social context, it’s not, it’s just not something that is, like, really emphasized that much. So that’s just one example of how the cultural context can influence the kind of emotions
that people think are good to feel. Some good feelings are more relevant in some cultures than in other cultures.

And I think another example of this is some emotions vary in terms of how arousing they are. So, for example, there are high arousal positive emotions like feeling enthusiastic, feeling excited, and then there are emotions that are, that are also pleasant but lower on arousal. So feeling calm, feeling peaceful, feeling tranquil, feeling serene. And these, these, both, both of these are pleasant emotions. There are, many people would consider them to be positive to feel. But if, what the latest research suggests is that in, in East Asian cultural context, there’s a greater preference for feeling these sort of like calm peaceful emotions as opposed to the more exciting enthusiastic high energy kinds of emotions that based on some studies tend to be more preferred among participants
in the US than participants of Asian American descent or of, participant in Hong Kong. And the one reason for that is that, you know, in the context of many Asian societies,
going back to what I said earlier, where very often you’re expected to pay attention to the social situation and pay attention to your social roles and adjust yourself accordingly.
If, if that’s what’s important to do in that culture, then feeling calm and, and feeling relaxed is helpful because it helps you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Feeling enthusiastic and excited, it’s not so helpful, because in fact, it might make you a distraction to the social situation, which is what you don’t really want to be, you don’t want to be a distraction. You’re supposed to be paying attention to the people around you and then, you know, your obligations and be respectful and all those things. So that’s another example of how the cultural context influences the kinds of emotions,
the kinds of good emotions, positive emotions that, that, people might want to feel.

E: And so that’s…
W: I was going to say, Ellie, sorry, before you, I was going to say, I think it’s fair to say that there is a cat on your lap at the moment that, judging from the purring I’m here and coming down your microphone.

E: I was going to say, she’s very happy. I’m just ignoring her for a minute, like she’s already pushed two pens off the desk.

W: She’s lovely.

E: No, I was just thinking that’s really interesting because there’s an element in that cultural difference, there’s an element of what’s productive. So how you were saying in the more collectivist society, the peaceful feelings of serenity enable you to be more productive in your social role. So in a sort of Western American kind of individualist setting, I guess, those chasing those sort of high energy, fun and high octane experiences of happiness, I guess, does that compliment the kind of idea that you’re sort of striving for your own success and it’s pushing you forward that sort of thing?

WT: Right, yeah. And so that’s the important idea is that some emotions are more functional and helpful in one culture versus another. And so in the US, for example, I guess the argument would be there are more situations where people feel like they want to influence other, other people’s opinions in terms of asserting your own preferences, convincing others to sort of go along with what you want to do. And if, if that’s valued as a cultural goal, then actually it’s more helpful to be a little bit more energetic, cheerful, enthusiastic, you’re going to be much more persuasive than if you’re calm and relaxed.
You’re gonna be, people are going to pay attention to you more if you have that energy.
But I want to say it’s important to emphasize that a lot of these cultural differences are, you know, they’re relative and they are very, I think, I would say context specific. So my, my reason for emphasizing that is just very recently there was a Gallup world poll
where they actually asked people around the world,
“Would you prefer a calm life or an exciting life?”
And when you ask that question in 116 countries around the world, the, the majority of people around the world want a calm life. They don’t want an exciting life. They want a life that’s stable and, and you know, probably not very stressful, right? And so, so thats, cultural differences are, I think they exist and they’re very interesting, but I always feel it’s more a caution that there’s also a lot of similarity across the, the, globe. And so when we think about this calm life and exciting life, you know, it’s actually a different question than what I’ve been saying. What I’ve been talking about is the emotions that people prefer. And emotions are always going to be context specific, right? In certain situations, people are going to want to experience certain kinds of emotions more than others. But when you ask people what they want for their whole lives, it’s gonna, it’s a different question, yeah. We all know that Thai cuisine and American cuisine are quite different from each other and probably if you ask Thai people, their preferences, they,
for certain types of food, they would say, like, yeah, I like spicy food, and they probably have a preference for spicy food more than Americans do. But if you ask Thai respondents and American respondents that they would want to eat spicy food for the rest of their lives, you’re probably going to find both groups are going to say, “Well, no, not really.”

E: Yeah

WT: For the rest of my life, it’s a different sort of thing, right? And I think a lot of cultural differences have to be understood within a specific context.

W: And I thought as well in your, in the article that I read about this that you contributed to, the,what you say about the, at the time at least, the lack of research about the global south was quite interesting, so the global east global west there’s quite a lot of research in this space of cultural differences and notions of happiness but in the, in the, at the time that the article was written anyway I think you were saying that there needs to be much more work done about the global south, is that still the case?

WT: That, that’s still true yeah and it’s, it’s i think it’s just so so important because a lot of what we think about in terms of collectivism, at least in psychology, I’m sure that in anthropology and sociology, maybe there are more varied perspectives, but a lot of what we think of in terms of individualism and collectivism has been informed by comparisons between you know, Eastern and Western cultures. So the US, Western Europe, and East Asian countries like China, Japan, South Korea and, and that was important work to really develop this appreciation for the influence of culture on well-being. But, you know, it’s very difficult to generalize the findings on Asian samples and Asian perspectives on collectivism, it’s difficult to generalize that literature to the rest of the world. So not just Latin America, but also Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, you know, each of these, each of these continents encompass so many other cultures, and they don’t exactly fit this model of Asian collectivism. We, we assume that Latin American countries are collectivist in the same sense of valuing family and friends and relationships and that’s all true. But you know, there’s also, when you ask Latin Americans, you know, whether they see themselves as individuals or whether they see themselves as connected to other people, they don’t see themselves as connected to other people in the same way that Asians do, and there’s actually much more acceptance of self-expression in some of these Latin American cultures, and some Latin American countries are a lot happier than we would expect or predict based on their GDP. So there’s different cultural norms that are prevalent in other parts of the world and our current theories about what collectivism is not, I don’t think it’s as, it’s not as nuanced that we can fully understand or appreciate what makes Latin Americans happy
And, you know, the wellbeing of, of other countries in Africa and the Middle East as well.

W: For the final part of the podcast, I’m really interested to sort of focus in on how definitions of happiness are sort of nuanced through the experience of mental health problems. I was just wondering, first of all, whether you can speak to that for a moment.

WT: Well, I think there’s different perspectives on this. One perspective might be that, well, we all experience a range of, of good and bad feelings. We have really good days and really, really bad days and that’s normal. That’s just, that’s just life. That’s just normal human functioning. And so when we talk about mental health problems or people who might be experiencing difficulties with their mental health, one perspective is that, well, these are people who are sort of like, they’re at the extremes of these emotional experiences, either in the sense of, you know, we’re all anxious in some way but the person with generalized anxiety disorder is probably experiencing much more
intense levels of anxiety and for much longer periods of time than, than would be considered normal or just outside of that normal range, right? Even depression, you could say, you know, we all feel sad, but somebody who’s undergoing major depression is experiencing sad emotions for, for much longer, for a period of weeks. And, and there are other researchers who would say, you know, what’s defining about depression isn’t — it may not be the sadness so much, it’s just the lack of energy and the lack of positive emotion that many depressed people tend to, it’s just that they don’t find joy or interest in many things. And like at such a low level, right, I mean, that they’re outside of the, the range that most people tend to experience in day-to-day life. So that’s one perspective
on, if we talk about happiness in terms of, like, how often people experience these emotions, experiencing frequent positive emotions and not experiencing negative emotions too much, then, then somebody who might be experiencing the symptoms of a major health, sorry, a mental health challenge is somebody who’s sort of like, falling outside of this normal range of experience.

Another perspective is that for certain forms of well-being, we might not want to ask
people themselves how, how, how they, how they’re doing. So for example, this concept of eudaimonia as living an excellent, you know, living an excellent life, living up to your
potential, which is an idea that was borrowed from Aristotle, some people say, well, that’s a judgment that really shouldn’t be made by the individual. It should be made by another person who can be, quote, more objective, an observer. And the argument for that is that, you know, well, what if, what it somebody is — they have a drug addiction and, you know, they’re really not doing well. They’re not able to keep a job. They’re not maintaining their relationships. And we asked this person how happy they are with their lives and they say they’re just extremely happy and they think they’re living a wonderful
life. Some people would say like, well, you shouldn’t ask, you shouldn’t take their opinion seriously, you should ask somebody else who, you know, a third person’s judgment would probably be more accurate in this case because when we talk about living an excellent life that has to be in line with the cultural ideals and, and the cultural values. So that perspective would say that there’s certain situations where the judgment of a person’s well-being has to come from outside the person rather than from the individual him or herself. And I mean, as somebody who studies subjective well-being, I always feel a little bit ambivalent about that perspective because my research is all based on self-report. I’m asking people to tell me how they feel about their day and whether they are satisfied with their lives and whether they feel like their lives are meaningful. And so I feel like it can be very difficult to completely dismiss the person’s own subjective perspective on how they’re feeling about their lives. I worry that, you know, it can get a little bit dangerous when we argue too strongly for an objective third person perspective. Although I understand the example, I understand where other scholars are coming from. But it’s, I mean, for me, it’s, I take self-report seriously.
Maybe I’m just naive, because a lot, my research is just so reliant on self-report, but you know, I feel like there’s, there’s something of value in a person’s own subjective own subjective experience of their life that we, we ought to pay attention to, that we ought to value in some way. It’s not the only way, and it can be very helpful to ask friends and family to rate a person’s well-being. I think, I think that’s also worthwhile to do. But to completely dismiss a person’s own subjective experience, I think is, it’s ,it’s too soon to toss that out completely.

W: Just talking from personal experience, one thing that I’ve really noticed is that, for me, happiness is always thwarted by the kind of seemingly kind of hyper-awareness
that I have about the emotions that I have at any given moment. And one of the things that I’ve kind of realised for myself is that I think the more that I monitor my own emotions and feelings, the more I’m aware of my own emotions and feelings, the less likely it is I am to feel happiness. And the times that I actually feel happiness is when I lose myself, when I forget myself, when I’m in a situation that is very satisfying, as you say, and kind of meets all those criteria that we’ve been talking about, but fundamentally where I’m actually not monitoring, self-monitoring what I’m feeling at that moment in time and I’m just losing myself.

Within the mental health space, I think there’s some really interesting questions around happiness. There’s of course the fear of happiness, which I think is fascinating. I mean, obviously that’s like a hold of the podcast, (laughter) but I think there’s some really fascinating questions around the way that mental, the way that mental health problems might interplay with notions of happiness.

WT: Yeah, it’s a really interesting example that you give, and I think there are some scholars who have also noticed a similar phenomenon in terms of what they call it, people who value happiness to an extreme. That’s, that’s (laughter) that’s the technical term that they came up with. And so there are some individuals who, like, it’s not just that they care about being happy, it’s like, if they’re not happy enough, they feel like it’s a failure in some way and what, what happens with, with these people that makes it difficult for them to stay happy is actually the monitoring of how happy they are.
Right? And so you’re right. It seems like that gets in the way of people actually being able to enjoy their experiences. And, you know, I think like, like being able to just be in the moment, this is why, you know why mindfulness, awareness, this idea of just observing your experience without judging is a really important idea, right? And just accepting that, you know, like, a lot of emotions don’t last forever, actually. They’re not supposed to. Actually there’s, there’s some research suggesting that people who actually have problems shifting their emotion from one situation to the next is actually not good for their mental health because if you have a functioning emotion system, whether it’s feeling happy or feeling sad, you have to be able to respond to the next thing that happens in your day. So trying to hold on to the happiness, or, or clinging to that fear or sadness, neither of those things are functional in the long run, right? It’s a little bit different from saying not to experience sadness and not to experience happiness. It’s, we all need to experience these things from moment to moment, but there’s a point at which we need to let go of that emotion because it’s no longer relevant to what we’re doing, right? We, we have to be able to move on to the other things in our lives and our emotions are part of those other things, the ups and downs are part of that, are part of normal living and life and I think like, people who value happiness too much, they, they don’t seem to understand that, that the fact that their happiness has gone away or even that the, the other problem is that their expectations are too high for how happy they expect to be. This is what gets in the way of them actually really enjoying what they’re doing. So yeah, I think, I think, it’s important to, to be able to find enjoyment in things without monitoring, that’s exactly how happy you are.

And with my colleague Lana Catalino and I, we’ve, we’ve explored this concept called prioritizing positivity. It’s actually Lana who developed this idea of prioritizing positivity, which is, it’s not exactly valuing happiness in the same way, but it’s sort of like planning your experiences so that you can have a more enjoyable day. If, if you wanna have lunch with some colleagues that you really enjoy at work, it’s sort of like finding a way to, to make time in your day so that you can have lunch with them, as opposed to just sitting at your computer and having lunch by yourself. So, prioritizing positivity is sort of like structuring your day so that you can sort of like, increase the chances that you can have some pleasant experiences. But the focus isn’t so much on how intense the happiness is, it’s just more like the frequency. So trying to increase your opportunities to experience these happy moments without worrying how, how, how intense or how strong that happy feeling is. And, and that actually, that idea that difference between frequency and intensity is actually an important one. It was something that was suggested by some early work in this area that, what predicts our life satisfaction isn’t so much how intensely happy we feel, but it’s more the frequency that matters. It’s experiencing positive emotions frequently. It doesn’t have to be like extreme joy or merriment, even just like mild positive emotions that are frequent throughout the day.
That’s what matters more for our overall well being rather than experiencing strong levels of happiness.

W: Is the idea that rather than putting too much value on happiness and, and almost like being at peace with the, the varying emotions and moods and ebbs and flows of, of the daily experience of emotion is a really interesting one in the sense that there’s that really important space in the middle, isn’t there? A place that isn’t necessarily happiness in inverted commas, but certainly isn’t misery or despair either. And I think that’s a, that’s a really important space. And again, I’m talking very much from personal experience, as somebody who has mental health problems is that, in some ways, I think as part of my coping mechanisms, I’ve had to sort of almost recalibrate what happiness means to me. And I think that there is some value in saying that even though happiness, again, in inverted commas is something which I might struggle to, to attain, there is a really important space in the middle, which is not anxiety, is not misery, is not despair, and that’s has a, in some ways that has an equal value as this thing called happiness in inverted commas

WT: Yeah, I think there’s, you know, Csikszentmihalyi is the guy who developed this concept of flow and he always said like, you know, how you feel about doing something depends on how challenging it is and your skills for doing that thing. So if you’re trying to do something that’s really challenging for you and you don’t have the skills to do it, then you’re going to feel anxious. But if you’re doing something that’s not very challenging and it’s too easy for you, you’re going to feel bored. And there’s sort of like flow, when flow is like this experience where you’re totally focused on what you’re doing because you’re doing something that’s right at your skill level. It’s not too challenging, it’s not too easy, it’s right there. And what he would say is like, actually, you want to do something that’s just a little bit more challenging than what you’re used to – that’s what puts you in flow. But if you’re doing something that’s, that’s still challenging, it’s within your skill level, like that, what he calls that is a state of being in control, basically. Not happy, not sad, but just sort of like in control. You’re not doing something that you think is too hard. You’re not doing something that you think is too easy. It’s just right at your skill level. And you’re just, you know, you’re just focused and you’re aware of what you’re doing. And it’s actually kind of a comfortable feeling. But it’s not, it’s not, you know, it’s, it’s not boredom. It’s definitely not boredom.

W: Thanks so much we’ve run massively over time

WT: Oh Yeah!

W: It’s been a fascinating conversation and I mean I’m sure we would love to have you back on the podcast at some point in the future if you’re interested. Thank you so much Associate Professor William Tov from the Singapore Management University, absolutely fascinating conversation.

E: Yeah thank you so much.

WT: Thanks guys, thanks for having me.

E: In next week’s show Rabbi Robin Ashworth Steen chats to us about how mental health intersects with spirituality and gender.

W: So thank you so much for listening everybody and please do tune in next week.
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Lively Minds is an Anya Media //// Still Ill OK co-production

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