VIII. THE HAPPINESS LAW OF SUBJECTIVITY
Finally, there is “the happiness law of subjectivity.”
This law suggests that a person’s own, subjective view of their circumstances is far more important than the objective view made by outside observers or cold statistics. Put more simply: it’s not what one actually has, it’s how one views what one has, that counts!
This happiness law brings the “human factor” into account. It explains how people often react so differently to the same situation. It rounds-out our equation by adding the “subjective element” to the happiness formula.
The “subjective element” has several sides. Many things affect how we view our circumstances, and psychology has studied them all. Our family background, our cultural background, our race, our sex, our values, our insecurities, our goals, our frustrations, our beliefs, our hopes and our fears — all effect what we want in life, and how we interpret what we get…
Individual subjectivity plays a major role in the kinds of things we want from life, according to the research. And how do people determine what they want?
Well for one thing, people want what they’ve been led to expect. A person, hearing the rumor that the Company is planning a 10% raise, will be rather disappointed when he hears that the actual raise is only 5% (even though, technically, he or she is better off).
The idea is this: if events give us more than we expected to get, we tend to be happy with the results, but if events fall short of our expectations we’ll tend to be disappointed (124, 137, 130, 133, 229).
For another thing, people want what they might have. For example, children happily play with available toys until it is revealed that even better toys are near, but inaccessible. The joy quickly turns to frustration and despair when these children see what they might have had (8).
People also want what their peers are getting!
Two groups of construction workers show up at a new job-site, both hired by different companies, and both doing the same kind of labor. Because both companies pay well, all the workers are pretty satisfied — for the first few days. But when the group from Acme Construction learns that the workers from Ace Construction are being paid substantially more, they become quite unhappy in the days which follow. (Likewise, the Ace workers grow even happier with their situation.) In real terms, everyone’s being well-paid. Thus, in theory, everyone ought to be satisfied. But, in fact, felt happiness depends much more on what the other guy is getting.
The grass may not necessarily be greener in the other fellow’s yard, but we certainly keep our eyes on it!
Take income for example. The poor in America are living on incomes that in the underdeveloped world might be considered very well-off — yet the fact is little consolation when affluence surrounds the poor here.
Most people constantly compare their progress to that of others around them in determining how happy they should feel. When we are doing better than others (particularly those in our immediate situation), we feel happy. When others are out-performing us, we feel dissatisfied (133, 147, 286, 299, 338, 390, 392, 393). These are just a few examples of the widely documented “social comparison theory” as it is known to social scientists (138).
People also want to do a bit better than they’ve done in the past (390)…
It is an accepted fact in psychology that individuals tend to develop an internalized standard of acceptable performance in relation to any given task. Achievement below this standard is experienced as rather unpleasant, while achievement above it is experienced as especially pleasant. The level of the this internalized standard is subject to “adaptation effects” as indicated by the fact that if a person consistently achieves above or below his level of aspiration the neutral point tends to shift so as to more nearly coincide with the usual level of performance. Some students, for example, are adapted to the fact that they can usually expect to get “C’s” from most college courses. Thus, when they get an occasional “B” or “A” they are thrilled. Other students are accustomed to making “A’s”, may be most disappointed with a “B” (133).
Most people, it seems, are somewhat spoiled by success (133, 390). The findings suggest that happiness may be somewhat dependent on a continual “moving up” on “self-actualizing” in terms of personal progress, and indeed, happy people often to be those whose lives have been exemplified by continually rising progress and success.
Finally, people want what they’ve have planned for themselves in the future. Most men and women tend to evaluate their current conditions in light of their future hopes and aspirations. If the gap between where one is and where one wants to be is large, a person tends to be unhappy — if the gap is small, a person tends to be happy (241, 270, 272).
Individual subjectivity not only determines what we “want” in life, it also has a lot to do with how we perceive what we get.
How we view our lot in life is also largely subjective. We can see our life in optimistic terms, for example, and find it full and abundant. We can see our life in pessimistic, negative terms and find the same circumstances as being empty and lacking. We can view our past as being hurdles we have surmounted, or as traumas which have set us back. We can view our future as something that will be better, or as a mine-field of potential misfortunes which can keep us from our goals. Depending on how we see life, in subjective terms, our life can be seen as heaven or hell no matter what the objective evidence might indicate.
In sum, “the law of subjectivity” shows that the objective circumstances of one’s life are open to a great deal of subjective interpretation…
It’s not so much what you have, it’s how you view what you have that counts when it comes to happiness.