I’m Happy, But What If I’m Supposed to Be Miserable?

This morning my wife, our one-month-old daughter, and I went to a local diner. It was a snow day, my University was closed, and we were enjoying a rare morning together. Before our food arrived, I took a sip of coffee, looked outside, and said, “I’m so happy.” The story should end there, with our tiny family devouring pancakes and running errands. But then I returned to my house, opened my email, and received some bad news. I was supposed to be miserable.

Or so suggested the latest Gallup Report, “The State of American Well-Being: 2014 State Well-Being Rankings.” For the sixth straight year, my state, Kentucky, ranked 49th of 50 U.S. States. Only West Virginians have lower well-being than my fellow Kentuckians do.

My first impulse was to try to make sense of all of this. Was I conning myself when I said I was happy? Can you ever really measure happiness? Let’s not fool ourselves. You can’t measure happiness the same way you can’t measure your weight in gold. But I agree with one of my favorite social psychologists, Dan Gilbert, who said, “maybe we just need to accept a bit of fuzziness and stop complaining” (Stumbling on Happiness, p. 65). So, I accepted my happiness.

This is when I started to understand why I’m throwing off the statewide dish of depression. Here are the five elements of well-being (taken from the Gallup site):

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

This is when I started to understand, and my heart began to sink. I max out on each ingredient. I love my daily activities, both personal and professional. I have relationships that allow me to have the diner experience I mentioned. I’m neither the richest nor the poorest person in my state, but my wife and I manage our finances so that we can feel secure and have rewarding experiences. I love where I live, and enjoy showing people our great state. I take care of myself physically, at least enough so that I can make words move across the page. All of that is annoying to read and even harder to write. But it’s true.

Then why did my heart start to sink? I have a theory of mind and a concern for others. Unlike my dogs, a blowfish, or the horses I drive by on my way to work, I can simulate another person’s experience. And when I simulated how it felt to be deprived of purpose, meaningful relationships, financial security, community pride and safety, and physical health, I realized the seriousness of today’s Gallup results. We need chang e.

The good news is that each well-being ingredient can be mended. To have higher well-being, people don’t need to grow a third leg or become enthralled with the taste of cod liver oil. Those things are impossible. Psychological science provides clear answers about how to improve our well-being. The biggest challenge is that the scale of change needed to buck our spot in the well-being basement could take years. Kentucky will never be Hawaii, but we can improve. Is it worth a try? I think so.