Research into why we can't fully embrace happiness (and why it's OK).
Think about the happiest moments in your life, whether with family, on your own, or enjoying a huge success at work. In all honesty, as good as those times were, were you ever truly overwhelmed with 100% pure joy? Let's say you’re having a romantic moment with your partner, feeling perhaps more love than you’ve ever felt in your life. Are you happy? For sure. However, can you state with certainty that no emotions of sadness were in your consciousness? Or that a part of your mind didn't wander off to the fact that tomorrow you've got to go out of town? Or that the thought didn't creep into your awareness that the moment would inevitably end soon?
Welcome to the world of mixed emotions.
There’s a theory that the only way to maximize well-being is by being consistently happy. Some countries even use happiness indicators to measure how well their political and economic systems are working out for their citizens. Happiness researchers tell us that even though we look forward to major life events such as getting married and having children, when we actually experience them we are inevitably disappointed—and that’s bad. (No matter that it's hard to imagine how anyone would truly be in ecstasy every time a diaper needed changing.)
Obviously, there’s more to life than simple happiness. As I’ve found in my own research, fulfillment doesn’t always equal happiness. You can be completely miserable on any given day but still feel that you’re working toward achieving important goals that will promote your fulfillment. Sure, a diaper may not be fun to change, but that little person gives you a deeper sense of pleasure than all the carefree nights you’ve spent out with your friends. That person needing your care doesn’t have to be little, either. Research on care-giving in later adulthood shows that as stressful as it can be, those who provide assistance to spouses or relatives often report feeling higher levels of subjective well-being than happiness theory would predict (e.g. van Campen et al., 2013).
It’s quite likely that we need to learn over the course of our lives that happiness isn’t the be-all and end-all of feeling reasonably satisfied with our experiences. Further, we also learn that it’s pretty difficult to feel 100% happy, so we come to accept the particular blend of joy and sadness that many of life’s moments provide. According to Differential Emotions Theory, with age and experience, our thoughts and feelings become more complex and elaborated. Our appreciation for the subtleties of experiences and events allows us to live more comfortably with the fact that nothing is ever 100% positive or negative.
The University of Southern California’s Stefan Schneider and Arthur Stone (2015) tested for the presence of mixed emotions by age group using two nationally representative survey panels of individuals living in the United States aged 15 to 90. They asked participants to recall the events of the previous day and then to rate three of those events for happiness using two different rating scales. One scale posed the question: “From 0 to 6, how (happy/sad) did you feel during this time?” The second scale used a slightly different prompt: “From 0 to 6, where a 0 means you were not (happy/sad) at all and a 6 means you were very (happy/sad), how (happy/sad) did you feel during this time?”
These questions produced ratings of nearly 50,000 events averaging slightly over two hours apiece in one sample and about one hour apiece in the second. Overall, people were happier than they were sad during these episodes. The real questions of interest would be how mixed people’s emotions would be, and whether there would be regular patterns relating mixed emotions to age.
To get these answers, Schneider and Stone had to devise a way to define “mixed” emotions. They posed three options:
- In the first, called covariation, mixed emotions would show up as a statistical measure of how far from a -1 each individual’s ratings would be. If you’re high in mixed emotions using this measure, your positive ratings don't relate very well to your ratings of negative emotions.
- The second measure of mixed emotions uses ambivalence as the defining feature. The more you’re both negative and positive in rating a given episode, the more mixed your emotions.
- Finally, you can be simply classified into a combination of high-low categories where you would be happy overall, sad overall, high on both happiness and sadness overall (truly mixed), or just low on both dimensions.
It turned out that the exact definition of mixed emotions didn't make much of a difference in the findings. The results showed a small but clearly discernible pattern with age. The older the participant, the greater the chances of showing up on the mixed emotion side of the equation. This finding held even after controlling for other factors related to age, such as retirement and disability. In other words, however you define it, and regardless of objective circumstances, older people seem to be more capable of seeing life’s experiences from all possible angles.
These findings should give you hope about your own ability to cope with life’s complexities. If part of you becomes demoralized when the joy you feel from positive events becomes slightly dampened by something else going wrong, the USC study shows that this is perfectly normal. The older you get, the better able you should be, based on this study, at accepting this reality. As that wise observer of human nature, Matt Groening, noted, “'The Simpsons' is about alienation and the ambivalence of living with a family who you love but who drive you completely crazy.”
The idea of loving your family but being driven “crazy” by them may just be one of those realities we become increasingly able to accept as we get older. It may be that happy-sad combination that will allow you to experience the true fulfillment that comes from accepting life’s highs, lows, and everything in between.