What is the effect of high expectations on long-term happiness?

What is the effect of high expectations on long-term happiness?

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Are there any studies about the long term effects of having high expectations of oneself on one's happiness? Does crashing after failing to reach unrealistic goals significantly impact long-term happiness?

There are definitely studies on this, but I don't have the references at hand. I've heard about this in the online Harvard courses on positive psychology by Tal Ben-Shahar.

In terms of "crashing", there are studies about baseline-happiness, showing you bounce back up after a setback, and back down, after a positive event, like winning the lottery. Only intrinsic perspective changes can increase or decrease your base-level of happiness.

He also talks about a study showing "pessimists" are better at estimating their short and long term success rate. And "optimists" are bad at estimating short term, but good at estimating long term success. The interesting thing is, the pessimists set lower expectations, and their base-level of happiness remains. The optimists have higher expectations, and try until they succeed. The increased belief in their own efficacy, and resilience in the face of a set back, helps to increase their base-level of happiness.

On the other side of the coin, he stresses the importance of "realistic optimism". He says the keys to success are a combination of optimism, passion and hard work. Only optimism (high expectations) is not enough. A quote, by approximation, by Maslow:

Too much optimism does not lead to success, and results in depression. A sense of reality is needed.

You can look into the Stockdale paradox.

Sorry I can't give you a shorter, more concise answer at the moment, maybe I'll revisit this later.



Overall participants exhibited moderate levels of TSC (M= 2.96, SD = 0.65). On average, participants reported relatively greater promotion focus (M= 3.56, SD = 0.67) compared to prevention focus (M= 2.84, SD = 0.79), t(524) = 16.45, p< 0.001. Finally, participants also indicated relatively high levels of happiness (M= 4.47, SD = 1.49). All intercorrelations of the study variables are presented in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Intercorrelations between study variables.

Main Analyses

A mediation model was built to test whether the effect of TSC on happiness was mediated by regulatory focus. A series of regression equations relating TSC (the independent variable), promotion focus and prevention focus (the potential mediators), and happiness (the dependent variable) were performed using bootstrapping analyses (based on 5,000 bootstrap samples) in the SPSS macro (PROCESS model 4) recommended by Hayes (2013). Additionally, as age was significantly correlated with happiness [r(523) = 0.19, p< 0.001)], it was included as a covariate in the mediation analyses. The results of the analyses are depicted in Figure 1.

FIGURE 1. Results of mediation analyses testing promotion focus and prevention focus as mediators of the effect of TSC on happiness while controlling for age as a covariate. Double asterisks (**) indicate coefficients are significantly different from zero, p > 0.001. When the mediators are included, the coefficient changes from β = 0.47 to β = 0.23, indicating partial mediation.

Results were in line with our prediction that TSC was positively associated with promotion focus [β = 0.23, 95% CI (0.14, 0.32)]. Moreover, results also revealed that TSC was negatively associated with prevention focus [β = -0.45, 95% CI (-0.52, -0.37)]. Furthermore, while greater promotion focus predicted more happiness [β = 0.29, 95% CI (0.22, 0.36)], less prevention focus predicted more happiness [β = -0.40, 95% CI (-0.47, -0.32)]. TSC had an indirect effect on happiness through promotion focus [β = 0.07, 95% CI (0.04, 0.10)] and prevention focus [β = 0.18, 95% CI (0.23, 0.23)] respectively. Accordingly, the combined indirect effect that TSC had on happiness through promotion and prevention focus as mediators was β = 0.24, 95% CI (0.19, 0.30). Finally, the direct effect of TSC on happiness remained significant [β = 0.23, 95% CI (0.15, 0.31)], therefore indicating partial mediation by promotion and prevention focus.

Regulation of Stress

As we learned in the previous section, stress —especially if it is chronic—takes a toll on our bodies and can have enormously negative health implications. When we experience events in our lives that we appraise as stressful, it is essential that we use effective coping strategies to manage our stress. Coping refers to mental and behavioral efforts that we use to deal with problems relating to stress, including its presumed cause and the unpleasant feelings and emotions it produces.


Lazarus and Folkman (1984) distinguished two fundamental kinds of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, one attempts to manage or alter the problem that is causing one to experience stress (i.e., the stressor). Problem-focused coping strategies are similar to strategies used in everyday problem-solving: they typically involve identifying the problem, considering possible solutions, weighing the costs and benefits of these solutions, and then selecting an alternative (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). As an example, suppose Bradford receives a midterm notice that he is failing statistics class. If Bradford adopts a problem-focused coping approach to managing his stress, he would be proactive in trying to alleviate the source of the stress. He might contact his professor to discuss what must be done to raise his grade, he might also decide to set aside two hours daily to study statistics assignments, and he may seek tutoring assistance. A problem-focused approach to managing stress means we actively try to do things to address the problem.

Emotion-focused coping, in contrast, consists of efforts to change or reduce the negative emotions associated with stress. These efforts may include avoiding, minimizing, or distancing oneself from the problem, or positive comparisons with others (“I’m not as bad off as she is”), or seeking something positive in a negative event (“Now that I’ve been fired, I can sleep in for a few days”). In some cases, emotion-focused coping strategies involve reappraisal, whereby the stressor is construed differently (and somewhat self-deceptively) without changing its objective level of threat (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, a person sentenced to federal prison who thinks, “This will give me a great chance to network with others,” is using reappraisal. If Bradford adopted an emotion-focused approach to managing his midterm deficiency stress, he might watch a comedy movie, play video games, or spend hours on Twitter to take his mind off the situation. In a certain sense, emotion-focused coping can be thought of as treating the symptoms rather than the actual cause.

While many stressors elicit both kinds of coping strategies, problem-focused coping is more likely to occur when encountering stressors we perceive as controllable, while emotion-focused coping is more likely to predominate when faced with stressors that we believe we are powerless to change (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Clearly, emotion-focused coping is more effective in dealing with uncontrollable stressors. For example, if at midnight you are stressing over a 40-page paper due in the morning that you have not yet started, you are probably better off recognizing the hopelessness of the situation and doing something to take your mind off it taking a problem-focused approach by trying to accomplish this task would only lead to frustration, anxiety, and even more stress.

Fortunately, most stressors we encounter can be modified and are, to varying degrees, controllable. A person who cannot stand her job can quit and look for work elsewhere a middle-aged divorcee can find another potential partner the freshman who fails an exam can study harder next time, and a breast lump does not necessarily mean that one is fated to die of breast cancer.


The desire and ability to predict events, make decisions, and affect outcomes—that is, to enact control in our lives—is a basic tenet of human behavior (Everly & Lating, 2002). Albert Bandura (1997) stated that “the intensity and chronicity of human stress is governed largely by perceived control over the demands of one’s life” (p. 262). As cogently described in his statement, our reaction to potential stressors depends to a large extent on how much control we feel we have over such things. Perceived control is our beliefs about our personal capacity to exert influence over and shape outcomes, and it has major implications for our health and happiness (Infurna & Gerstorf, 2014). Extensive research has demonstrated that perceptions of personal control are associated with a variety of favorable outcomes, such as better physical and mental health and greater psychological well-being (Diehl & Hay, 2010). Greater personal control is also associated with lower reactivity to stressors in daily life. For example, researchers in one investigation found that higher levels of perceived control at one point in time were later associated with lower emotional and physical reactivity to interpersonal stressors (Neupert, Almeida, & Charles, 2007). Further, a daily diary study with 34 older widows found that their stress and anxiety levels were significantly reduced on days during which the widows felt greater perceived control (Ong, Bergeman, & Bisconti, 2005).

When we lack a sense of control over the events in our lives, particularly when those events are threatening, harmful, or noxious, the psychological consequences can be profound. In one of the better illustrations of this concept, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a series of classic experiments in the 1960s (Seligman & Maier, 1967) in which dogs were placed in a chamber where they received electric shocks from which they could not escape. Later, when these dogs were given the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping across a partition, most failed to even try they seemed to just give up and passively accept any shocks the experimenters chose to administer. In comparison, dogs who were previously allowed to escape the shocks tended to jump the partition and escape the pain (Figure).

Seligman’s learned helplessness experiments with dogs used an apparatus that measured when the animals would move from a floor delivering shocks to one without.

Seligman believed that the dogs who failed to try to escape the later shocks were demonstrating learned helplessness : They had acquired a belief that they were powerless to do anything about the noxious stimulation they were receiving. Seligman also believed that the passivity and lack of initiative these dogs demonstrated was similar to that observed in human depression. Therefore, Seligman speculated that acquiring a sense of learned helplessness might be an important cause of depression in humans: Humans who experience negative life events that they believe they are unable to control may become helpless. As a result, they give up trying to control or change the situation and some may become depressed and show lack of initiative in future situations in which they can control the outcomes (Seligman, Maier, & Geer, 1968).

Seligman and colleagues later reformulated the original learned helplessness model of depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). In their reformulation, they emphasized attributions (i.e., a mental explanation for why something occurred) that lead to the perception that one lacks control over negative outcomes are important in fostering a sense of learned helplessness. For example, suppose a coworker shows up late to work your belief as to what caused the coworker’s tardiness would be an attribution (e.g., too much traffic, slept too late, or just doesn’t care about being on time).

The reformulated version of Seligman’s study holds that the attributions made for negative life events contribute to depression. Consider the example of a student who performs poorly on a midterm exam. This model suggests that the student will make three kinds of attributions for this outcome: internal vs. external (believing the outcome was caused by his own personal inadequacies or by environmental factors), stable vs. unstable (believing the cause can be changed or is permanent), and global vs. specific (believing the outcome is a sign of inadequacy in most everything versus just this area). Assume that the student makes an internal (“I’m just not smart”), stable (“Nothing can be done to change the fact that I’m not smart”) and global (“This is another example of how lousy I am at everything”) attribution for the poor performance. The reformulated theory predicts that the student would perceive a lack of control over this stressful event and thus be especially prone to developing depression. Indeed, research has demonstrated that people who have a tendency to make internal, global, and stable attributions for bad outcomes tend to develop symptoms of depression when faced with negative life experiences (Peterson & Seligman, 1984).

Seligman’s learned helplessness model has emerged over the years as a leading theoretical explanation for the onset of major depressive disorder. When you study psychological disorders, you will learn more about the latest reformulation of this model—now called hopelessness theory.

People who report higher levels of perceived control view their health as controllable, thereby making it more likely that they will better manage their health and engage in behaviors conducive to good health (Bandura, 2004). Not surprisingly, greater perceived control has been linked to lower risk of physical health problems, including declines in physical functioning (Infurna, Gerstorf, Ram, Schupp, & Wagner, 2011), heart attacks (Rosengren et al., 2004), and both cardiovascular disease incidence (Stürmer, Hasselbach, & Amelang, 2006) and mortality from cardiac disease (Surtees et al., 2010). In addition, longitudinal studies of British civil servants have found that those in low-status jobs (e.g., clerical and office support staff) in which the degree of control over the job is minimal are considerably more likely to develop heart disease than those with high-status jobs or considerable control over their jobs (Marmot, Bosma, Hemingway, & Stansfeld, 1997).

The link between perceived control and health may provide an explanation for the frequently observed relationship between social class and health outcomes (Kraus, Piff, Mendoza-Denton, Rheinschmidt, & Keltner, 2012). In general, research has found that more affluent individuals experience better health mainly because they tend to believe that they can personally control and manage their reactions to life’s stressors (Johnson & Krueger, 2006). Perhaps buoyed by the perceived level of control, individuals of higher social class may be prone to overestimating the degree of influence they have over particular outcomes. For example, those of higher social class tend to believe that their votes have greater sway on election outcomes than do those of lower social class, which may explain higher rates of voting in more affluent communities (Krosnick, 1990). Other research has found that a sense of perceived control can protect less affluent individuals from poorer health, depression, and reduced life-satisfaction—all of which tend to accompany lower social standing (Lachman & Weaver, 1998).

Taken together, findings from these and many other studies clearly suggest that perceptions of control and coping abilities are important in managing and coping with the stressors we encounter throughout life.


The need to form and maintain strong, stable relationships with others is a powerful, pervasive, and fundamental human motive (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Building strong interpersonal relationships with others helps us establish a network of close, caring individuals who can provide social support in times of distress, sorrow, and fear. Social support can be thought of as the soothing impact of friends, family, and acquaintances (Baron & Kerr, 2003). Social support can take many forms, including advice, guidance, encouragement, acceptance, emotional comfort, and tangible assistance (such as financial help). Thus, other people can be very comforting to us when we are faced with a wide range of life stressors, and they can be extremely helpful in our efforts to manage these challenges. Even in nonhuman animals, species mates can offer social support during times of stress. For example, elephants seem to be able to sense when other elephants are stressed and will often comfort them with physical contact—such as a trunk touch—or an empathetic vocal response (Krumboltz, 2014).

Scientific interest in the importance of social support first emerged in the 1970s when health researchers developed an interest in the health consequences of being socially integrated (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1996). Interest was further fueled by longitudinal studies showing that social connectedness reduced mortality. In one classic study, nearly 7,000 Alameda County, California, residents were followed over 9 years. Those who had previously indicated that they lacked social and community ties were more likely to die during the follow-up period than those with more extensive social networks. Compared to those with the most social contacts, isolated men and women were, respectively, 2.3 and 2.8 times more likely to die. These trends persisted even after controlling for a variety of health-related variables, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, self-reported health at the beginning of the study, and physical activity (Berkman & Syme, 1979).

Since the time of that study, social support has emerged as one of the well-documented psychosocial factors affecting health outcomes (Uchino, 2009). A statistical review of 148 studies conducted between 1982 and 2007 involving over 300,000 participants concluded that individuals with stronger social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with weak or insufficient social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). According to the researchers, the magnitude of the effect of social support observed in this study is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeded many well-known risk factors for mortality, such as obesity and physical inactivity (Figure).

Close relationships with others, whether (a) a group of friends or (b) a family circle, provide more than happiness and fulfillment—they can help foster good health. (credit a: modification of work by Nattachai Noogure credit b: modification of work by Christian Haugen)

A number of large-scale studies have found that individuals with low levels of social support are at greater risk of mortality, especially from cardiovascular disorders (Brummett et al., 2001). Further, higher levels of social supported have been linked to better survival rates following breast cancer (Falagas et al., 2007) and infectious diseases, especially HIV infection (Lee & Rotheram-Borus, 2001). In fact, a person with high levels of social support is less likely to contract a common cold. In one study, 334 participants completed questionnaires assessing their sociability these individuals were subsequently exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored for several weeks to see who became ill. Results showed that increased sociability was linearly associated with a decreased probability of developing a cold (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003).

For many of us, friends are a vital source of social support. But what if you found yourself in a situation in which you lacked friends or companions? For example, suppose a popular high school student attends a far-away college, does not know anyone, and has trouble making friends and meaningful connections with others during the first semester. What can be done? If real life social support is lacking, access to distant friends via social media may help compensate. In a study of college freshmen, those with few face-to-face friends on campus but who communicated electronically with distant friends were less distressed that those who did not (Raney & Troop-Gordon, 2012). Also, for some people, our families—especially our parents—are a major source of social support.

Social support appears to work by boosting the immune system, especially among people who are experiencing stress (Uchino, Vaughn, Carlisle, & Birmingham, 2012). In a pioneering study, spouses of cancer patients who reported high levels of social support showed indications of better immune functioning on two out of three immune functioning measures, compared to spouses who were below the median on reported social support (Baron, Cutrona, Hicklin, Russell, & Lubaroff, 1990). Studies of other populations have produced similar results, including those of spousal caregivers of dementia sufferers, medical students, elderly adults, and cancer patients (Cohen & Herbert, 1996 Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002).

In addition, social support has been shown to reduce blood pressure for people performing stressful tasks, such as giving a speech or performing mental arithmetic (Lepore, 1998). In these kinds of studies, participants are usually asked to perform a stressful task either alone, with a stranger present (who may be either supportive or unsupportive), or with a friend present. Those tested with a friend present generally exhibit lower blood pressure than those tested alone or with a stranger (Fontana, Diegnan, Villeneuve, & Lepore, 1999). In one study, 112 female participants who performed stressful mental arithmetic exhibited lower blood pressure when they received support from a friend rather than a stranger, but only if the friend was a male (Phillips, Gallagher, & Carroll, 2009). Although these findings are somewhat difficult to interpret, the authors mention that it is possible that females feel less supported and more evaluated by other females, particularly females whose opinions they value.

Taken together, the findings above suggest one of the reasons social support is connected to favorable health outcomes is because it has several beneficial physiological effects in stressful situations. However, it is also important to consider the possibility that social support may lead to better health behaviors, such as a healthy diet, exercising, smoking cessation, and cooperation with medical regimens (Uchino, 2009).

While having social support is quite beneficial, being the recipient of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors is associated with a number of negative outcomes. In their literature review, Brondolo, Brady, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada (2009) describe how racial prejudice and discrimination serve as unique, significant stressors for those who are the targets of such attitudes and behavior. Being the target of racism is associated with increased rates of depression, lowered self-esteem, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Given the complex and pervasive nature of racism as a stressor, Brondolo et al. (2009) point out the importance of coping with this specific stressor. Their review is aimed at determining which coping strategies are most effective at offsetting negative health outcomes associated with racism-related stress. The authors examine the effectiveness of three coping strategies: focusing on racial identity to handle race-related stress, anger expression/suppression, and seeking social support. You’ve learned a bit about social support, so we’ll focus the remainder of this discussion on the potential coping strategies of focusing on racial identity and anger expression/suppression.

Focusing on racial identity refers to the process by which a person comes to feel as if he belongs to a given racial group this may increase a sense of pride associated with group membership. Brondolo et al. (2009) suggest that a strong sense of racial identity might help an individual who is the target of racism differentiate between prejudicial attitudes/behaviors that are directed toward his group as a whole rather than at him as a person. Furthermore, the sense of belonging to his group might alleviate the distress of being ostracized by others. However, the research literature on the effectiveness of this technique has produced mixed results.

Anger expression/suppression refers to the options available as a function of the anger evoked by racial prejudice and discrimination. Put simply, a target of racist attitudes and behaviors can act upon her anger or suppress her anger. As discussed by Brondolo et al. (2009), there has been very little research on the effectiveness of either approach the results are quite mixed with some showing anger expression and others showing anger suppression as the healthier option.

In the end, racism-related stress is a complex issue and each of the coping strategies discussed here has strengths and weaknesses. Brondolo et al. (2009) argue that it is imperative that additional research be conducted to ascertain the most effective strategies for coping with the negative outcomes that are experienced by the targets of racism.


Beyond having a sense of control and establishing social support networks, there are numerous other means by which we can manage stress (Figure). A common technique people use to combat stress is exercise (Salmon, 2001). It is well-established that exercise, both of long (aerobic) and short (anaerobic) duration, is beneficial for both physical and mental health (Everly & Lating, 2002). There is considerable evidence that physically fit individuals are more resistant to the adverse effects of stress and recover more quickly from stress than less physically fit individuals (Cotton, 1990). In a study of more than 500 Swiss police officers and emergency service personnel, increased physical fitness was associated with reduced stress, and regular exercise was reported to protect against stress-related health problems (Gerber, Kellman, Hartman, & Pühse, 2010).

Stress reduction techniques may include (a) exercise, (b) meditation and relaxation, or (c) biofeedback. (credit a: modification of work by “UNE Photos”/Flickr credit b: modification of work by Caleb Roenigk credit c: modification of work by Dr. Carmen Russoniello)

One reason exercise may be beneficial is because it might buffer some of the deleterious physiological mechanisms of stress. One study found rats that exercised for six weeks showed a decrease in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness to mild stressors (Campeau et al., 2010). In high-stress humans, exercise has been shown to prevent telomere shortening, which may explain the common observation of a youthful appearance among those who exercise regularly (Puterman et al., 2010). Further, exercise in later adulthood appears to minimize the detrimental effects of stress on the hippocampus and memory (Head, Singh, & Bugg, 2012). Among cancer survivors, exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety (Speck, Courneya, Masse, Duval, & Schmitz, 2010) and depressive symptoms (Craft, VanIterson, Helenowski, Rademaker, & Courneya, 2012). Clearly, exercise is a highly effective tool for regulating stress.

In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, developed a stress reduction method called the relaxation response technique (Greenberg, 2006). The relaxation response technique combines relaxation with transcendental meditation , and consists of four components (Stein, 2001):

  1. sitting upright on a comfortable chair with feet on the ground and body in a relaxed position,
  2. a quiet environment with eyes closed,
  3. repeating a word or a phrase—a mantra—to oneself, such as “alert mind, calm body,”
  4. passively allowing the mind to focus on pleasant thoughts, such as nature or the warmth of your blood nourishing your body.

The relaxation response approach is conceptualized as a general approach to stress reduction that reduces sympathetic arousal, and it has been used effectively to treat people with high blood pressure (Benson & Proctor, 1994).

Another technique to combat stress, biofeedback , was developed by Gary Schwartz at Harvard University in the early 1970s. Biofeedback is a technique that uses electronic equipment to accurately measure a person’s neuromuscular and autonomic activity—feedback is provided in the form of visual or auditory signals. The main assumption of this approach is that providing somebody biofeedback will enable the individual to develop strategies that help gain some level of voluntary control over what are normally involuntary bodily processes (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1995). A number of different bodily measures have been used in biofeedback research, including facial muscle movement, brain activity, and skin temperature, and it has been applied successfully with individuals experiencing tension headaches, high blood pressure, asthma, and phobias (Stein, 2001).


When faced with stress, people must attempt to manage or cope with it. In general, there are two basic forms of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Those who use problem-focused coping strategies tend to cope better with stress because these strategies address the source of stress rather than the resulting symptoms. To a large extent, perceived control greatly impacts reaction to stressors and is associated with greater physical and mental well-being. Social support has been demonstrated to be a highly effective buffer against the adverse effects of stress. Extensive research has shown that social support has beneficial physiological effects for people, and it seems to influence immune functioning. However, the beneficial effects of social support may be related to its influence on promoting healthy behaviors.

Review Questions

Emotion-focused coping would likely be a better method than problem-focused coping for dealing with which of the following stressors?

Studies of British civil servants have found that those in the lowest status jobs are much more likely to develop heart disease than those who have high status jobs. These findings attest to the importance of ________ in dealing with stress.

Relative to those with low levels of social support, individuals with high levels of social support ________.

  1. are more likely to develop asthma
  2. tend to have less perceived control
  3. are more likely to develop cardiovascular disorders
  4. tend to tolerate stress well

The concept of learned helplessness was formulated by Seligman to explain the ________.

  1. inability of dogs to attempt to escape avoidable shocks after having received inescapable shocks
  2. failure of dogs to learn to from prior mistakes
  3. ability of dogs to learn to help other dogs escape situations in which they are receiving uncontrollable shocks
  4. inability of dogs to learn to help other dogs escape situations in which they are receiving uncontrollable electric shocks

Critical Thinking Questions

Although problem-focused coping seems to be a more effective strategy when dealing with stressors, do you think there are any kinds of stressful situations in which emotion-focused coping might be a better strategy?

Describe how social support can affect health both directly and indirectly.

Personal Application Question

Try to think of an example in which you coped with a particular stressor by using problem-focused coping. What was the stressor? What did your problem-focused efforts involve? Were they effective?

Happiness Defined

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

That definition resonates with us here at Greater Good: It captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life—and suggests how these emotions and sense of meaning reinforce one another.

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3. The science of happiness

3.1 Can happiness be measured?

With the explosive rise of empirical research on happiness, a central question is how far, and how, happiness might be measured. [11] There seems to be no in-principle barrier to the idea of measuring, at least roughly, how happy people are. Investigators may never enjoy the precision of the &ldquohedonimeter&rdquo once envisaged by Edgeworth to show just how happy a person is (Edgeworth 1881). Indeed, such a device might be impossible even in principle, since happiness might involve multiple dimensions that either cannot be precisely quantified or summed together. If so, it could still be feasible to develop approximate measures of happiness, or at least its various dimensions. Similarly, depression may not admit of precise quantification in a single number, yet many useful if imprecise measures of depression exist. In the case of happiness, it is plausible that even current measures provide information about how anxious, cheerful, satisfied, etc. people are, and thus tell us something about their happiness. Even the simplest self-report measures used in the literature have been found to correlate well with many intuitively relevant variables, such as friends&rsquo reports, smiling, physiological measures, health, longevity, and so forth (Pavot 2008).

Importantly, most scientific research needs only to discern patterns across large numbers of individuals&mdashto take an easy case, determining whether widows tend to be less happy than newlyweds&mdashand this is compatible with substantial unreliability in assessing individual happiness. Similarly, an inaccurate thermometer might be a poor guide to the temperature, but readings from many such thermometers could correlate fairly well with actual temperatures&mdashtelling us, for instance, that Minnesota is colder than Florida.

This point reveals an important caveat: measures of happiness could correlate well with how happy people are, thus telling us which groups of people tend to be happier, while being completely wrong about absolute levels of happiness. Self-reports of happiness, for instance, might correctly indicate that unemployed people are considerably less happy than those with jobs. But every one of those reports could be wrong, say if everyone is unhappy yet claims to be happy, or vice-versa, so long as the unemployed report lower happiness than the employed. Similarly, bad thermometers may show that Minnesota is colder than Florida without giving the correct temperature.

Two morals emerge from these reflections. First, self-report measures of happiness could be reliable guides to relative happiness, though telling us little about how happy, in absolute terms, people are. We may know who is happier, that is, but not whether people are in fact happy. Second, even comparisons of relative happiness will be inaccurate if the groups being compared systematically bias their reports in different ways. This worry is particularly acute for cross-cultural comparisons of happiness, where differing norms about happiness may undermine the comparability of self-reports. The French might report lower happiness than Americans, for instance, not because their lives are less satisfying or pleasant, but because they tend to put a less positive spin on things. For this reason it may be useful to employ instruments, including narrower questions or physiological measures, that are less prone to cultural biasing. [12]

The discussion thus far has assumed that people can be wrong about how happy they are. Is this plausible? Some have argued that (sincerely) self-reported happiness cannot, even in principle, be mistaken. If you think you&rsquore happy, goes a common sentiment, then you are happy. This claim is not plausible on a hedonistic or emotional state view of happiness, since those theories take judgments of happiness to encompass not just how one is feeling at the moment but also past states, and memories of those can obviously be spurious. Further, it has been argued that even judgments of how one feels at the present moment may often be mistaken, particularly regarding moods like anxiety. [13]

The idea that sincere self-reports of happiness are incorrigible can only be correct, it seems, given a quite specific conception of happiness&mdasha kind of life satisfaction theory of happiness on which people count as satisfied with their lives so long as they are disposed to judge explicitly that they are satisfied with their lives on the whole. Also assumed here is that self-reports of happiness are in fact wholly grounded in life satisfaction judgments like these&mdashthat is, that people take questions about &ldquohappiness&rdquo to be questions about life satisfaction. Given these assumptions, we can plausibly conclude that self-reports of happiness are incorrigible. One question is whether happiness, thus conceived, is very important. As well, it is unlikely that respondents invariably interpret happiness questions as being about life satisfaction. At any rate, even life satisfaction theorists might balk at this variant of the account, since life satisfaction is sometimes taken to involve, not just explicit global judgments of life satisfaction, but also our responses to the particular things or domains we care about. Some will hesitate to deem satisfied people who hate many of the important things in their lives, however satisfied they claim to be with their lives as a whole.

In a similar vein, the common practice of measuring happiness simply by asking people to report explicitly on how &ldquohappy&rdquo they are is sometimes defended on the grounds that it lets people decide for themselves what happiness is. The reasoning again seems to presuppose, controversially, that self-reports of happiness employ a life satisfaction view of happiness, the idea being that whether you are satisfied (&ldquohappy&rdquo) will depend on what you care about. Alternatively, the point might be literally to leave it up to the respondent to decide whether &lsquohappy&rsquo means hedonic state, emotional state, life satisfaction, or something else. Thus one respondent&rsquos &ldquoI&rsquom happy&rdquo might mean &ldquomy experience is generally pleasant,&rdquo while another&rsquos might mean &ldquoI am satisfied with my life as a whole.&rdquo It is not clear, however, that asking ambiguous questions of this sort is a useful enterprise, since different respondents will in effect be answering different questions.

To measure happiness through self-reports, then, it may be wiser to employ terms other than &lsquohappiness&rsquo and its cognates&mdashterms whose meaning is relatively well-known and fixed. In other words, researchers should decide in advance what they want to measure&mdashbe it life satisfaction, hedonic state, emotional state, or something else&mdashand then ask questions that refer unambiguously to those states. [14] This stratagem may be all the more necessary in cross-cultural work, where finding suitable translations of &lsquohappy&rsquo can be daunting&mdashparticularly when the English meaning of the term remains a matter of contention (Wierzbicka 2004).

This entry focuses on subjective well-being studies, since that work is standardly deemed &ldquohappiness&rdquo research. But psychological research on well-being can take other forms, notably in the &ldquoeudaimonic&rdquo&mdashcommonly opposed to &ldquohedonic&rdquo&mdashliterature, which assesses a broader range of indicators taken to represent objective human needs, such as meaning, personal growth, relatedness, autonomy, competence, etc. [15] (The assimilation of subjective well-being to the &ldquohedonic&rdquo realm may be misleading, since life satisfaction seems primarily to be a non-hedonic value, as noted earlier.) Other well-being instruments may not clearly fall under either the &ldquohappiness&rdquo or eudaimonic rubrics, for instance extending subjective well-being measures by adding questions about the extent to which activities are seen as meaningful or worthwhile (White and Dolan 2009). An important question going forward is how far well-being research needs to incorporate indicators beyond subjective well-being.

3.2 Empirical findings: overview

The scientific literature on happiness has grown to proportions far too large for this article to do more than briefly touch on a few highlights. [16] Here is a sampling of oft-cited claims:

  1. Most people are happy
  2. People adapt to most changes, tending to return over time to their happiness &ldquoset point&rdquo
  3. People are prone to make serious mistakes in assessing and pursuing happiness
  4. Material prosperity has a surprisingly modest impact on happiness

The first claim, that most people are happy, appears to be a consensus position among subjective well-being researchers (for a seminal argument, see Diener and Diener 1996). The contention reflects three lines of evidence: most people, in most places, report being happy most people report being satisfied with their lives and most people experience more positive affect than negative. On any of the major theories of happiness, then, the evidence seems to show that most people are, indeed, happy. Yet this conclusion might be resisted, on a couple of grounds. First, life satisfaction theorists might question whether self-reports of life satisfaction suffice to establish that people are in fact satisfied with their lives. Perhaps self-reports can be mistaken, say if the individual believes herself satisfied yet shows many signs of dissatisfaction in her behavior, for instance complaining about or striving to change important things in her life. Second, defenders of affect-based theories&mdashhedonistic and emotional state views&mdashmight reject the notion that a bare majority of positive affect suffices for happiness. While the traditional view among hedonists has indeed been that happiness requires no more than a >1:1 ratio of positive to negative affect, this contention has received little defense and has been disputed in the recent literature. Some investigators have claimed that &ldquoflourishing&rdquo requires greater than a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative affect, as this ratio might represent a threshold for broadly favorable psychological functioning (e.g., Larsen and Prizmic 2008). While the evidence for any specific ratio is highly controversial, if anything like this proportion were adopted as the threshold for happiness, on a hedonistic or emotional state theory, then some of the evidence taken to show that people are happy could in fact show the opposite. In any event, the empirical claim relies heavily on nontrivial philosophical views about the nature of happiness, illustrating one way in which philosophical work on happiness can inform scientific research.

The second claim, regarding adaptation and set points, reflects well-known findings that many major life events, like being disabled in an accident or winning the lottery, appear strongly to impact happiness only for a relatively brief period, after which individuals may return to a level of happiness not very different from before. [17] As well, twin studies have found that subjective well-being is substantially heritable, with .50 being a commonly accepted figure. Consequently many researchers have posited that each individual has a characteristic &ldquoset point&rdquo level of happiness, toward which he tends to gravitate over time. Such claims have caused some consternation over whether the pursuit and promotion of happiness are largely futile enterprises (Lykken and Tellegen 1996 Millgram 2000). However, the dominant view now seems to be that the early claims about extreme adaptation and set points were exaggerated: while adaptation is a very real phenomenon, many factors&mdashincluding disability&mdashcan have substantial, and lasting, effects on how happy people are. [18] This point was already apparent from the literature on correlates and causes of happiness, discussed below: if things like relationships and engaging work are important for happiness, then happiness is probably not simply a matter of personality or temperament. As well, the large cross-national differences in measured happiness are unlikely to be entirely an artifact of personality variables. Note that even highly heritable traits can be strongly susceptible to improvement. Better living conditions have raised the stature of men in the Netherlands by eight inches&mdashgoing from short (five foot four) to tall (over six feet)&mdashin the last 150 years (Fogel 2005). Yet height is considered much more heritable than happiness, with typical heritability estimates ranging from .60 to over .90 (e.g., Silventoinen, Sammalisto et al. 2003). [19]

3.3 The sources of happiness

The question of mistakes will be taken up in section 5.2. But the last claim&mdashthat material prosperity has relatively modest impacts on happiness&mdashhas lately become the subject of heated debate. For some time the standard view among subjective well-being researchers was that, beyond a low threshold where basic needs are met, economic gains have only a small impact on happiness levels. According to the well-known &ldquoEasterlin Paradox,&rdquo for instance, wealthier people do tend to be happier within nations, but richer nations are little happier than less prosperous counterparts, and&mdashmost strikingly&mdasheconomic growth has virtually no impact (Easterlin 1974). In the U.S., for example, measured happiness has not increased significantly since at least 1947, despite massive increases in wealth and income. In short, once you&rsquore out of poverty, absolute levels of wealth and income make little difference in how happy people are.

Against these claims, some authors have argued that absolute income has a large impact on happiness across the income spectrum (e.g., Stevenson and Wolfers 2008). The question continues to be much debated, but in 2010 a pair of large-scale studies using Gallup data sets, including improved measures of life satisfaction and affect, suggested that both sides may be partly right (Kahneman and Deaton 2010 Diener, Ng et al. 2010). Surveying large numbers of Americans in one case, and what is claimed to be the first globally representative sample of humanity in the other, these studies found that income does indeed correlate substantially (.44 in the global sample), at all levels, with life satisfaction&mdashstrictly speaking, a &ldquolife evaluation&rdquo measure that asks respondents to rate their lives without saying whether they are satisfied. Yet the correlation of household income with the affect measures is far weaker: globally, .17 for positive affect, &ndash.09 for negative affect and in the United States, essentially zero above $75,000 (though quite strong at low income levels). For more recent discussions of empirical work, see Jebb et al. 2018 along with relevant chapters in Diener et al. 2018 and the annual World Happiness Reports from 2012 onward (Helliwell et al. 2012). Research on the complex money-happiness relationship resists simple characterization, but a crude summary is that the connection tends to be positive and substantial, strong at lower income levels while modest to weak or even negative at higher incomes, and stronger and less prone to satiation for life evaluation than emotional well-being metrics. But again, these are very rough generalizations that gloss over a variety of important factors and admit of many exceptions across both individuals and societies.

In short, the relationship between money and happiness may depend on which theory of happiness we accept: on a life satisfaction view, the relationship may be strong whereas affect-based views may yield a much weaker connection, again above some modest threshold. Here, again, philosophical views about the nature and significance of happiness may play an important role in understanding empirical results and their practical upshot. Economic growth, for instance, has long been a top priority for governments, and findings about its impact on human well-being may have substantial implications for policy.

It is important to note that studies of this nature focus on generic trends, not specific cases, and there is no dispute that significant exceptions exist&mdashnotably, populations that enjoy high levels of happiness amid low levels of material prosperity. Among others, a number of Latin American countries, Maasai herders, Inughuit hunter-gatherers, and Amish communities have registered highly positive results in subjective well-being studies, sometimes higher than those in many affluent nations, and numerous informal accounts accord with the data. [20] Such &ldquopositive outliers&rdquo suggest that some societies can support high levels of happiness with extremely modest material holdings. The importance of money for happiness may depend strongly on what kind of society one inhabits. An interesting question, particularly in light of common environmental concerns, is how far the lessons of such societies can, or should, be transferred to other social forms, where material attainment and happiness are presently more tightly coupled. Perhaps some degree of decoupling of happiness and money would be desirable.

So the role of money in happiness appears, at this juncture, to be a mixed bag, depending heavily on how we conceive of happiness and what range of societies we are considering. What (else), then, does matter most for happiness? There is no definitive list of the main sources of happiness in the literature, partly because it is not clear how to divide them up. But the following items seem generally to be accepted as among the chief correlates of happiness: supportive relationships, engagement in interesting and challenging activities, material and physical security, a sense of meaning or purpose, a positive outlook, and autonomy or control. [21] Significant correlates may also include&mdashamong many others&mdashreligion, good governance, trust, helping others, values (e.g., having non-materialistic values), achieving goals, not being unemployed, and connection with the natural environment. [22]

An illustrative study of the correlates of happiness from a global perspective is the Gallup World Poll study noted earlier (Diener, Ng et al. 2010 see also Jebb et al. 2020). In that study, the life satisfaction measure was more strongly related to material prosperity, as noted above: household income, along with possession of luxury conveniences and satisfaction with standard of living. The affect measures, by contrast, correlated most strongly with what the authors call &ldquopsychosocial prosperity&rdquo: whether people reported being treated with respect in the last day, having family and friends to count on, learning something new, doing what they do best, and choosing how their time was spent.

What these results show depends partly on the reliability of the measures. One possible source of error is that this study might exaggerate the relationship between life satisfaction and material attainments through the use of a &ldquoladder&rdquo scale for life evaluation, ladders being associated with material aspirations. Errors might also arise through salience biases whereby material concerns might be more easily recalled than other important values, such as whether one has succeeded in having children or through differences in positivity biases across income levels (perhaps wealthier people tend to be more &ldquopositive-responding&rdquo than poorer individuals). Another question is whether the affect measures adequately track the various dimensions of people&rsquos emotional lives. However, the results are roughly consonant with other research, so they are unlikely to be entirely an artifact of the instruments used in this study. [23] A further point of uncertainty is the causal story behind the correlations&mdashwhether the correlates, like psychosocial prosperity, cause happiness whether happiness causes them whether other factors cause both or, as is likely, some combination of the three.

Such concerns duly noted, the research plausibly suggests that, on average, material progress has some tendency to help people to better get what they want in life, as found in the life satisfaction measures, while relationships and engaging activities are more important for people&rsquos emotional lives. What this means for happiness depends on which view of happiness is correct.

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords : students, long-term, well-being, change, positive activity intervention, positive psychology

Citation: Skarin F and Wästlund E (2020) Increasing Students’ Long-Term Well-Being by Mandatory Intervention – A Positive Psychology Field Study. Front. Psychol. 11:553764. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.553764

Received: 20 April 2020 Accepted: 04 September 2020
Published: 09 October 2020.

Lourdes Rey, University of Malaga, Spain

Walid Briki, Qatar University, Qatar
Mary Whiteside, La Trobe University, Australia

Copyright © 2020 Skarin and Wästlund. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

Putting Performance and Happiness Together in the Workplace

Performance and happiness go hand in hand in making an organization successful. [1] With both an appropriate performance management system and a positive approach to influencing people that increases happiness, an organization’s key results can more likely be achieved and sustained.

Which of the following types of persons would you prefer to have in greater numbers in your organization?

Which of the following types of persons would you prefer to have in greater numbers in your organization?

C. Unhappy High Performers

The obvious preference would be “D.” Intuition aside, mounting evidence suggests that happy high performing workforces correlate with greater employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, productivity, and profits. [2] The majority of workplaces, however, are filled with “E”: all of the above.

The intersection between the dimensions of performance and happiness will dictate whether an organization is able to sustain its success. This article highlights the importance of both performance and happiness to the long-term success of a business, describes the key dimensions of happiness in the workplace, and offers a self-assessment tool which individuals may use in thinking about their own personal performance and happiness at work. A call is made to practitioners and applied researchers to design, develop, and test happiness-enhancing interventions to assist practitioners in their efforts to boost happiness in the workplace.

The Performance – Happiness Matrix

In the context of performance management, “performance” refers to actions that drive the achievement of key results. A “high performer” is an individual (or work group) that performs the actions necessary to drive key results. “Happiness” is the experience of frequent, mildly pleasant emotions, the relative absence of unpleasant feelings, and a general feeling of satisfaction with one’s life.” [3] People who are happy in the work setting are generally having more positive experiences than negative ones in connection with the work place and their job.

An interesting and useful way of viewing people and groups across the two dimensions of performance and happiness is depicted in Figure 1. Happy and sad faces, with arrows symbolizing high and low performance, represent the four permutations in this analysis. The author often uses this matrix with executives to discuss their own situation as well as that of the people in their organizations. References in this article to the various quadrants are used for thought and discussion purposes only. For more specific analysis of areas of relative strength and weakness for a particular individual or group within an organization, see the Performance-Happiness Self-Assessment Survey here.

Performance-Happiness Matrix

1. Quadrant #1: Happy Low Performer. These employees remain happy in spite of poor performance. They may be especially optimistic, perhaps mismatched for their current position, or need training. Tom, for example, a new and inexperienced pharmaceutical sales person, was positive about his future and hopeful that his current poor performance would improve with sales skill training. He was optimistic and hopeful about succeeding in this position, even though his current performance was poor as his performance improves, he would move toward Q4 behavior.

2. Quadrant #2: Unhappy Low Performer. Many factors can contribute to this condition, including a lack of performance management systems, poor selection practices, and little or no meaningful employee recognition. For example, Mary was frustrated and unhappy in the workplace most of the time. Her job required her to be detail-oriented, structured and willing to work alone for long periods of time. The problem was that Mary was not good with details, and she was creative and extroverted. She was an underperformer in her current job with little chance of succeeding because her work preferences did not match those required by her job.

Negative low performers can keep organizations from reaching their full potential. Their own lack of success drags down overall performance. Perhaps more significantly, unhappy low performers can infect others with negative attitudes and become negative role models, exacerbating the impact of their unhappiness, and allowing counterproductive behaviors to creep into the workplace.

3. Quadrant #3: Unhappy High Performer. Various reasons may underlie why an employee who is performing well may nonetheless be unhappy in the workplace. For instance, employees may be unhappy because their work is not challenging, or they are repeatedly asked to do the same assignments because they are good at a particular activity. Without challenging work, it is difficult for an employee to become involved, engaged, or positive about his or her work, making it difficult to sustain high performance over time. This may result in the most talented and marketable people, who are unhappy, leaving an organization.

For instance: Having been given the same assignments numerous times, Peter was unhappy and frustrated. While he continued to be a high performer in his current position, Peter believed that no one cared about his development and was contemplating looking for another position.

4. Quadrant #4: Happy High Performer. Happy high performance presents the best prospect for long-term organizational success. A high performer who is happy about his/her work will be much more likely to sustain high performance over time and deliver key results.

A Closer Look at Quadrant #4, the Happy High Performer

People who occupy Quadrant #4 share some key characteristics. These individuals:

  1. Have a clear direction.
  2. Find that direction motivating.
  3. Focus on what is important and what they can influence.
  4. Are linked to the resources necessary to execute key actions.
  5. Talk and act in ways that promote performance and happiness.
  6. Are significantly engaged in their work.
  7. Find meaning and purpose in their work.
  8. Have more positive experiences than negative experiences at work.
  9. Are grateful about the past and do not carry grudges.
  10. Are optimistic looking into the future.
  11. Achieve agreed upon results.
  12. Are happy about their workplace.

Managerial leaders are encouraged to use the “Performance – Happiness Self-Assessment Survey” to rate themselves on these characteristics. This assessment tool is an informal survey that serves as a springboard for a conversation about areas of relative strength and areas where improvement may be indicated, with the goal of personal growth toward Q4.

Paths to Performance and Happiness

Job satisfaction researchers have had a long standing debate as to whether employees are happy first and performers second, or performers first and happy second. [4] However, both happiness and job performance need to be addressed.

Various paths exist to maximize performance and happiness. It may be relatively easier to move people from Q1 or Q3, rather than from Q2, toward the high performing happy Q4. For instance, a change in recognition and reward strategies may be sufficient to move people in Q3 to Q4. In most situations, however, the “fix” to enhance people’s happiness in their work environment will be challenging. Tools exist for increasing performance, but positivity enhancing interventions that drive happiness still need to be developed for use within organizational settings.

1. Increasing Performance. A managerial leader can maximize performance by taking action in the following four areas:

  1. Designing, developing, and delivering a clear and motivating direction
  2. Creating operational focus
  3. Effectively and efficiently linking or coordinating resources
  4. Ensuring that people practice effective influence skills

When managerial leaders effectively execute the action roles of director, focuser, linker and influencer, [5] performance is advanced. In order to be a high performer, an employee must have a clear and motivating direction, know what to focus on, know how to access and link with resources to maximize his or her performance, and be surrounded by people who practice effective influence or people skills, including individuals who model and promote happiness.

2. Increasing Happiness. In looking at happiness in the workplace, we find that a person’s orientation in reflecting on the past, focusing on the present, and looking into the future, is determinative of whether he or she is happy. [6]

  • When reflecting on the past, the way to happiness is to be grateful and “count your blessings.” Happy people do not carry grudges they find effective ways to forgive others.
  • In looking at one’s present situation, individuals derive happiness from being significantly engaged in their work, finding meaning/purpose in what they do, and/or regularly having more happy/positive experiences than negative ones.
  • Individuals who are challenged while using their skills and strengths will be engaged in their work. When an optimal balance occurs between challenge and skill, a person becomes fully engaged in the activity at hand. Such individuals are “in flow” with their work. [7]
  • Employees experience meaning in their work when they recognize that their work has an impact on others. Meaning is often brought into greater focus when employees understand what needs they are satisfying for the end users of their organization’s products and services. For example, when production workers in a manufacturing plant recognize that their company’s products contribute to environmental safety in communities around the globe, they can see the greater good, or meaning, in their work beyond the relative simplicity of completing their own daily tasks.
  • Finally, happiness comes from work experiences that yield positive emotions, positive thoughts, and/or positive images in people. Positive emotions in particular have the capacity to “build and broaden” people’s positive response repertoire. [8] People who approach tasks with positivity have been found to be more productive, creative and resilient. [9]
  • When looking into the future, happy performers are optimistic and hopeful. They utilize positive goals, self-talk and other strategies to help them remain resilient as they move forward.

Perhaps the initial way for a managerial leader to think about how to influence the happiness level of his or her employees is in relation to the employee’s present situation. For example, engagement with one’s work can likely be enhanced by having an individual assess her “strengths” and utilize those strengths in her work. This may include coaching to help the individual use her strengths in innovative ways. An employee’s level of engagement at work, and subsequent happiness, is likely boosted when he or she has the opportunity to do what he or she does best at work – utilizing one’s strengths is a positive experience. (This could likely help Mary, the Q2 Unhappy Low Performer, move toward Q4.)

A Call to Action

Organizational leaders should strive to increase the number of Happy High Performers in their ranks. Start by assessing yourself in relation to the qualities of a high-performing happy person. With this assessment you can develop practical action plans that help you move toward higher performance and happiness in the work environment.

To increase the number of happy high performers in the workplace, organizational leaders need access to proven happiness-enhancing interventions. Unfortunately, there has been little work done in organizational settings to address this need. As a foundation, there is a growing body of applied research which seeks to validate happiness enhancing interventions in self-help and mental health settings. [10] Practitioners and applied researchers working in organizations need to focus more attention on developing practical happiness-enhancing interventions to assist managerial leaders to help their people become more engaged in their work, experience meaning in their work, and experience positive emotions, thoughts, and images in relation to the work and work environment. With tools to help people in organizations enhance their happiness combined with effective performance management systems, happy high performers will likely grow in numbers within organizations.

Use this article as a springboard to look at yourself and your current organization from a performance-happiness perspective. You are encouraged to use the Performance – Happiness Self-Assessment Survey that is provided to help you target potential areas for personal change and fine tuning. Strive to become a happy high-performing role model for others as you move towards building and sustaining a high performing happy workplace.

[1] C.D. Fisher. “Why Do Lay People Believe That Satisfaction and Performance are Correlated? Possible Sources of a Commonsense Theory,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 24, no. 6, (2003): 753-77.

[2] J.K. Harter, F.L. Schmidt, T.L. Hayes. “Business-Unit Relationship Between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, no. 2, (2002/04): 268-79. S. Lyubomirsky, L. King, E. Diener. “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead To Success?” Psychological Bulletin, 131, no. 6, (2005): 803-55. D. Sirota, L.A. Mischkind, M.I. Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit By Giving Workers What They Want, (New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, 2005).

[3] R. Biswas-Diener, B. Dean. Positive Psychology Coaching, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007): 41.

[4] T.A. Wright. “The Emergence Of Job Satisfaction In Organizational Behavior: A Historical Overview of the Dawn of Job Attitude Research,” Journal of Management History, 12, no. 3, (2006): 262-77. G.P. Latham, C.C. Pinder. “Work Motivation Theory and Research at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” Annual Review of Psychology, 56, (2005): 485, 516.

[5] C.D. Kerns. Value-Centered Ethics, (Massachusetts: HRD Press, 2005). See Chapters 5-8 for a detailed review of the four action roles of Influencer, Director, Focuser and Linker.

[6] C. Peterson, N. Park, M.E.P. Seligman. “Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction: The Full Life Versus the Empty Life,” Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, no. 1, (2005): 25-41.

[7] M. Csikszentmihalyi. Good Business: Leadership, Flow and the Making of Meaning, (New York: Viking, 2003).

Factors Connected to Happiness

What really makes people happy? What factors contribute to sustained joy and contentment? Is it money, attractiveness, material possessions, a rewarding occupation, a satisfying relationship? Extensive research over the years has examined this question. One finding is that age is related to happiness: Life satisfaction usually increases the older people get, but there do not appear to be gender differences in happiness (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Although it is important to point out that much of this work has been correlational, many of the key findings (some of which may surprise you) are summarized below.

Family and other social relationships appear to be key factors correlated with happiness. Studies show that married people report being happier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed (Diener et al., 1999). Happy individuals also report that their marriages are fulfilling (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). In fact, some have suggested that satisfaction with marriage and family life is the strongest predictor of happiness (Myers, 2000). Happy people tend to have more friends, more high-quality social relationships, and stronger social support networks than less happy people (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Happy people also have a high frequency of contact with friends (Pinquart & Sörensen, 2000).

Can money buy happiness? In general, extensive research suggests that the answer is yes, but with several caveats. While a nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is associated with happiness levels (Helliwell et al., 2013), changes in GDP (which is a less certain index of household income) bear little relationship to changes in happiness (Diener, Tay, & Oishi, 2013). On the whole, residents of affluent countries tend to be happier than residents of poor countries within countries, wealthy individuals are happier than poor individuals, but the association is much weaker (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002). To the extent that it leads to increases in purchasing power, increases in income are associated with increases in happiness (Diener, Oishi, & Ryan, 2013). However, income within societies appears to correlate with happiness only up to a point. In a study of over 450,000 U.S. residents surveyed by the Gallup Organization, Kahneman and Deaton (2010) found that well-being rises with annual income, but only up to $75,000. The average increase in reported well-being for people with incomes greater than $75,000 was null. As implausible as these findings might seem—after all, higher incomes would enable people to indulge in Hawaiian vacations, prime seats as sporting events, expensive automobiles, and expansive new homes—higher incomes may impair people’s ability to savor and enjoy the small pleasures of life (Kahneman, 2011). Indeed, researchers in one study found that participants exposed to a subliminal reminder of wealth spent less time savoring a chocolate candy bar and exhibited less enjoyment of this experience than did participants who were not reminded of wealth (Quoidbach, Dunn, Petrides, & Mikolajczak, 2010).

What about education and employment? Happy people, compared to those who are less happy, are more likely to graduate from college and secure more meaningful and engaging jobs. Once they obtain a job, they are also more likely to succeed (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). While education shows a positive (but weak) correlation with happiness, intelligence is not appreciably related to happiness (Diener et al., 1999).

Does religiosity correlate with happiness? In general, the answer is yes (Hackney & Sanders, 2003). However, the relationship between religiosity and happiness depends on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult living conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) tend to be more highly religious than societies with more favorable living conditions. Among those who live in nations with difficult living conditions, religiosity is associated with greater well-being in nations with more favorable living conditions, religious and nonreligious individuals report similar levels of well-being (Diener, Tay, & Myers, 2011).

Clearly the living conditions of one’s nation can influence factors related to happiness. What about the influence of one’s culture? To the extent that people possess characteristics that are highly valued by their culture, they tend to be happier (Diener, 2012). For example, self-esteem is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995), and extraverted people tend to be happier in extraverted cultures than in introverted cultures (Fulmer et al., 2010).

So we’ve identified many factors that exhibit some correlation to happiness. What factors don’t show a correlation? Researchers have studied both parenthood and physical attractiveness as potential contributors to happiness, but no link has been identified. Although people tend to believe that parenthood is central to a meaningful and fulfilling life, aggregate findings from a range of countries indicate that people who do not have children are generally happier than those who do (Hansen, 2012). And although one’s perceived level of attractiveness seems to predict happiness, a person’s objective physical attractiveness is only weakly correlated with her happiness (Diener, Wolsic, & Fujita, 1995).

The Pygmalion Effect: Communicating High Expectations

In 1968, two researchers conducted a fascinating study that proved the extent to which teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. In educational circles, this has been termed the Pygmalion Effect, or more colloquially, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What has always intrigued me about this study is specifically what the teachers did to communicate that they believed a certain set of students had "unusual potential for academic growth." The research isn't overly explicit about this, but it indicates that the teachers "may have paid closer attention to the students, and treated them differently in times of difficulty." This raises the following questions:

  • Why can't teachers treat all of their students like this?
  • How do we communicate to students whether we believe in them or not?

Excellence, Celebration, and Success

Based on my experience coaching AVID schools around the country, there are ways that I've seen teachers communicate to all of their students that they have high expectations. Here are a few practical tips that you can borrow from them:

Be Excellent in All Ways

Everything speaks. We can't expect students to be excellent if we don't model that for them in every element of our classroom. I may not be able to infuse excellence into every classroom and hallway of my school or in every interaction that students have outside of school, so I must leverage and maximize every element that I do control. Too often, I walk into a classroom and know immediately if it's an honors class, just by how attractive the walls are or how organized the books on the shelves are. Every student deserves a clean, organized classroom. Every student deserves a structured and engaging learning environment. Every student deserves lessons that are well thought-out and delivered every day. Excellence is a habit that is cultivated. When we model this every day, we communicate to students that excellence is the expectation.

Celebrate Small Victories

Say, "I'm proud of you" -- and say it often. The day that I opened my college acceptance letter was the only time that I ever remember my dad saying, "I'm proud of you." It was so impactful and memorable for me that I tried to say that phrase to students every chance I got. Passed a test? "I'm proud of you." Got to class on time? "I'm proud of you." It's a low-cost investment with the potential for life-altering rewards. I love hearing teachers say, "Great job" or "You did it!" It's positive reinforcement at its finest.

Make Failure Unacceptable

The single most impactful way that we can communicate our beliefs to students may be how we react when they fail an assignment, test, or grading period. Rather than ignoring the situation or moving students to a different class, we must communicate this:

Failure cannot be the path of least resistance in our classes. Rather, we must do everything that we can to make failure unacceptable and difficult. When we accept students' failure, we give them permission to accept it as well. However, when we show that nothing they can do will ever make us give up on them, we give them permission to start believing in themselves.

Raise the Bar Right Now

In AVID schools, we espouse a philosophy that encompasses the items above, called "Rigor with Support." It's the idea that we believe every student can and should be prepared for college and career readiness, and that we will keep the expectations high, but also offer the support to help students get there.

So here are my challenges to you:

  • Look around your classroom or at your lesson plan for tomorrow. What is one component that you can make more excellent?
  • Find one thing to celebrate tomorrow, and look one student directly in the eye and tell him or her, "I'm proud of you."
  • Think of one student who has failed an assignment or grading period recently, make time to meet with him or her individually, and figure out a plan to not let it happen again.

I'd be very interested to hear how your results looked and felt. Please share them in the comments below.

Narcissistic Mothers: The Long-Term Effects on Their Daughters

Growing up in a household with a mother who belittled and gaslighted me, my goal was simply to escape. She wasn&rsquot a narcissist but she was combative, jealous, angry, and mean. Hidden deep in my closet where no one could see it, I had a piece of oak tag with the number of days left until I would go off to college, and I recall that the number was something like 1000. My assumption was that the real problem was that I was living under her roof and like any other princess trapped in a tower, it was just a matter of making my getaway.

I could not have been more wrong but it turns out I was hardly alone. This is a very common misunderstanding among daughters whose emotional needs werent met in childhood. We fail to account for the unseen baggage we have in tow as we head toward the door, as I can personally attest.

As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, while there are commonalities among daughters who received insufficient love, validation, and attunement growing up, there are also some significant differences. Some of these differences can be traced back to the mothers patterns of behavior.

In my work, I identify eight toxic maternal behaviors which are dismissive, controlling, emotionally unavailable, unreliable, self-involved or high in narcissistic traits, combative, enmeshed, and role-reversed. These behaviors are meant as tools for understanding the effect certain maternal behaviors have on a daughters development they are relatively permeable and a mother may display a number of these behaviors either at once or over time. For example, a dismissive mother may also be emotionally unavailable or a controlling mother may become more combative as her daughter gets older and resists the mothers domination. A mother high in narcissistic traits may be both controlling and emotionally unavailable.

Each of these behaviors requires a daughter to adapt and deal the self-involved mother or one high in narcissistic traits shapes a daughters development in some very specific ways.

Understanding the long reach of childhood experiences

While we may consciously recognize the lack of love and our own unhappiness in our family of origin, were unlikely to be able to see the ways we learned to cope and manage as a result. Its much more likely that we see our adult behaviors as a reflection of our innate personalities than to see various traits as learned responses to a trying environment, But many of your ways of acting and reactingit might be your fear of being rejected, the way you find it hard to speak your mind, your panic when attention is turned on you , the difficulty you have trusting people, how you always blame yourself when things go wrongare, in fact, traceable to those childhood experiences.

The single largest effect on any daughter is her insecure style of attachment which reflects both her deficits in managing emotion and her unconscious models of how people behave in relationships having a mother high in narcissist traits can result in any of the three insecure styles which are anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, and dismissive-avoidant.

Being raised by a mother high in narcissistic traits leaves a lasting influence on a daughter. If she is one of her mothers favorites, she will nonetheless lack true self-esteem since her mother only sees a projection of her own wants and needs, not a person in her own right lacking true self-worth, she may ape her mothers behaviors, feeling that its the best way to get along in the world and the best way to hide her own woundedness. The sensitive daughter or the one whos become the mothers scapegoat may be so afraid of becoming a narcissist that she dodges the limelight and hides in the shadows, rendering herself voiceless. This is what Dr. Craig Malkin in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, calls an echoist. If you think of narcissism as a spectrum with healthy self-regard in the middle, the ends are occupied by the echoist, who lacks self-regard, and the narcissist, who uses exaggerated self-regard as armor.

5 things the narcissistic mother teaches her daughter about life

The mother high in narcissistic traits sees her children as nothing more than extensions of herself and she is highly invested in having them reflect well on her. She cares enormously about appearances and very little about how her children achieve as long as they do. The child who doesnt go along with the program will be scapegoated and ostracized.

What passes for love in the narcissistic mothers domain is praise and attention, and both are dependent on the childs continuing to reflect well on her, even in adulthood. Because this mother sees love as earned, she feels perfectly comfortable withdrawing it if a child disappoints her. Of course, the daughter grows up believing the love is nothing more than a transaction which requires quid pro quos and, additionally, forces you to always watch your back.

Because the narcissistic mother requires that her children present themselves as she dictates, failure isnt acceptable. Many daughters understandably become enormously fearful of failing and, as a result, arent likely to take on challenges they aim low and safe. Others, intent on garnering their mothers praise, aim high and sometimes achieve but dont really credit themselves for what theyve earned or take ownership of it outwardly successful, they feel like imposters or frauds.

The world the child sees is filtered by her mothers take on it there are winners and losers, people inside her mothers special orbit and those outside of it who have no status and standing. The mother high in narcissistic traits plays favorites setting one child against another, watching as each jockeys for attention. Not surprisingly, the daughter grows up believing that this is how the larger world works and that all relationships follow the same patterns. She thinks youre either chosen to be on the team, beginning with Team Mom, or doomed to be left out.

All children assume that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere, and the daughter of a narcissistic mother is no different she will usually normalize not just the games her mother playspitting one child against another, calling out the scapegoat, designating winners and losersbut how shes spoken to. Name calling, mocking, and gaslighting are usually part of this mothers repertoireits how she keeps her kids in lineand the daughter comes of age unable to recognize verbal abuse. This sets her up for normalizing these toxic behaviors in other relationships in her life, both in young and later adulthood. Its not unusual for a daughter marginalized by a mother high in narcissistic traits to end up with a lover or spouse who treats her the same way.

Until these lessons are exposed for the untruths they are, they will continue to shape both a daughters expectations and behaviors. Working with a gifted therapist is the fastest route to unlearning, along with focus and self-help.

Photograph by Alexandre Chambon. Copyright free.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.


  1. Iustig

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  2. Doyle

    Thank you very much for an explanation, now I know.

  3. Ricky

    A good answer

  4. Paco

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  5. Sazuru

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