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Psychological well-being

Carol Ryff is a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and Corey Lee Keyes is a sociologist at Emory University. Their research suggests that the state of psychological well-being consists of six dimensions of wellness1:
  • Positive Relations with Others
  • Self-Acceptance
  • Autonomy
  • Environmental Mastery
  • Personal Growth
  • Purpose in Life
Positive Relations with Others is quality relationships with friends, lovers, and other people in your life. Self-Acceptance is the positive evaluation of yourself and your past life. Autonomy is self-determination and control. Environmental Mastery is effectively managing your life and the surrounding world. Personal Growth is the sense that you’re growing and developing as a person. Finally, Purpose in Life is the belief that your life has purpose and meaning. Positive Relations with Others is covered in the Social section of this wiki. In this article, let’s examine the other five dimensions in more detail.

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I was a kid, there was a plaque hanging downstairs in our basement. It was the Serenity Prayer by Protestant pastor Reinhold Niebuhr:

Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

This wiki teaches you how to change five areas of your life for the better. But there are some things you shouldn’t change, such as your ethics and moral values. The term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the psychological pain that occurs when there is an inconsistency in your thoughts. It’s your conscience pricking you when you do something you know is wrong.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin asked students for their response to the statement: “The University should raise tuition by 10% for the semester2.” Forty students who strongly opposed the tuition increase were asked to write an essay with strong and forceful arguments supporting the increase. After writing the essays, students reported feeling uncomfortable, uneasy, and bothered. To resolve the pain of cognitive dissonance, some of the students changed their minds and became supporters of the tuition increase.

Similar to cognitive dissonance, emotional dissonance occurs when you express emotions that conform to other people’s feelings, but contradict your own. Suppressing your true feelings feels dishonest and inauthentic. In a study with customer service representatives, emotional dissonance led to job dissatisfaction, and pushed people to quit their jobs3.

To thine own self be true.
-William Shakespeare

Autonomy is the freedom to choose your own direction. It’s the feeling of driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, with the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. In the workplace, autonomy means you have discretion over how your job is to be performed. In the National Study of the Changing Workforce, employees with more autonomy were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, families, and life in general4. They were also less stressed, and less likely to be looking for a new job.

At the University of Nijmegen, Dutch researchers experimented with work teams in a supermarket chain5. Some of the teams were given high-level goals, and allowed to plan and organize their tasks by themselves. They were also given the freedom to choose new team members, set their own work pace, and supervise their own activities. Results showed that workers in autonomous teams were more productive; more motivated to learn new skills; and had better relationships with their co-workers.

It’s possible to have too much freedom and too many choices. In a study from Columbia University, participants were more likely to purchase specialty jams and gourmet chocolates when they were given six products to choose from rather than 306. Those with fewer options were also more satisfied with the choices they made. In a follow-up study, students were offered the opportunity to write an essay for extra credit. They were more likely to participate, and wrote better essays, when they chose from six topics rather than 30.

In the modern world, there is endless variety. But our expectations rise along with the increase in choices7. For some people, nothing is good enough—everything has to be perfect. It’s a recipe for disappointment.

Environmental Mastery
Athletes love being in “the zone.” It’s a magical feeling. Every pass is perfect. Every hit is a home run. Basketball star Michael Jordan says, “You’re in tune with everything that’s going on. You control the tempo, you control everything. It’s like you can do anything8.”

From athletes to artists, programmers to pianists, there is a state of effortless and totally focused activity known as “flow.” It’s the ultimate experience in mastering your environment. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is a psychology professor at Claremont University in California. He believes happiness is the optimal state of inner experience where there is order in consciousness9. Flow is the way people describe their state of mind when this order is achieved.

During flow, you are intensely focused and engaged in an activity. You lose your sense of self. Afterwards, you feel invigorated and fulfilled. It’s so rewarding that you’re willing to go to great lengths to repeat the experience. Studies have shown that flow provides a sense of meaning and engagement that result in greater life satisfaction than hedonistic experiences of pleasure10.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are eight conditions for a task to produce flow:
  1. The task has a reasonable chance of being completed.
  2. You are concentrating on the task.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. The task provides immediate feedback.
  5. You are deeply and effortlessly involved in the task. The worries and frustrations of everyday life are removed from your awareness.
  6. You have a sense of control over your actions.
  7. Concern for the self disappears. Your sense of self emerges stronger after the experience is over.
  8. Your sense of time is altered. Hours pass by in minutes. Minutes can feel like hours.
Which activities produce flow in your life? Can you make a career out of it? If not, practice the lessons in the Wealthy section of this wiki so you can afford to enjoy your flow activities more often.

If your life were to end suddenly and unexpectedly tomorrow, would you be able to say you’ve been doing what you truly care about today?
-Randy Komisar, The Monk and the Riddle

Personal Growth
It feels good to make progress towards your goals. It feels even better when your goals are consistent with your motives. Motives are deep psychological preferences for emotional rewards, such as power, achievement, affiliation, and intimacy. Motives are often subconscious. People do things without knowing the true reason why they do them.

At the University of Erlangen, German researchers interviewed students about their goals, and assessed the underlying motives driving their personality11. Results showed that the happiest students were the ones who made progress towards goals that were in line with their motives. For example, a student with the motive of affiliation experienced more happiness from spending quality time with friends than a student with the motive for achievement.

In a study from the University of Rochester, students listed 10 personal goals for the semester12. They also ranked their reasons for pursuing each goal. Once a month, participants rated their effort and progress toward each goal. Results showed that students put more effort into goals that were consistent with their interests and values. They also experienced higher levels of well-being when they achieved them.

Intrinsic motivation is doing something because you enjoy doing it for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation is doing something for an external reward. Students are extrinsically motivated if they do their homework because their parents tell them. It’s a rare student who is intrinsically motivated to do homework for the love of learning. But intrinsic motivation is better because it leads to more interest, excitement, confidence, and satisfaction with life13. What are your top three personal goals? Are you motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic reasons?

Happiness is finding your personal mission and responding to it with passion.
-Ernie J. Zelinski

Purpose and Meaning
Researchers from Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany asked over 1,000 people what gave meaning to their lives14. Thirteen categories were found to represent about 80 percent of all responses. The following table lists these categories, as well as the percentage of people who cited them. When asked about the importance of each category, people rated Health, Partnership, and Family as the highest. In terms of providing satisfaction, Partnership and Spirituality were rated the highest, and Occupation and Finances were rated the lowest.

Family 83%
Occupation/Work 54%
Leisure time/Hobbies 41%
Friends/Acquaintances 40%
Health 32%
Partnership/Love/Marriage 27%
Finances/Money 15%
Home/Garden 10%
Spirituality/Religion 9%
Animals/Nature 9%
Hedonism 5%
Altruism 5%
Psychological well-being 4%

Meaning in life changed with age. Friends were the most important source of meaning for adolescents (16–19 years); Partnership for young adults (20–29 years); Occupation for middle-aged people (30–39 years); Health and Altruism for retirees (60–69 years); and Spirituality for seniors (70 and above). What provides meaning in your life? Has it changed over time?

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
-Friedrich Nietzsche

As you get older, it’s natural to think about the end of life, and giving back to society. The desire to leave a legacy for the next generation is known as “generativity.” It stems from the urge to be needed, and the desire to transcend death and achieve immortality. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is a colossal monument to generativity. Researchers have found that generativity leads to higher levels of life satisfaction15. It feels good to think about someone other than yourself.

The Nobel Prizes are another example of leaving a legacy. Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist and industrialist who made his fortune in the weapons industry16. Eight years before his death, a French newspaper mistakenly published his obituary. The headline read: “The merchant of death is dead.” It condemned Nobel for becoming “rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” It was a wake-up call. Nobel changed his will and established the Nobel Prizes to recognize outstanding achievement in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace.

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
-Nelson Henderson

There have been over 100,000 religions in human history17. In the present day, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have the most followers18. In total, over 80 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group.

Christianity 33%
Islam 20%
Hinduism 13%
Chinese folk religion 6%
Buddhism 6%
All other religions 8%
Non-religious and Atheist 14%

Perhaps the reason why religion is so popular is because it offers a comprehensive system for attaining subjective and psychological well-being. A survey of 30,000 Americans found that 47 percent of those who attended a religious institution several times a week were “very happy,” compared to 28 percent of those who attended less than monthly19.

In terms of circumstantial happiness, believers are healthier and live longer, thanks in part to less smoking and drinking. By providing social support and a sense of belonging, faith-based communities have lower rates of divorce and suicide. In terms of intentional happiness, religious practices such as prayer, meditation, compassion, and forgiveness are proven methods of increasing happiness. Also, religious teachings against envy, jealousy, and greed help counter the effects of the hedonic treadmill. For psychological well-being, spirituality and religion provide purpose and meaning for many people’s lives.

In a study of believers and non-believers, Monika Ardelt from the University of Florida found that simply attending religious services, or turning to religion in times of need, did not increase well-being or decrease fear of death20. Instead, the keys to happiness for both religious and non-religious people were a clear purpose in life, discovering satisfying goals, and believing that their lives had been worthwhile. Ardelt concluded, “If religion leads to a purpose in life, it will help you cope and reduce fear of death. But for people who just go to church once a week, sit there for an hour and then forget about it—if religion doesn’t lead to a purpose in life—then it will not help21.”

The purpose of life is a life of purpose.
-Robin S. Sharma, The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari

Although religion can help you be happy, watch out for its dangers. Religious fundamentalism is the belief that a holy book or religious authority is absolutely true and free of error22. Fundamentalism has been used to justify atrocities such as the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Author and scientist Richard Dawkins warns, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument23.” Whether you have faith or not, be tolerant and respectful of other people’s beliefs. Let them pursue happiness in their own way.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavor in art and science.
-Albert Einstein

  1. Ryff CD, Keyes CLM. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 69(4):719–727.
  2. Elliot AJ, Devine PG. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67(3):382–394.
  3. Abraham R. (1999). The impact of emotional dissonance on organizational commitment and intention to turnover. Journal of Psychology. 133(4):441–455.
  4. Thompson CA, Prottas DJ. (2005). Relationships among organizational family support, job autonomy, perceived control, and employee well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 10(4):100–118.
  5. Van Mierlo H, Rutte CG. (2001). Autonomous teamwork and psychological well-being. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 10(3):291–301.
  6. Iyengar SS, Lepper MR. (2000). When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79(6):995–1006.
  7. Schwartz B. (2000). Self-determination: the tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist. 55(1):79–88.
  8. Playboy. (1992). Interview with Michael Jordan. May.
  9. Csíkszentmihályi M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
  10. Peterson C et al. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: the full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies. 6:25–41.
  11. Brunstein JC, Schultheiss OC, Grassmann R. (1998). Personal goals and emotional well-being: the moderating role of motive dispositions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75(2):494–508.
  12. Sheldon KM, Elliot AJ. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the Self-Concordance Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 76(3):482–497.
  13. Ryan RM, Deci EL. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55(1):68–78.
  14. Fegg MJ, et al. (2007). Meaning in life in the Federal Republic of Germany: results of a representative survey with the Schedule for Meaning in Life Evaluation (SMiLE). Health and Quality of Life Outcomes. 5:59.
  15. McAdams DP, de St. Aubin E, Logan RL. (1993). Generativity among young, midlife, and older adults. Psychology and Aging. 8(2):221–230.
  16. Wikipedia. Alfred Nobel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_nobel
  17. Wallace AFC. (1966). Religion: an anthropological view. Random House.
  18. Wikipedia. Major religious groups. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups 
  19. Myers DG. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist. 55(1):56–67.
  20. Ardelt M. (2003). Effects of religion and purpose in life on elders’ subjective well-being and attitudes toward death. Journal of Religious Gerontology. 14(4):55–77.
  21. University of Florida News. (2001). UF study: religion doesn’t directly influence sense of well-being or fear of death in seniors. November 20, 2001.
  22. Wikipedia. Fundamentalism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalism
  23. Dawkins R. (2006). The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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