Gap accounts of happiness

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The research we have considered above on the affective and resource correlates of self-reported happiness has taken the participant's avowed happiness as a starting point and systematically investigated aspects of the individual's life which might be related to feeling happy. In contrast, gap theories are concerned with the processes that might underly self-reports of happiness; that is, what determines whether individuals will report that they are happy.

Such gap theories of happiness (e.g., Michalos, 1986; Smith, Diener, & Wedell, 1989) have proposed that individuals judge their own happiness by making a comparison between their actual conditions of life or performance or view of themselves versus some standard. If the comparison is favourable, happiness is increased; if the comparison is unfavourable, happiness is compromised. Gap theories are either explicit or implicit in many related concepts of subjective well-being and quality of life. For example, the World Health Organization's (WHOQOL Group, 1998) definition of quality of life incorporated into the WHOQOL is as follows:

An individual's perceptions of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live, and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns.

This definition emphasises a comparison process between the actual level and the desired level which leads to domain-specific and global judgements of satisfaction and happiness that are integral to measures of quality of life such as the WHOQOL (Power, 2003). Such gap or discrepancy approaches are also common in areas of social cognition, for example in accounts of self-esteem (the discrepancy between ideal and actual self) and social support (the discrepancy between ideal and actual support).

In relation to happiness, there are a variety of different gap theories. For example, Michalos (1985, 1986) describes six which reflect discrepancies between: (1) what one wants and what one has; (2) actual and ideal conditions; (3) actual conditions and expectations; (4) actual conditions and best past conditions; (5) what one has and what others have (upward and downward social comparison); and (6) personal attributes and environmental attributes.

Studies have found that these gap theory variables account for considerable amounts of variance in self-reported happiness (e.g., Emmons & Diener, 1985; Michalos, 1985). Furthermore, a whole range of studies has indicated the efficacy of this type of theoretical approach. Indeed, Michalos (1986) reviewed 41 such studies and over 90% of these supported gap theory explanations. Despite such a supposed wealth of positive evidence, a number of authors have strongly criticised gap theory approaches and Veenhoven (1991) suggests that the process of comparison may not have a causal role in everyday happiness judgements. Averill and More (2000) note a number of other problems with gap theories which might account for Veenhoven's scepticism. First, they suggest it is not clear which way a comparison would have to go in order to make a person happier. For example, thinking that there are many people worse off than oneself may make someone happier under one set of conditions, but thinking that if others can succeed so can I may make someone happier under another set of conditions. Second, gap theories have little explanatory power. They are merely ways of describing a state of affairs. As Averill and More question: Why should personal satisfaction be increased by a favourable contrast between oneself and others who are less fortunate? Third, if we consider that there are at least six gaps that may be important (cf. Michalos, 1985, 1986), the possible combinations and interactions between them become uninterpretable. In illustration, Averill and More cite the example of the gap between what one wants and what one has being either exacerbated or mitigated by the gap between what one has and what others have. Finally, even if gap theories do have some validity, they are merely one mechanism which might account for some of the variance in happiness judgements. Simple biological pleasures, for example, clearly do not always need the existence of some prior discrepancy to be enjoyable. The same is true of many other constituents of happiness; for example, laughing at a good joke.

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