Happiness as the sum of positive experiences

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Ed Diener and his colleagues have taken a somewhat different tack in the search for what makes people happy. They (e.g., Diener & Lucas, 1999; Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991; Diener et al., 1999) have proposed that self-reports of happiness are primarily a function of frequently experienced pleasant or positive affect and infrequently experienced unpleasant affect. In a number of studies they have shown that people who differ in their reports of happiness invariably differ in the amount of time in their lives in which they experience pleasant affect. It is important to note that Diener and his colleagues are talking principally about the frequency of experiences of positive emotions and not the intensity. In fact they claim that intensity is almost unrelated to subjective reports of well-being (e.g., Diener & Lucas, 1999; Larsen & Diener, 1987).

Diener's work is interesting and important in that it reveals a relationship between global concepts such as happiness and more circumscribed positive emotions such as joy, exhilaration, and others, which come under the umbrella of positive affect. Furthermore, his work clarifies the relationship between the frequency of emotional states, the intensity of those states, and longer-term constructs such as happiness. However, a number of questions remain; for example, it is unclear how happiness relates exactly to more circumscribed experiences of positive affect. In addition, there remains the possibility that self-reports of global happiness and the experience of circumscribed episodes of positive affect may themselves both be functions of a similar set of underlying psychological processes.

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