Enhancing Virtues: Positivity

J. Hughes
Originally published by the IEET on 2014–08–15

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For two decades surveys have asked people questions like “Taking all things together, would you say you are Very Happy, Quite Happy, or Not Very Happy?” Volumes were written on who was happier according to these measures and why. Does wealth, children or a big garden bring happiness? Is it better for happiness to go to church or the beach? Then researchers finally began to catch on to something philosophers and theologians have pointed out for thousands of years: there is a big difference between a life of pleasure, and life with meaning. It is possible to have both, but when people just say they are “happy” we don’t know which kind of life they think they have.

In the last half decade survey researchers have gotten more sophisticated and begun asking about these two kinds of happiness separately. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, for instance, asks one set of questions about your experience of various positive and negative emotions (e.g. happiness, anger or stress) in the previous day. But then it asks for a more global evaluation of where you think your life is from the worst possible life to the best possible life for you. One of the things that this kind of survey makes clear is that some people think their life is going great even though they don’t have a lot of positive emotions. Older people in general have fewer intense positive or negative emotions than young people, and the young tend to have more positive than negative emotions. But older people tend to say their lives on the whole are better than the young. So younger people are happier in the “hedonic” sense while older people are happier in the “flourishing” sense.

One of the reasons that age tends to bring this particular kind of wisdom is that older people have seen positive and negative moods come and go for longer. They have learned that things pass and life goes on. They also have generally accomplished more things to be proud of. As we think about how we can be happier it is important to keep these two kinds of happiness in mind. Both are important, and different kinds of societies, activities and neurochemistries support them.

One of the persistent findings of the happiness literature is that Northern Europeans are the happiest people on the planet. Northern Europeans have a lot to be happy about. They have stable, wealthy, democratic countries with lots of leisure time and a strong safety net. They are healthier than than most of the world and live longer. But when Gallup began to break out daily emotional experience from overall life evaluation they discovered something surprising. People in Latin America had a better overall balance of positive and negative emotions than Europeans, apparently because they have a tendency to focus more on the positive.. The Europeans were doing better on the overall life evaluation aspect however, which was what those previous surveys had been picking up on.

The one exception was Denmark. The Danes had stuck out as the happiest Europeans on surveys for decades, and only they rivaled the Latin Americans in day-to-day positivity. This was a mystery, since not much about Danish society was very different from the rest of Europe. In 2014 a group in Britan and Germany finally came up with a plausible explanation. [1] The researchers had taken note of studies that found that variations in genes that regulate the amount of serotonin in the brain were linked to levels of happiness and depression. They wondered whether the Danish were more likely to have the happy variants, and if some of the difference in happiness between countries could be the result of sharing these genes. Indeed, they found Danes to be the most likely to have these happy genes, and that frequnecy of these genes in Europe was strongly correlated to both their overall life satisfaction and day-to-day mood.

The fact that our mood, and even our sense of whether our life is going well overall, may be determined to some degree by differences in our brains, our happiness set-point, has become inescapable. We know for instance that there are inheritable genetic differences that determine our risk for depression, or conversely our resilience in the face of stressful events. So what can we do to increase happiness given these biological constraints?

First, we know that stable, democratic, egalitarian and wealthy countries do make us happier in both day-to-day mood, and in overall life evaluation. In the Gallup surveys people in war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq report the most negative and fewest positive emotions,[2] and residents of African nations report the lowest “thriving” scores in the world to Gallup. The average overall life satisfaction of a country is also strongly tied to its gross domestic product.[3] Globally, the welfare state is strongly correlated with happiness of the overall life evaluation type. In a massive analysis[4], Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, found that overall life happiness for both countries and American states was positively correlated with the generosity of welfare benefits, progressive taxation and the size of the government. In the United States, for instance, he found that a state’s citizens were happier the longer the Democratic Party had been in power in their state.

Life choices also make a big difference in happiness, although we have to cautious about correlations since people who are congenitally happy make different life choices. Happier people get more education and make more money, while having more education and income is also associated with positive emotions and overall life satisfaction, at least up to about $75,000 when the effect tapers off.[5] Spending money on experiences makes us happier than spending on things. Having kids is generally bad for positive emotions, especially while they are under your roof, but good for life evaluation. Getting enough sleep, regular exercise and intermittent fasting boost mood. Involvement in a religious community, socializing with friends and volunteering all improve mood and life evaluation.

The positive psychologists have also been experimenting with targeted interventions to improve subjective well-being for more than a decade, and there is a growing body of evidence supporting a number of their techniques, such as keeping a daily gratitude diary and assigning yourself acts of kindness. There is also a large literature now on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for mood. Mindfulness meditation helps us learn to let negative thoughts and feelings go, reduces stress, lessens depression and increases “emotional regulation.” Neurofeedback devices and games have been developed which help teach mindfulness, and computerized cognitive remediation games have also been developed for more than decade to teach people with depression and schizophrenia to manage their thoughts and emotions. We will also soon have access to sophisticated artificial intelligence programs that will function as 24/7 psychological counselors.

But we still come back to what we can do about that big inflexible part of our happiness, the neuro-chemical settings in our brain. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac have just been the first and bluntest of the tools developed to manage mood and it will soon be possible to permanently re-set the brain so that it we consistently experience more positive moods. Many new mood elevating therpeutics are being developed, based on the effects of drugs like nicotine, ketamine, cannabis, and psychedelics like MDMA and psilocybin. One of the ways that Prozac improves mood is by stimulating new neural growth in the brain, and “neurotrophic” drugs and gene therapies are being investigated for their benefits on mood and cognition. Devices that send electric current (transcranial direct current stimulation, TDCS) or magentic pulses (transcranial magnetic stimulation, TMS) through the scalp, or that are directly implanted (deep brain stimulation, DBS) to send current to the brain, are being used for the treatment of depression. Soon we will also have tools to adjust our serotonin genes, making SSRIs unnecessary.

What will it be like when we have more precise control over our moods? People who are congenitally in a positive mood generally do better at everything in life. Happier people have more friends, are more likely to get and stay married, are healthier and live longer, and they do better at work. Positive mood is generally correlated with prosocial behavior like volunteering, and with overall life evaluation.

But being very happy all the time also has drawbacks. Happiness can lead to underestimating risks, and to reducing motivation.[6] The very happiest among us get less education, vote less and earn less than those just a little less happy.[7] At the most extreme version, people with mania make many self-destructive decisions. While most of us are below the point of diminishing returns on positive mood, and could benefit from a mood boost, we will need, as individuals and societies, to guard against pushing ourselves past the optimal point. We don’t want to take foolish risks, give up on ambitions, or be irrepressibly joyful at car accidents and funerals.

By focusing on what a flourishing life entails beyond pleasure, and by cultivating the balancing virtues of self-control, intelligence and caring, we can learn to use these powerful new technologies in ways that avoid the land of the lotus eaters.


[1] Proto E, Oswald AJ. National Happiness and Genetic Distance: A Cautious Exploration. CAGE Online Working Paper Series 196, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE). 2014. http://ftp.iza.org/dp8300.pdf

[2] Gallup. Syrians, Iraqis Least Positive Worldwide, Gallup World. 2013; Sept 30.

[3] Deaton A. Income, Health, and Well-Being Around the World: Evidence From the Gallup World Poll. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 2008; 22(2).

[4] Radcliff B. The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life. 2013. Cambridge University Press.

[5] Kahneman D, Deaton A. High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. PNAS. 2010; 107(38): 16489–16493.

[6] Gruber J, Mauss IB, Tamir M. A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2011; 6(3): 222–233.

[7] Oishi S, Diener E, Lucas RE. The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science 2007; 2: 346.



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James J. Hughes PhD

James J. Hughes PhD


James J. Hughes is Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a research fellow at UMass Boston’s Center for Applied Ethics.