Is Happiness Feeling What’s “Right”?

*This article was authored by Zhouzhou (Jo) He and Razia Sahi as part of the 2020 undergraduate series.

Happiness: A tale of two paths

The pursuit of happiness seems to be a natural desire. Looking around, it is the fuel for many marketing campaigns, businesses, and social bonds. Drinking a can of coke, buying a gorgeous garment on sale, and even traveling for leisure are attempts to feel happy. These actions seem to promote happiness through the experience of pleasant emotions – joy from drinking coke, excitement from shopping, and awe from travel. This conceptualization of happiness powers our economies and often yields short-term boosts in happiness for individuals.

However, is happiness only about feeling good in the moment? Or is there something more to being happy? In 2017, Dr. Maya Tamir and her team published a paper titled: “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?”. This paper contributed to a blossoming area of research striving to illuminate what it means to be happy, and whether feeling what we want to feel is more important than feeling consistently good. They suggest that happiness is more than just feeling pleasant emotions; experiencing emotions that we want to feel, regardless of whether they feel good, may be a crucial part of being happy. 

How did the team study this?

To study this question, Tamir and her team (2016) first broke down what types of emotions people value across cultures. After comparing how similar a list of 18 emotions were to each other, four distinct categories of emotions emerged: self-transcendence emotions, negative self-enhancing emotions, openness to change emotions and conservative emotions. 

Self-transcendence emotions are emotions that are often associated with positive social attachment such as love and trust. Negative self-enhancing emotions are emotions linked to social disengagement, such as anger and hostility. Openness to change emotions include interest and curiosity which often accompany the seeking of new experiences. On the flip side of openness to change is conservation emotions like calmness and relief, which are associated with avoidance of risk. Across the four categories, the total list of emotions included: affection, enthusiasm, interest, compassion, contempt, curiosity, trust, excitement, hostility, pride, empathy, passion, hatred, calmness, relief, relaxation, love and anger. 

Using this list of 18 emotions, Tamir and her team (2017) then recruited participants from eight diverse regions around the world, including United States, Brazil, China, Ghana, Germany, Israel, Poland and Singapore, to participate in a questionnaire. Given the universal nature of the pursuit of happiness, including diverse samples around the world helped the data reflect a more complete picture of the link between happiness and emotions. 

In the first part of the study, participants were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning ‘never’ and 5 meaning ‘all the time’, the frequency in which they desired to experience those emotions. Then, participants rated how often they actually experienced those emotions using the same scale. Subsequently, participants answered the Satisfaction with Life Scale as a measure of their happiness. Finally, participants’ depression levels were measured by answering questions on the Centre for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale. Together, life satisfaction scores and depressive symptoms scores were the two tangible ways the researchers measured happiness.

If happiness could be derived from feeling the ‘right’ emotions as the researchers hypothesized, then experiencing emotions that you want to experience would lead to greater happiness, regardless of whether those emotions  are positive. In other words, individuals who experience emotions at a higher or lower frequency than what they want to experience  would be less happy. This difference between the individual’s desired frequency of experiencing an emotion and the actual experienced frequency of an emotion was termed as the absolute discrepancy between experienced and desired emotion. The researchers predicted that the greater the absolute discrepancy between experienced and desired emotions, the lower the life satisfaction score and the higher the score on depressive symptoms.

What did they find?

They first looked at the absolute discrepancy between wanting to feel certain emotions and actually experiencing those emotions across individuals from different cultures. Tamir and her team found that on average, people desired to experience more self-transcending emotions, like compassion and love, than they actually experienced. This effect was consistent for self-transcending emotions like empathy that can be pleasurable or distressing. The same trend of desiring to experience emotions more than actually experiencing them applied to  opening emotions, like excitement, and conserving emotions, like contentment. It was only for self-enhancing emotions, such as anger, that people experienced more emotions than they desired. These results were consistent across cultures. 

The absolute discrepancies between wanting to feel certain emotions and actually experiencing those emotions  was then correlated with life satisfaction scores and depression scores. Across all 4 types of emotions, as the absolute discrepancy between the individual’s desired and experienced emotion increased, life satisfaction decreased and depressive symptoms increased. Interestingly, there was a greater correlation between absolute discrepancy and both life satisfaction and depressive symptoms for developed countries (as measured by the High Development Index by WHO). In other words, discrepancy between desired and experienced emotions led to more unhappiness amongst people from highly developed countries like Israel and the United States than people from countries like China and Ghana. 

In looking at differences in absolute discrepancy amongst the emotion categories, a discrepancy between desired and experienced emotion for negative self-enhancing emotions, opening emotions, and conservative emotions correlated with decreased life satisfaction and increased depressive symptoms across cultures. It was only for self-transcending emotions, like love and trust, that a greater discrepancy between desired and experienced emotions predicted lower life satisfaction and higher depression for all countries except China and Ghana. While it is unclear what underlies these cultural differences, Tamir and her team suggest that self-transcending emotions like love and trust are a basic human need, and for people who still do not have all their basic needs fulfilled, the experience of feeling these emotions might matter more than whether they feel ‘right’ or not.

These findings do come with their limitations. First, it is difficult to tell if feeling the emotions we desire to feel is a better predictor of happiness than feeling pleasant emotions since no experimental manipulation was involved. Second, the researchers used a limited selection of emotion categories in this study. The same results might not hold true for emotions that are not included in this study, like joy, helplessness, fear, guilt, or sadness

Moving forward:

In light of these findings, how might we engineer our policies to promote well-being? If happiness were to be conceptualized as feeling the ‘right’ emotion instead of solely maximizing pleasurable emotions, policymakers could ask: What are the kinds of emotions we tend to value? What are the factors that shape these values (media outlets, authority figures etc.)? What emotions do people most commonly feel in their everyday lives? Is there a discrepancy between their desired feelings and experienced feelings, and if so, why? In addition, it might be helpful to pay attention to the specific cultural values of the place in question; promoting well-being through the cultivation of conserving emotions will not work as well in a culture that does not value feelings of relief and calmness than a culture that desires to feel those emotions. By understanding what people feel and what emotions are valued in a culture, we can create more culturally-specific programs to promote well-being. 


Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Oishi, S., & Kim, M. Y. (2017). The secret to happiness: Feeling good or feeling right?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(10), 1448.

Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Riediger, M., Torres, C., Scollon, C., … & Vishkin, A. (2016). Desired emotions across cultures: A value-based account. Journal of personality and social psychology, 111(1), 67.

Photo by Stan B on Unsplash

Original article here.