Is Happiness a “First World Problem?”


PC – My Shots@Photography via Compfight

As October comes to an end, so too does my season of fun.  Every year, from April to October, I spend almost every weekend at the beach in Long Beach, Long Island.  My wife and I both surf and play beach volleyball, and we bring our kids, who play blissfully in the surf and the sand.  For our entire family, these times are precious and are filled with sheer joy.

We’ve also developed close friendships among the other volleyball players in Long Beach. During these summer weekends, we will usually end the day by circling our beach chairs, sharing whatever beer and snacks we may have, and having great conversations while watching the sun set over the boardwalk.

I always feel intense gratitude during these sunset sessions.  “Do you realize,” I will say, “that our quality of life is probably in the top 1% of people on the planet?”  Most of my friends respond to this somewhat incredulously.  But I remind them, that around the world, while we are sipping beers and enjoying a sunset on the beach, millions of other people are dealing with poverty, fighting wars, or struggling against oppressive governments.

In the United States we take it for granted that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right.  And in recent years, it might even be described as a mass cultural passion, as so many of our citizens seem to be enamored with “self-help” strategies (through books, TV shows, and other popular media) that proclaim to help us to find and create more happiness.

Some might argue that this is a luxury we have as one of the wealthiest nations on Earth.  We can afford to pursue happiness (including leisure activities like surfing and volleyball) because we are not struggling to put food on our tables, or fighting for basic freedoms.

Interestingly, some researchers (Sarah Pressman, Matthew Lopez, and Shane Lopez) set out to measure if happiness is only a “first-world problem.”  They looked at the connections between emotions and health in 142 countries around the world and predicted that this link would become less important in countries where more basic needs (such as food, shelter, and safety) may be lacking.

1379390_10151918269114522_2004498940_n-2But the results were surprising.  They found that “emotions matter to health everywhere.”  Both positive and negative emotions were linked to subjective reports of health, and the researchers reported that “contrary to our prediction, these links were stronger than the links between unmet basic needs and health.”  Not only that, but the researchers were also surprised to find that the link between positive emotions and health was actually stronger in the countries with a weaker GDP.

Happiness and positive emotional experiences are important.  And they seem to be important even for those who may be struggling with basic needs such as food, shelter and safety.

As we move into this winter season, I know I’ll be anxiously looking forward to getting back to the beach next summer.  And that’s not as much of a first-world problem as it sounds.

References and recommended reading:

Is the Emotion-Health Connection a ”First-World Problem”? The online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/0956797612457382 published online 26 February 2013 Psychological Science Sarah D. Pressman, Matthew W. Gallagher and Shane J. Lopez


by Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)

The PRINT version of my book is now available on Amazon!!!

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9 Responses to Is Happiness a “First World Problem?”

  1. Judy Krings October 31, 2013 at 2:03 pm #

    Hi, Jeremy and so thrilled to hear about your savoring with your family. As I native of Delaware, my youth was spent playing girls sports and anticipating those days at the beach from April till October., especially in spring and fall after the tourist season in Lewes, Rehoboth, Dewey and Bethany Beaches. Sheer joy watching the waves, eating Grotto’s pizza and the “diet”, we used to tease, Boardwalk French Fries. Rarefied times.

    Whenever I go back to DE, my best friend and I go to the beach and remember our good ole days. Freedom, beauty, camaraderie. Now a senior citizen (when did that happen?) we cherish those watermelon-spitting and watching out for the jelly-fish days the THE BEST.

    You travel the world and appreciate it all, but your values here fill a landfill with positivity.

    My adopted son, Hari, in Nepal reminds of of third world realities all the time, but in subtle Hindu appreciative ways, I can hear his smile on the phone and on Skype if the electricity is on that day, “Ama, This is Nepal! I am happy. I have family. I have work. I have tea and rice. Life always teaches, Ama. You and I both have opportunities. We have the same moon and stars. Yes, my house was destroyed by the Indian earthquake, and we live on dirt, but it will not destroy my spirit.”

    Genuine in a 29 years old who gets life better than I some days. Hope rings powerfully.

    Thanks, again, Jeremy.

  2. quackwatch October 31, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    Jeremy – did you read the study. The abstract overlooked some important aspects.

    1. Its correlational not causation. Did health drive emotions?
    2. Self report health measures are not robust. They can’t be objective and really rely on comparison with other people in the same culture
    3. The “felt rested” had a huge correlation with positive emotions., Perhaps “felt rested” might be an emotion called contentment. Or there is also research showing that sleep drives positive emotions (this relates to point 1)
    4. The cultural variations are huge. For example negative emotions have a huge impact on health for the Japanese whilst positive emotions have minimal impact. Positive emotions have a huge impact for Russia/Ukraine.
    5. Negative emotions have the biggest impact on health in developed countries, whereas negative and positive emotions are equally important for all other countries

    Again an interesting discussion at a pub but ultimately meaningless research that people will twist to justify their world view. The world is way to complex for correlation studies to be of any relevance.

    As an aside the northern European countries seems to be overlooked in the study. I wonder what impact these countries would have on the data. Big welfare states and high life satisfaction.

  3. Sara Firman November 1, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    I thank you for raising such thought-provoking questions Jeremy. I’m with quackwatch in terms of subjectivity and context, and the great difficulty faced in interpreting research in a meaningful way.

    Yesterday, after reading this post, I came across a page in AARP magazine on their project ‘Drive to End Hunger’. I learned that basic needs are not being met for more people than we might think in the US:

    ‘In eight years, from 2001 – 2009, the number of Americans age 50+ threatened by hunger soared by 79 percent, to nearly 9 million people. The recession has made the hunger problem much worse….Between 2007 and 2009, the most dramatic increase in food insecurity – 38 percent — was among those whose annual incomes were twice the poverty line.’

    This reminded me that, even when sitting with friends in the ‘first world’ enjoying a good moment, there may be someone in the group who is worrying about how far their money will go that week.

    An afternoon of happiness among generous friends could make it easier to cope with this problem, and find the energy to try to solve it. Or it could leave someone feeling ashamed, even as they keep up a good front.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy November 1, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    Quackwatch, I agree with your points on the limitations of the study. There is lots of evidence to suggest that the link between emotions and health is bi-directional so emotions have an impact on health and vice versa. The idea that this article attempts to refute is the idea that that correlational link would be weaker in a poorer nation and they find it doesn’t. I think you would be right to say that there are other narratives than the one above that could explain this (people in poorer nations may be more grateful for their health, people in wealthy nations may be able to use expensive technologies and medications to mute the impact of their health on their emotions.)

    I agree that these matters are complex but I don’t agree that correlational studies have no relevance. They only give us additional clues to how wellbeing works but no study can give us all the answers we are looking for. But you and Sara are both right that there is a great amount of subjectivity in terms of how this data can be interpreted.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy November 1, 2013 at 11:00 am #

    Sara, I always love your perspective and you are right to bring us back to the realities of people who are suffering even within our midst. But there is a shift in terms of the ways some scientists are thinking about this. The standard model for the last several decades has been Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which suggests that people’s base needs of hunger, safety, shelter, etc. need to be met before someone would begin worrying about relationships, love, respect, happiness, self-actualization, etc. If we apply this view it can lead us to ignore people’s emotional experiences and only try to meet their physiological needs.

    When Ed Diener spoke a couple of years ago at the International Positive Psychology Association about the Gallup World Poll that the above research is based on, he described a new view that suggested that while Maslow’s needs were correctly identified, the hierarchy is not as rigid as people have believed. Yes, hunger is a priority, and it can start to drown out other needs if exaggerated, but people who are experiencing poverty, hunger, etc. can also benefit from experiencing positive emotions, from developing close relationships, or from pursuing something meaningful to them.

    Critics see this as a potential way of ignoring the real problems (hunger, poverty, etc.) and just “fooling” people into thinking they are happy. I see it as looking at people holistically and understanding that life is about more than the economy.

    Ed’s son, Robert Biswas-Diener, has done some research on happiness in the poorest slums of Calcutta. He talks about Manoj Singh, a poor rickshaw driver who works 12-14 hours a day to barely afford to put food on his family’s table and yet he describes himself as “the happiest man in the world” because he enjoys what he does and he loves the people around him. You can meet Manoj here:

  6. Sara Firman November 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Looking at the issue of subjective socioeconomic status (SES), and related to your mention of Manoj Singh’s experience Jeremy, is this section of an interview with a professor of neuroscience at Rockefeller University, Bruce McEwen where he suggests:

    ‘It’s people’s perception of where they stand that is a predictor of health outcomes.

    ‘The lower you are, the more resentment there is and it’s that perception that drives things like a sense of autonomy and other factors [that can determine your response to stress]. It’s also history: people in lower SES groups are more likely to have had adverse childhood experiences and are living in [lousy] neighborhoods where there is not access to good food, no safe places to exercise and there’s chaos and noise all the time. It’s a vicious cycle.

    ‘But it’s where you perceive yourself that matters. The brain is the key because it perceives and decides what is stressful in the traditional sense of the word and regulates behavior and physiology.

    ‘There are buffering factors. [For example] a person may be a janitor but is the deacon of his church and has a wonderful family, and that buffers [the effect]. And perception is as good [a measure] as objective SES.’

    Read more:

  7. quackwatch November 4, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Like Sara, I also was reading about the decline of the middle class in America – low wages, long hours, no healthcare, no enough food, strained marriages, anxiety driven insomnia.

    It is all very well to sit in on the beach and read articles that support our beliefs. But there is world out there that PP has no answers for.

    I have always suspected that PP is a middle class thing and have never seen any research to suggest otherwise. It’s very convenient and comforting to think that people in slums will be ok provided they have a good attitude.

    I also wonder whether Dr Bob (Biswas Diener) really got to witness the real story – or one that happened to align with his beliefs.

    Whilst composing this I just read an article suggesting that people from impoverished backgrounds are more like to get colds when they age. But then I guess they can think happy thoughts and the cold will go away.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy November 4, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    I think positive emotional experiences are important for everyone. But I agree that positive thinking is not the solution to world hunger and poverty.


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