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The (Mis)measurement of Happiness: Words We Associate to Happiness (Semantic Memory) and Narratives of What Makes Us Happy (Episodic Memory)

Chapter in book
Authors Danilo Garcia
Ali Al Nima
Oscar N. E. Kjell
Alexandre Granjard
Sverker Sikström
Published in Statistical Semantics - Methods and Applications. Sikström, Sverker, Garcia, Danilo (Eds.)
Publisher Springer
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords Episodic Memory; Happiness; Harmony; Life Satisfaction, Memory Systems; Negative Affect; Positive Affect; Semantic Analysis; Semantic Memory.
Subject categories Psychology, Social Psychology


Happiness or subjective well-being is often measured by assessing individuals’ judgments of life satisfaction and experience of positive and negative affect (Diener 1984). In addition, recent research suggests that individuals’ sense of harmony in life is also an important component of subjective well- being (Kjell et al. 2016; Nima et al. 2020a, b). Happiness is largely explained by temperament traits such as emotional stability and extraversion, but also by specific life circumstances such as being married, having a reasonable income, having a job, and having meaningful social connections, and last but not the least by individuals’ values and goals or what they make of themselves intentionally, that is, character traits such as self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence (Myers and Diener 1995; Diener et al. 2018; Cloninger 2004; Garcia and Archer 2016; Garcia et al. 2018a, b; Lester et al. 2016). In this context, subjective well-being reflects an overall evaluation of the quality of a person’s life from her own perspective. In other words, happiness, operationalized as subjective well-being, is cognitive in nature because it consists of people’s own judgments of their life as a whole (Garcia et al.n.d., under editorial evaluation). As such, it is influenced by what is salient in people’ minds at the moment of the assessment. Indeed, global judgments of happiness are based on previous experiences that have caused evaluative reactions and emotional reactions. These reactions are then, depending on different factors, more or less accessible when a person is asked to judge and rate her global levels of happiness (Kim-Prieto et al. 2005). This framework is indeed not static, the recollection of an event might elicit different emotions and judgments of happiness depending on, for example, the person’s situation, temperament, character, and identity (cf. Chap. 8). That is to say, a wide range of information is used when individuals are asked to assess their subjective well-being (for a review see Schwartz and Strack 1999). Here, we applied quantitative semantics to investigate differences and similarities between the content of people’s (N = 1000) responses to words that individuals associate to happiness (cf. semantic memory) and their own brief descriptions of what makes them happy (cf. episodic memory). We also investigated how the content in these responses relates to participants’ scores in the three components of subjective well-being: life satisfaction, affect, and harmony in life. As in past studies, the content of people’s semantic and episodic memories of happiness had a clear communal theme (i.e., goals and values based on other-relationships) expressed in words such as family, kids, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, daughter, friendship, relationships, helping, and etcetera; and also an agentic theme (i.e., goals and values based on the self as an agent) expressed in words such as healthy, eating, reading, and exercising. Moreover, we also discerned a transcendental or spiritual theme (i.e., goals and values that transcend the self and that are existential in nature) expressed in words such as meaning, alive, memories, creative, and creating. Self-rated happiness correlated twice as much to what people associate to happiness compared to narratives of what makes people happy. At the same time, for both questions, the same concepts were mirrored as predominant in positive (e.g., family) and negative (e.g., money) scores in all subjective well-being measures. Thus, suggesting a common association of both semantic and episodic memories to a general happiness factor connecting the cognitive, affective and social components of subjective well-being. In sum, we argue that our results may indicate a mismeasurement of happiness, if semantic memory and/or temperament is more active than episodic memory and/or character when people are asked to rate their happiness on a scale. Happiness is indeed more than the accumulation of emotional reactions and the life we lived, it is also how we remember when we tell our story.

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