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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)

Kapitel i bok
Författare Danilo Garcia
Ali Al Nima
Oscar N. E. Kjell
Alexandre Granjard
Sverker Sikström
Publicerad i Statistical Semantics - Methods and Applications. Sikström, Sverker, Garcia, Danilo (Eds.)
Förlag Springer
Publiceringsår 2020
Publicerad vid Psykologiska institutionen
Språk en
Ämnesord Episodic Memory; Happiness; Harmony; Life Satisfaction, Memory Systems; Negative Affect; Positive Affect; Semantic Analysis; Semantic Memory.
Ämneskategorier Socialpsykologi, Psykologi


The aim of this Chapter was to investigate how happiness or subjective well-being is related to what individuals explicitly associate to happiness and their own narratives of what makes them happy. We start with a brief outline of current ways of conceptualizing happiness or subjective well-being (i.e., life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, and harmony in life). We then continue by outlining different memory systems that are behind human experience in different planes of life. These mechanisms are suggested to be active and influence when individuals’ make global judgments of their own happiness. We apply quantitative semantics to investigate differences and similarities between the content of people’s (N = 1,000) 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 investigate 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 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. Words associated to happiness were mostly nouns, whereas words that participants used to describe what makes them happy were mostly verbs; probably expressing the memory of the self as an agent or the why and how of happiness in their lives. 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. We argue that our results indicate that semantic memory, and probably temperament, is more active than episodic memory when people are asked to rate their happiness on a scale. If it is so, this is a mismeasurement of happiness. Indeed, many studies accentuate that while temperament is strongly associated to subjective well-being, it is far from enough to understand human happiness because temperament is only one out of three layers of human personality, the others being character and identity.

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