What behavior indicates prosperity

University of Cologne

We are not born to be happy

The material living conditions of people in the western industrialized nations have improved dramatically over the past 50 years. And they keep improving. But why aren't people happier despite all this progress? A conversation with Professor Detlef Fetchenhauer, Director of the Institute for Economic and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne.

From Merle Hettesheimer


Professor Fetchenhauer, our living conditions have improved a lot since the 1950s. We live longer and are healthy longer. We work less, earn more money and have more vacation. We can travel, use a multitude of technical innovations and live in more square meters. Then why aren't we happier?

People get used to new circumstances very quickly. When our living conditions deteriorate, we are able to adapt. After a period of depression we can start all over again, shake the dust off our jackets, so to speak, and carry on. This ability to adapt is essential for human survival. Unfortunately, it has the disadvantage that people get used to good things very quickly. You're happy about a raise, but in six months you're thinking about getting another raise.

So aren't we made to be happy at all? What role does happiness actually play?

From an evolutionary psychological perspective, we are actually not made to be happy. If we are made for anything at all, it is for procreation. This means that our entire psychological apparatus, including our emotions, have the function of controlling our behavior. When we are happy, it is a signal to our psyche that everything is okay at the moment. If we had the ability to be happy without pursuing any external goals, then we would have bad cards in competition with other living beings that have the ability to functionally control behavior. In this respect, one can actually say that we are not made to be happy in the long run.

In other words, whatever we do to be happy: We can only maintain the feeling of happiness if we constantly have a new stimulus. Should we all bungee jumping then?

Psychology differentiates between happiness and life satisfaction. In this case, happiness means intense emotional experience for a short period of time. Sigmund Freud once put it very nicely: “Happiness is a matter of seconds.” Satisfaction, on the other hand, emphasizes long-term well-being and satisfaction with one's own living conditions. If you now mention something like bungee jumping, then it is certainly - if you like it - a way to stimulate something like happiness in the short term, but not in the long term to cope with your own life.

Obviously it does matter whether we fall below or exceed a certain level of poverty or wealth. How much wealth does a person need to be happy?

Basically, psychology shows that happiness is something highly subjective. Two people can experience objectively the same situation very differently. One is heartbroken, the other very happy with it. But this subjectivity naturally has its limits when the objective living conditions become too extreme. We know from cross-cultural research that when people are really poor, when they are hungry, sick or have been victims of a flood, they are not doing well and that is how they feel. Interestingly, there are no upper limits. Objectively, no circumstances could be so perfect that people would be really happy and satisfied with them.

How do different cultures differ? Are there cultural differences in terms of satisfaction or happiness?

Yes, even relatively strong ones. It is difficult to quantify exactly what the causes are. One variable that is actually crucial is wealth. Globally speaking, people in affluent countries are more satisfied than in poor ones; but only up to a certain threshold. Once you are born in an industrialized nation, it is of no use to you to generate even more growth and become even more prosperous. But other variables also play a role: In certain cultures, people seem to be more sensitive to feelings of happiness, for example in many countries in South America. People there are very satisfied, even though their prosperity is not that great.

What makes these people happier?

This has hardly been researched so far. It is known that the entirety of the infrastructure that a society provides makes people happier. So when human rights are guaranteed in a society, medical care, freedom of the press, etc., then people are more likely to be happy. Therefore, all other things being equal, people are happier and more satisfied in a democracy than in a dictatorship. However, this finding correlates very strongly with prosperity.

Are there comparative studies between the Federal Republic and the GDR?

Studies show that people in East Germany were actually less cheerful than in the Federal Republic. That difference persists even today. The big problem with such comparative studies, however, is that there was no reliable data in the GDR. The first measurements were not carried out until the early 1990s.

Which factors play a role within a society, a culture or a political system?

Empirical research shows that the relationship between prosperity and happiness is very stable within a country: In a society, wealthy people are more satisfied with life than poor people. The reason for this lies in the social status of a person. From an evolutionary psychological point of view, it is important for people to develop a high social status, as it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex and allows them to live longer and healthier lives. Prosperity and income are essential indicators of the social status that people have in a society: the higher the income, the higher the social status and the better off the person concerned is. Emotions that people get from positional goods such as social status cannot be increased - only 10,000 people make up the top ten thousand of a society - and they do not seem to be subject to adaptation either. A possible explanation for this could be found in processes of social comparison that people constantly carry out - consciously or unconsciously - for the purpose of self-assessment, and which give them information about their status relative to their fellow men. People with a high social status constantly experience positive emotions from the knowledge that they are better off than their fellow human beings. For example, schoolchildren who are friends with poor students see themselves more positively than children who are friends with good students. Sometimes we even manipulate our own perception in order to do better in the comparison.

So do the conditions within a society always remain the same, no matter how much a country's gross domestic product increases?

Yes. Assume we would have an average of 30 percent more income in 2020 than today. Then it would be unlikely that we would all be significantly happier. However, there are cross-cultural studies that show that people in countries with low income inequality tend to be more satisfied than in countries with high income inequality. The USA is an exception, however: people there tend to be very satisfied, although there are large differences in income. Life satisfaction is therefore also dependent on the respective culture of a country. In the USA the idea that everyone is his own happiness Schmid and has the chance to make it from dishwasher to millionaire is lived. In this respect, you can also deal better with worse phases of life there, because you hope to make the big profit at some point in the future. Most Europeans do not have this illusion or hope.


Suppose we are facing a new economic crisis. Would that affect people's wellbeing if our living conditions suddenly deteriorated?

This is a very interesting question, but unfortunately there are hardly any empirical studies on it. Scientists have only been dealing with this issue for three or four decades, and in that time we have not seen a major recession anywhere in the world. I would suspect that if a society could manage to distribute the loss of income reasonably evenly, people's satisfaction with life would hardly change. In fact, we have had rather negative growth rates in Germany in the last two years, and that has hardly affected people's satisfaction with life, precisely because everyone was affected.

What role do the media play in our perception of our environment?

One thought that I develop is that the media essentially have the function of reporting on crises, dangers or disasters, and that is what people expect from the media. This, too, is very functional from an evolutionary perspective, because it is precisely the information that is important for our own behavior. As a result, regardless of the objective state of the world, the media predominantly report negative and the reader, listener or viewer gets a distorted picture of reality. Therefore, for example, people have the impression that there are more and more serious road accidents, although statistics show that the number of road fatalities per year has been falling for many years.


So there is a difference between the directly experienced and the media conveyed environment ...

People differentiate between their direct social environment and a media-mediated reality. They can form their own attitude towards their immediate surroundings and correct information from the media. We know such findings from criminology, for example: people perceive crime differently if it takes place in their own neighborhood. There it is generally experienced as less threatening than in Germany as a whole.


The media also contribute to the fact that we grow closer and closer together and our reference groups are getting bigger and bigger. Are we overwhelmed with that?

There are two specific findings from psychology: On the one hand, our reference groups are getting bigger and more abstract. That is not necessarily positive for our own self-esteem. e tend to compare ourselves to celebrities u not to our neighbors. In doing so, we cut poorly. Celebrities are usually more beautiful, richer or more powerful than us or because they are at least portrayed that way in the media. The other aspect is that having too many alternatives can literally cripple people. American scientists conducted an experiment to test whether the customers of a gourmet department store would opt for a stand with 24 or six jams. Although the stand with the larger selection attracted more attention, customers here were hardly able to choose from the range and therefore bought less often than at the stand with the smaller range. Humans are not adapted to such a complex environment. In his hunter-gatherer environment, the number of decisions was few and the right one had to be chosen quickly from a small number of options. Too many alternatives paralyze us, so that in the end we don't choose anything. The comparison process does not end even if we have already decided on a product. Then you start to wonder whether it was really the right thing to do. In this respect, the possibilities that the Internet offers us are on the one hand certainly positive, but on the other hand they are also overwhelming for people.

Do satisfaction and happiness also have something to do with the extent to which we look to the past or to the future? Some believe that everything was better in the past ...

We are currently investigating this question at the institute. Our results so far indicate that looking into the past is a German peculiarity. This behavior can be observed worldwide, but it seems to be very pronounced in Germany. There are two theoretical approaches to this: One approach assumes that it is actually something positive to be nostalgic because you remember and reactivate the lost feeling of happiness in order to draw strength and courage for the future. The other approach assumes that people who are too preoccupied with the past do not break away from it and do not find the strength to turn to their own future. Comparative cultural research suggests that the first approach is more likely to be found in the Anglo-Saxon countries, the second more in Germany. In Germany it is actually the case that people who are very concerned with the past often lack the courage to deal with the present and the future.

Does age also have an influence?

No, that's very interesting. One would logically assume that older people are more nostalgic than younger people because they have already lived a longer part of their lives. Accordingly, one could also assume that older people are more afraid of death or are less satisfied with life. None of that can be found. People tend to ignore their own impermanence. Therefore, many age effects that one would logically expect cannot be determined empirically.