Happiness is a lot more than one simple spectrum

People tend to think of personal well-being as a spectrum score. Happiness and positive emotions sit on one end, with unhappiness negative emotions on the other. To determine our level of happiness, then, we simply ask which pole we are closest to. “Good days” and “bad days” are judged by their tendency to push us in either direction.

But scholars don’t see things this way. The field of positive psychology sees positive and negative emotions not as one gradient, but as a system with two distinct dimensions. This insight, that positive and negative feelings operate in distinct and separate ways, sheds light on the complex mix of psychological states that impact individuals.

Martin Seligman is a leading psychologist and best-selling author. He’s a former president of the American Psychological Association and he coined the phrase positive psychology, a concept that refocuses science on “what’s right” in people’s lives and not merely “what’s wrong.” Through his own research and by sharing the accomplishments of others in the field, Seligman is a champion of helping people improve their lives through self-assessment of well-being.

On Seligman’s website at the University of Pennsylvania, anyone can take a wide range of well-being tests. One of the most influential assessments—and one that exemplifies the dual-dimension model of positive and negative emotions— is the PANAS, or Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. It uses a simple method where subjects report how intensely they are experiencing different feelings. The PANAS Scale was developed in 1988 by David Watson, Lee Anna Clark, and Auke Tellegen in a paper that explained the need for reliable and practical metrics for self-assessment.

According to Watson et al., high positive affect constitutes a state of “high energy, full concentration, and pleasurable engagement, whereas low PA is characterized by sadness and lethargy.” On the other hand, negative affect is a state of “subjective distress…that subsumes a variety of aversive mood states… with low NA being a state of calmness and serenity.” See how the two states are distinct? A single person could have high highs and low lows, or could be consistently even-tempered. The key is that vibrant good moods are not the opposite of really bad moods. Different levels of good vibes and bad feelings can actually co-exist.

There’s a lot more to psychology than one useful scale, but even this simple questionnaire can help demonstrate that there’s a lot more to happiness than one simplistic spectrum.

 Click here to take Seligman’s PNAS quiz and assess your own happiness.