Many people harbor the idea that happy people lack motivation. New research gives us reason to doubt this long-held assumption.
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Two decades ago, I packed my bags and headed to Kolkata, India (or Calcutta, as it was known back then). I was eager to research happiness among some of the world’s most impoverished citizens. A sprawling metropolis of 14 million people, about half of whom live below the poverty line. At the time I conducted my research, an estimated 100 thousand homeless children were living there. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the size of the town where I grew up. Yet, it was difficult for me to believe that everyone just moped about in misery all day long. I didn’t want to go see for myself; I wanted to ask the residents of Kolkata to educate me about the quality of their lives.
Before I left, however, a scholar took me aside and cautioned me. “Be careful,” he warned as if I were committing an act of espionage. “People are going to hate your research. If you find that the people there are happy, they will criticize you for it. Specifically, they will say that you are painting a picture of the poor as being complacent.” I thought that was interesting food for thought and have considered the notion many times since. Are happy people—whether they are rich or poor—complacent? Do they care about anything, or are they too blissed out to be motivated?
Squeaky Wheel Thinking
The stereotype of happy people as lazy and complacent endures, in part, because of our collective attitude about complaining. Many people think that—as the phrase suggests—the squeaky wheel gets the grease. That is, people who are dissatisfied and voice it are likely to effect change. For people interested in improvement, there is never total satisfaction. There is always room for growth, progress, and new policies and products that solve old problems.
This is why we have “complaint boxes” and not “please write a long list of everything that works perfectly” boxes. At work, managers often spend as much time on weaknesses and threats as they do on strengths and opportunities. In romantic relationships, there always seems to be some little change that might be made to improve things. The same holds true for parenting, sports performance, and health. Happiness, in this context, seems to run counter to the notion of better performance.
The Power of Positive Emotion
Recent research by a team at the University of Virginia investigated the very idea that happy people might be complacent. Specifically, they wondered whether happy people would be less motivated to address society’s problems. To do so, they ran a series of studies that examined a wide range of issues. In one, using a sample of more than 2 thousand people of all ages, they focused on environmental concerns. They discovered that unhappy people were prone to worry about the climate but not necessarily more likely to engage in more environmentally friendly behaviors. By contrast, the happiest people worried the least worried and were the most likely to take action.
I know, I know! You might be thinking that this is unique to a select group of people who are environmentalists. With that in mind, it might be reassuring to know that the researchers looked at other causes. In a separate study, they asked people to identify issues that concerned them and past, current, or planned actions to address these problems. The list of issues included terrorism, healthcare, war, income inequality, gun violence, loss of gun rights, and immigration, to name just a few. Once again, the least happy people were less likely to take action.
These two studies point to the same conclusion: happiness energizes people to take action and, perhaps, gives them the optimism necessary to address social problems. It is the exact opposite of the stereotype of the complacent person. In fact, it appears to be the least happy people who feel powerless or hopeless enough that it affects their motivation.
On reflection, these results are as sensible as they are reassuring. When you recall your interactions with complainers, pessimists, and critics, you probably don’t remember coming away feeling energized. It was the folks in your life with a smile on their faces and a spring in their step that were most likely to inspire you.
So, where does that leave the people living in Kolkata? They certainly experienced worry, especially for their children, and they suffered from lower satisfaction, especially if they were desperately poor. But that isn’t the whole story. They also had high self-esteem, stable relationships, and experienced joy. It is good that they do because these bouts of happiness are pleasurable and help them take the small actions they can to improve their lives.
About the author
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is passionate about leaving the research laboratory and working in the field. His studies have taken him to such far-flung places as Greenland, India, Kenya, and Israel. He is a leading authority on strengths, culture, courage, and happiness and is known for his pioneering work in the application of positive psychology to coaching.
Robert has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed academic articles and chapters, two of which are “citation classics” (cited more than 1,000 times each). Dr. Biswas-Diener has authored seven books, including the 2007 PROSE Award winner, Happiness, the New York Times Best Seller, The Upside of Your Dark Side, and the 2023 book Positive Provocation.