Can money buy happiness?

Apparently yes, if it is spent correctly. I wonder if this makes routine tithing as a path to happiness?

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How do we know if people are flourishing?

As Margarita Mooney so ably put forth in a previous post, Sociology is in need of an attitude adjustment (my words, not hers). Namely, the focus of so much sociology is on the problems of society (in fact, many sociological courses are taught as a variation of the theme social problems), but this shunts aside an equally interesting and important question: What makes people, groups, and society prosper? We shouldn’t just assume that the solutions in society are simply the reverse of the causes of its problems, for causation isn’t always symmetrical.

This inquiry into a “positive” sociology (which is unrelated to positivism) is challenging in sociology because like to think at so many levels of analysis–including the individual, small group, organization, culture, and society. So, what one definition of positive sociology will span all levels? Beats me.

Starting at the micro-level, sociologist Cory Keyes, of Emory, has identified 13 dimensions along with individual-level well-being varies. He terms this flourishing. (He actually coined the term in this context, so he did flourishing before flourishing was cool).

  1. Regular positive affect–cheerful, happy, good spirits, etc… over the last 30 days
  2. Avowed happiness–feels happy
  3. Self-acceptance–Holds positive attitude toward onself
  4. Social acceptance–positive attitudes toward others
  5. Personal growth-shows insight into own potential, development
  6. Social actualization-believes groups can evolve positively
  7. Purpose in life–holds goals and believes that affirm a sense of direction and meaning in life
  8. Social contribution–feels that one’s life is useful to society
  9. Environmental mastery–can manage complex environments
  10. Social coherence–Interested in society or social life, feels they are intelligible and meaningful
  11. Autonomy–Exhibits self-direction, resists unsavory social pressures
  12. Positive relations with others—Warm, satisfying, trusting personal relationships
  13. Social integration–Sense of belonging in a community, comfort and support from others

What strikes me as I read this is how inherently social well-being is. About half of these are explicitly social, and the remaining are certainly affected by social factors. Linking these dimensions to larger social processes seems a promising approach to advancing a positive sociology.

If nothing else, these 13 dimensions give us a powerful tool to assess how we and others are doing in life.

Theory of Self Determination and Christianity

One of the joys of being an academic is reading in a wide range of research literatures and learning from them. Yesterday I was reading about the Self-Determination Theory. It’s a theory of human motivation, and it holds that humans have three general needs that they must meet for optimal function and growth: relatedness, autonomy, and competency.

Relatedness is being connected to others. Autonomy isn’t being independent of others, rather it’s “being a causal agent” in one’s own life. Competency is being able to control outcomes and express mastery.

This got me to thinking about how this theory maps on to the prescriptions of Christianity, and if this gives insight into the functionality (at least at the individual-level) of the faith.

Clearly Christianity fosters connectedness, both to other people and to God. At its core it teaches love for others and for God, and the faith is structured in various levels of groupings–from small groups to denominations.

Autonomy takes a specific guise. In one sense, Christianity promises freedom–from a sinful nature. In another, however, it’s about dependence and reliance on God and others.

Competency is less straightforward. There are verses that put forth the need to work hard to get what you want (thinking sluggards vs. the diligent in proverbs).  But, by and large, I don’t think that it teaches a lot about being competent (unless I’m missing something. Which, if so, I suppose calls into question my own competency). Instead the Bible seems to emphasize the competency (or ability to make things happen) of God, and so, perhaps that becomes competency for us as we tap into it via prayer and following Him.

I’m not sure that I would push this analysis too far, but it does give a different perspective for the ways that Christianity promotes functioning and growth.

Mastery Goals and Working Out Our Salvation

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is a wonderfully interesting book by Heidi Grant Halvorson. A social psychologist, she summarizes the social psychological literature on goal setting with an eye toward applying it to day-to-day life.

Grant Halvorson distinguishes between “performance” goals and “mastery” goals. Performance goals are goals in which we prove our abilities in an area, for example getting an “A” in class or running a marathon in a given time. These goals tend to be tied to our sense of self-worth and they have an all-or-nothing quality, for either you accomplish them or you don’t.

It turns out that this type of goal—which up until now has characterized the most of my own personal goals—works well with activities that aren’t too difficult or complex, but when things get difficult, people may conclude that they don’t have the ability to meet the goal and give up. Presumably most New Year’s resolutions are cast as performance goals, which might explain their common futility.

In contrast are mastery goals. Here the goal is stated in terms of developing skills or ability. For example, a student might set a goal of constantly improving in their courses or a runner might aim to always run faster. This type of goal puts the focus on cultivating progress, rather than expressing existing competence, and this offers a distinctive advantage in tough times. Namely, with these types of goals, people explain difficulties in obtaining goals more as a lack of effort, rather than innate inability, and so they are more included to work hard when they meet obstacles. So, mastery goals provide resilience, and, in addition, they have been found to lessen depression.

So, in Grant Halvorson’s terms, “the bottom line is, whenever possible, turn your goals from being good to getting better”… focus on expanding your skills and taking on new challenges.”

This finding has many implications, and over the coming weeks I will be reframing my own goals to focus on mastery (though I do wonder if combining performance and mastery goals is even better).

It’s interesting the ways that this distinction plays upon spiritual matters. For example, “progress not perfection” is a cornerstone belief of twelve-step programs, a mindset that might help explain their effectiveness, for the person in recovery faces no end of difficulties.

Also, there is “mastery” language in the Bible. Philippians 2:12 writes “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” a verse that speaks of the progress and development nature of salvation.


Any thoughts about other implications of mastery goals?