Stressed and Happy? Investigating the Relationship
Between Happiness and Perceived Stress
Holly H. Schiffrin ÆS. Katherine Nelson
Published online: 11 June 2008
!Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008
Abstract Developing interventions to increase happiness is a major focus of the
emerging ﬁeld of positive psychology. Common beliefs about the need to reduce stress to
obtain happiness suggest that stress management activities should be included in these
interventions. However, the research on the relationship between positive and negative
affect is equivocal. Theoretically, they are conceptualized as independent dimensions, but
research has often found an inverse relationship between happiness and stress. In addition,
the research generally attempts to assess stress objectively rather than in terms of the
cognitive appraisal process. The current study examines the relationship between perceived
stress and happiness among 100 college students to determine if the same inverse rela-
tionship exists. Linear correlations between happiness and perceived stress were signiﬁcant
indicating that there was an inverse relationship between these variables. The discussion
focuses on several factors that might help to explain the observed relationship.
Keywords Perceived stress !Happiness !Positive affect !Negative affect !
Relationship between stress and happiness
In recent years, the ﬁeld of positive psychology has emerged to bring awareness to the role
of psychology in making life more fulﬁlling, enhancing human functioning, and increasing
happiness (Seligman 2002). Research has suggested that increasing happiness has multiple
beneﬁts. For example, Fredrickson’s (1998) broaden-and-build model proposes that posi-
tive emotions cause a broadening of thought-action potentials, build personal resources
(e.g., social relationships and knowledge), and improve personal functioning (Fredrickson
1998). Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) compiled research documenting that positive affect is
associated with multiple positive outcomes including better performance ratings at work,
higher salaries, and improved health. Based on the beneﬁts of increasing happiness found
H. H. Schiffrin (&)!S. K. Nelson
University of Mary Washington, 1301 College Avenue, Fredericksburg, VA 22401, USA
J Happiness Stud (2010) 11:33–39
in the literature, an important goal within the ﬁeld of positive psychology has been to
develop interventions that increase individuals’ happiness levels and sustain these gains
over time (Seligman et al. 2005). However, the most effective method of achieving these
goals still needs to be determined.
Based on the common conception that stress impedes happiness, it would seem that an
important way to increase happiness would be to reduce stress levels. However, it has been
unclear from research on the relationship between stress and happiness whether stress
management would be essential in an intervention to increase happiness. Watson and
Tellegen (1985) concluded that positive (e.g., happiness) and negative (e.g., stress) affect
were two orthogonal dimensions, which suggests that it is possible to feel both emotions
simultaneously. In fact, there is a growing literature on post-traumatic growth, which refers
to positive outcomes that can arise from traumatic experiences (Tedeschi et al. 1998).
However, some research conducted on the relationship between positive and negative
affect has not supported the proposed independence of these two dimensions (Feldman
Barrett and Russell 1998; Russell and Carroll 1999), and deﬁnitions of these dimensions
have varied in the literature.
2 What is Happiness?
Within the literature, happiness has been broadly used to describe positive subjective
experiences. Diener’s (2000) model of subjective well-being has been one of the most
widely accepted deﬁnitions of happiness. His model is comprised of three components
including the cognitive appraisal of one’s life (i.e., life satisfaction) as well as positive and
negative affect (i.e., emotions), which are viewed as two separate dimensions. The com-
bination of these three components creates a holistic view of the overall perception of
happiness (Pavot and Diener 1993).
In another approach to deﬁning happiness, Lyubomirsky and Lepper (1999) proposed a
method that captures the global and subjective qualities of happiness. Rather than assess
positive and negative affect separately, this approach attempts to allow the individual to
give an overall assessment of the extent to which he or she is a happy person. Thus, it
identiﬁes a relatively stable characteristic of happiness separate from life experiences.
Finally, a newer conceptualization of happiness has been Seligman’s (2002) deﬁnition,
which consists of three components including: experiencing positive emotion (the pleasant
life), being engaged in life activities (the engaged life), and ﬁnding a sense of purpose or
meaning (the meaningful life). The most satisﬁed people pursue all three pathways to
happiness, with engagement and meaning having a greater inﬂuence (Seligman et al. 2005).
Similar to Diener’s (2000) conceptualization of happiness, Seligman has identiﬁed positive
emotion as being an important component in a person’s perception of happiness. However,
unlike Diener, Seligman has not addressed the role of negative affect in this model.
3 What is Stress?
Stress has been examined previously by measuring its physiological manifestations, the
occurrence of major life events, the frequency of daily hassles, and its cognitive appraisal.
Similar to the assessment of subjective well-being, the latter approach proposes that a
person’s cognitive appraisal of stress is the most important factor in evaluating stressful
events (Cohen et al. 1983). From this perspective, a person interprets environmental events
34 H. H. Schiffrin, S. K. Nelson
based on his or her own values and resources and reacts psychologically, behaviorally, and
biologically. Events are only characterized as stressful when the demands of the event
outweigh the person’s available resources (Cohen et al. 1983).
4 Relationships between Happiness and Stress
The relationship between happiness and stress has been examined both in terms of the
negative effects of stress on well-being as well as the role of positive emotions in buffering
against stress. Some research has demonstrated the negative effects of stress on well-being
(Chatters 1988; Suh et al. 1996; Zika and Chamberlain 1987) and other research has not
(Feist et al. 1995).
In terms of the buffering hypothesis, positive emotions have been found to play a key
role in undoing the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions (Fredrickson and Levenson
1998; Fredrickson et al. 2000), which may contribute to psychological resilience (Tugade
and Fredrickson 2004). When using self-report rather than physiological measures of
stress, Van der Werff and Sanderman (1989) did not ﬁnd support for the buffering effects
of happiness on stress. However, Lightsey (1994) found that positive automatic thoughts
about self worth did act as a buffer against self-reported stress. Therefore, while subjective
conceptions of global happiness may not function as a buffer against stress, speciﬁc
positive thoughts may.
Finally, interventions targeting both stress and happiness have found that activities such
as exercise, meditation, and written expression have been shown to decrease stress while
increasing happiness (Compton 2005; King 2001; Lyubomirsky et al. 2006). The effects of
these activities have been examined primarily in terms of the physiological aspects of
stress. Thus, further study is needed for the cognitive appraisal of stress to determine its
relationship to happiness.
Possible explanations for the equivocal nature of the literature on stress and happiness
may be due to the multi-dimensional nature of affect. First, measures of affect differ in
terms of whether they assess the current mood state versus a long-term affective trait
(Rosenberg 1998). It is possible that positive and negative affect may appear to be two
ends of the same continuum (i.e., inversely related) in the short-term, but emerge as two
separate dimensions when taking a long-term view (Diener 2000). A second dimension on
which emotions may differ is the level of arousal experienced (Watson and Tellegen 1985).
The discrepancies seen in the literature may also occur if stress has a different relationship
with low (e.g., happiness) and high arousal (e.g., inspiration) positive affect, a pattern that
has been found with other variables (Kunzmann and Baltes 2003; Kunzmann et al. 2005).
Clearly, further research is required to disentangle the exact nature of the relationship
between stress and happiness. Speciﬁcally, do stress and happiness operate as two separate
dimensions or are they two ends of the same continuum? Is it possible to be happy and
stressed? The answers to these questions have important implications for interventions
aimed at increasing happiness. If stress and happiness are inversely related, interventions
intended to increase happiness should include stress management activities.
5 Current Study
This study sought to examine the relationship between the cognitive appraisal of stress and
happiness. Based on the previously established relationship between other aspects of stress
Stressed and Happy? 35
and happiness, it was hypothesized that there would be an inverse relationship between
perceived stress and happiness measured from the three conceptual models previously
One-hundred full-time undergraduate students from a small, public liberal arts college in
the mid-Atlantic region received credit in a general psychology course for their partici-
pation. Participants consisted of 72 females and 28 males and with a mean age of 18.60
(SD =1.30). Approximately 87% of the participants were Caucasian, 3% American Indian
or Alaskan Native, 2% African-American, 1% Asian-Paciﬁc Islander, and 7% deﬁned
themselves as ‘‘Other.’’
6.2 Measures and Procedures
Participants completed a set of ten paper-pencil measures in approximately 30 minutes. The
measures analyzed in this study are described below in the order they were administered.
6.2.1 Happiness Measures
Three questionnaires were used to assess participants’ happiness levels. The Satisfaction
with Life Scale (SWLS) was used to assess the participants’ overall life satisfaction. Five
items (e.g., In most ways, my life is close to my ideal) are rated on a scale of 1 (not at all
true) to 7 (absolutely true) yielding an overall life satisfaction score. This measure has an
internal reliability of .87 and a test–retest reliability of .82 (Pavot and Diener 1993). The
Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) assesses participants’ subjective sense of global hap-
piness by averaging four items (e.g., Compared to my peers, I consider myself:) rated on a
seven-point scale (e.g., from less happy to more happy). This measure has been shown to
have a test–retest reliability of .72 and an internal consistency of .86 (Lyubomirsky and
Lepper 1999). The Authentic Happiness Inventory (AHI, also referred to as the Steen
Happiness Index) was used to measure Seligman’s deﬁnition of happiness (M. Seligman,
personal communication, April 10, 2006). This scale consists of 24 sets of statements.
Within each set there are ﬁve statements that range from negative (I feel like a failure) to
extremely positive (I feel I am extraordinarily successful). Participants chose the statement
that best described them during the previous week. Preliminary data support the validity of
this scale. It has a convergent validity of .79 with the SHS and .74 with Fordyce’s Hap-
piness Scale (Seligman et al. 2005). Cronbach’s alpha for the three measures in this sample
were satisfactorily high: SHS (a=.82), SWLS (a=.86), and AHI (a=.92). The SWLS
and the SHS are both global or trait measures; whereas, the AHI assesses participants’
current state of happiness.
6.2.2 Stress Measure
The Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) was used to measure participants’ appraisal of situations
in their life as stressful. The scale consists of ten items asking participants to rate the
36 H. H. Schiffrin, S. K. Nelson
frequency of stressful events that occurred in the past month (e.g., How often have you
been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?) on a scale from 1 (never) to
5(very often). The PSS is a state measure of stress, which has adequate reliability, .85
(Cohen et al. 1983). Cronbach’s alpha for this sample was also .85.
Linear correlations were conducted to determine if the study’s happiness questionnaires
were measuring similar aspects of happiness. Analyses showed signiﬁcant correlations
between the AHI and SWLS (r=.65, p\.001), the AHI and SHS (r=.65, p\.001)
and the SWLS and SHS (r=.59, p\.001). Correlations were also conducted to deter-
mine if happiness and stress were inversely related. Prior to analysis, one outlier was
removed because the person’s score on the PSS was unrepresentative of the data set (i.e.,
the zscore was over 4.0). All three measures demonstrated a negative, linear correlation
with stress: SWLS (r=-.48, p\.001), SHS (r=-.42, p\.001) or the AHI (r=-.58,
p\.001). The amount of variability in stress shared with each of the happiness measures
was 23.04%, 17.64%, and 33.64%, respectively. Given the large effect sizes, power for
these analyses was approximately 95% (Faul et al. 2007).
The purpose of the current study was to examine the relationship between perceived stress
and happiness. The hypothesis that there would be an inverse relationship between the
variables was supported. Participants who perceived higher levels of stress reported being
less happy than those with lower levels of stress. Although it is has been theorized that
positive and negative affect operate on two separate dimensions (Watson and Tellegen
1985), the results of the current study provide support for an inverse relationship between
perceived stress and happiness.
Although all three measures of happiness had strong negative correlations with per-
ceived stress, there are some differences in the magnitude of these relationships across
happiness measures. The AHI shared approximately one-third of its variability with stress,
which is considerably more than the variance shared with the SHS (17.64%) and the SWLS
(23.04%). A possible explanation for this difference is that the AHI asks participants to
assess their happiness level in terms of the past week instead of the more global assess-
ments asked of participants in the SHS and SWLS. As a state measure, the AHI was
designed to be more sensitive to changes in happiness levels, especially toward upward
changes (Seligman et al. 2005). The greater magnitude of the relationship between per-
ceived stress and the AHI supports the idea that positive and negative affect appear to be
inversely related in the short-term (Diener 2000). While the supposition that they may
operate independently in the long-term was not fully supported by these data, the inverse
relationship between perceived stress and the trait measures of happiness was somewhat
attenuated compared to a state measure of happiness. The shared variability may be due to
the fact that people use current mood as information when making global assessments of
their level of happiness (Pavot and Diener 1993).
The current study offers some insight into the relationship between perceived stress and
happiness; however, certain limitations should be noted. First, our results involving the
AHI should be considered cautiously because this test has not been widely used and
Stressed and Happy? 37
published psychometric data are limited. Second, all participants received the question-
naires in the same order, so an order effect may be present. Third, the current study is
correlational and cannot determine the causal relationship between happiness and stress.
Lastly, the current study utilized a homogenous convenience sample of primarily Cauca-
sian women. Therefore, it is difﬁcult to determine how the results of this study would
generalize to a different population.
Future research should examine correlates of happiness that could help to provide a
more comprehensive model of the relationship between happiness and perceived stress.
For example, personality has been shown to be an important variable when assessing a
person’s happiness largely because of its effect on how an individual interacts with
environmental stimuli (DeNeve and Cooper 1998), which may be important to perceived
stress. Coping style has also been identiﬁed as an important variable related to happiness
(Folkman and Tedlie Moskowitz 2000). Faced with similar amounts of stress, it may be
that people who participate in positive, active coping are able to maintain a high level of
happiness whereas those who do not experience declines in happiness. Finally, optimism
is also a key variable related to both physical health and psychological well-being
(Seligman 2002). Optimists may be better able to cope with stressful events than pes-
simists due to both their cognitive interpretation of those events as well as their
behavioral responses to them. Finally, future studies should consider examining the
relationship of stress with the latent construct of happiness given the strong correlation
among happiness measures.
In summation, this study suggests that current, perceived stress is related to decreases in
happiness assessed by both state and trait measures. Therefore, interventions designed to
increase happiness may beneﬁt from the inclusion of activities to manage and cope with
stress. Interventions may also want to utilize state measures of happiness, such as the AHI,
that are sensitive to increases in happiness that may occur as a result of the intervention.
Future research on variables that affect the relationship between happiness and perceived
stress will clarify how to tailor intervention activities to help individuals maximize their
level of happiness.
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Stressed and Happy? 39