Did you know that people who strive to always choose the best are happy – in a different way?


People vary in how much they want to make the best possible choice in various everyday situations. In psychology, people who strive to make the best choice and do not settle for second best are called “maximizers”, whereas people who make a choice as soon as they find an option that is acceptable and meets some basic criteria are called “satisficers”. A question that arises is: Are those who always seek the best and refuse to lower their standards happier in life? Or is that perhaps a recipe for misery, since they have to live with the doubt that they could have done better by searching more? For long, it has been assumed that maximizers are less happy than satisficers because the thought that there might be something better out there never lets maximizers enjoy life. 

Now, adding to emerging research challenging this assumption, a new study by ISS researcher Michail Kokkoris proposes that in order to investigate whether maximizers are indeed unhappy we need to distinguish between two types of happiness. On the one hand, happiness might mean to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, experiencing much more positive than negative emotions might be a way to be happy. This type of happiness is called hedonic happiness. On the other hand, pursuing pleasure might not be the only way to be happy. Alternatively, happiness might mean to realize one’s potential and pursue self-fulfillment. For example, a person might be happy by engaging in activities that are personally meaningful and self-expressive, such as improving one’s skills, acquiring new knowledge, or volunteering. Such activities may not be pleasurable on their own right but imbue people’s lives with meaning and motivate them to use their full potential. This type of happiness is called eudaimonic happiness.

So far, research on maximizing and happiness has neglected eudaimonic happiness. However, a more complete answer to the question whether maximizers are indeed less happy than satisficers would require assessing both types of happiness – not only hedonic, but also eudaimonic. Results of two empirical studies showed that maximizers scored higher on eudaimonic happiness than satisficers. This research challenges the long-held assumption that maximizers are unhappy. Although maximizers may not be happier than satisficers in terms of experiencing more pleasure and positive emotions, they definitely lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives. In sum, striving to optimize one’s choices in life may provide people with opportunities to flourish. This might not be necessarily associated with more pleasure – but it is clearly associated with meaning and self-fulfillment, which are also important aspects of human happiness.

February 2017


Did you know that the previously unemployed benefit the most from entering retirement?


It is often assumed that retirement changes life circumstances drastically. Therefore, retirement is also called a “critical life event”. However, previous research showed no clear findings – some studies found an increase in life satisfaction, others found a decrease, and further studies found no changes in life satisfaction at all.

ISS researcher Martin Wetzel and his colleagues Oliver Huxhold and Clemens Tesch-Römer from the German Centre of Gerontology (DZA) recently analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP). This data set was used to track changes in life satisfaction from six years prior to eight years after retirement transition for more than 3,300 men and women.

The authors show in their study that people who had been unemployed prior to retirement were more satisfied with their life after retirement than before. In contrast, people who had been working prior retirement showed only minor increases in life satisfaction. The researchers understand this finding as indication that retirement is a socially accepted and predictable life event. For people who had been working, retirement was not associated with major changes in social status. However, people who had been previously out of work perceived retirement status as a relief from the stigma of being “unemployed.”

Additionally, the study finds that in the first eight years after retirement, people with higher education were more successful in maintaining their life satisfaction than people with lower education. The scientists interpret higher life satisfaction as ability to successfully establish new sustainable daily life routines. Hence, in particular, the higher educated more easily adjust to the new challenges of retirement since they have successively collected more resources over the course of their life. This results in increasing differences of life satisfaction between higher and lower educated people in the first eight years after retirement. The authors sum up, “while retirement leads in the short-term to a decrease of social inequalities, in the long-run they increase again.”

January 2017

Did you know that believing in scientific progress makes people more satisfied with their lives than believing in God?


Religiosity makes people happy – this has been shown in numerous studies. The belief in a higher power helps to preserve a feeling of control even if the here and now turns out to be chaotic. It prevents existential fears by rendering the world well-ordered and predictable.

But in modern societies fewer and fewer people believe in God. In former times, someone who got severely ill would pray to the Almighty Father – today many patients prefer to trust in modern medicine, at least in Western countries. For social scientists, the question about the consequences of this change is an intriguing one.

Can believing in scientific and technological progress convey a sense of control to people and thereby make them happy and satisfied? Olga Stavrova, Daniel Ehlebracht and Detlef Fetchenhauer have investigated this question in an article, analyzing data from two representative international population samples.

To begin with they showed that people in the Netherlands tended to be the more satisfied with their lives the more they believed in the progress of science and technology. The question if they were religious played a less important part. This correlation could partly be explained by the fact that people who believed in progress felt that they could exercise control over their lives.

However, the Netherlands are a quite secular nation – and the authors suspected that belief in progress makes people especially satisfied with their lives when they live in societies in which this belief is comparatively widespread. This is because we feel especially well when others around us perceive the world in the same way as we do: This facilitates social interaction and gives us the feeling to be right with our take on things.

The authors thus also tested their results using data from 72 countries. In 69 of them they found a considerable positive correlation between the belief in progress and life satisfaction while religiosity only correlated positively with life satisfaction in 23 countries and even correlated negatively with it in ten countries.

Once more, people who believed in progress were more likely to have a sense of control over their lives, and indeed they were particularly more content with their lives when many of their fellow citizens shared their belief in progress. Thus, it does not only matter what we believe – but also where we believe it. In any case, the belief in God is not the only one that can make us happy.

December, 2016


Did you know that the composition of social contacts in old age affects mortality?


Strong social participation and integration into social relationships are generally considered to be health-promoting. Numerous studies have already shown a connection with lower mortality and therefore higher life expectancy in old age. Many of these studies investigate kin networks. Less is known, however, about the effect of social integration in non-kin networks, that is contacts outside the family, like friends, neighbors and colleagues.

ISS researcher Lea Ellwardt studied this effect together with colleagues from the Free University of Amsterdam and the NOVA Institute in Oslo in more detail. The researchers hypothesized that a complex composition of non-kin networks increases survival in old age. Networks should not only be large, but also manifold in their composition, since they potentially involve a variety of different support resources and reduce the dependence on single useful contacts.

In their recently published study, the researchers analyzed death and survey data of 2440 women and men aged 54 to 100 years, who were interviewed within the LASA Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam over 20 years. The researchers were able to show that individuals with larger and more diverse relationship patterns had greater survival chances than individuals with less diverse relationships with non-kin contacts. This result was independent of the total number of kin and health status.

Overall, differences were rather small. Nonetheless, the researchers conclude that in the future, especially non-kin contacts can make a difference where older people have little access to family support and are increasingly dependent on extra-family assistance.

November, 2016


Did you know that Germans working in Switzerland earn more money than the Swiss?


Low unemployment rates and the prospering economy have made Switzerland a highly attractive destination for a range of migrant groups. The diverse population and a high proportion of skilled labour migrants from Germany were two important reasons for analysing the integration of immigrants in the Swiss labour market in more detail.

The study conducted by ISS researcher Christian Ebner and his colleague Marc Helbling (University of Bamberg) is based on representative data from the Swiss Labour Force Survey (SLFS) for the years 2010 and 2011. The SLFS covers the permanently resident population of Switzerland and in addition to the basic sample, a large number of foreigners have been surveyed. The study population consists of adults aged between 25 and 64 who are working for pay.

The empirical findings indicate that earnings of immigrants vary to a great extent depending on their country of origin. German immigrants, net of education, even earned significantly higher salaries than Swiss-born individuals. Germans speak one of the Swiss national languages and the German education system is very similar to the Swiss education system. They perform specialist tasks and help ameliorate the skills shortage in Switzerland, which gives them more bargaining power in wage negotiations. For many other immigrant groups in Switzerland severe wage disadvantages can be detected. Ethnic disadvantage on the labour market increases as the social distance, which is determined by culture, language and the education system between the sending and receiving societies, grows. Particularly low wages were found for immigrants from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Policies should include targeted language training and education.

October, 2016


Did you know that religious Christians in Europe are on average more tolerant towards Islamic education and headscarves for teachers in public schools?



A study funded by the European Commission (EURISLAM-Survey) in six European countries showed that religious Christians and Muslims accept the religious rights of the other group to a greater extent than less religious individuals. This finding illustrates that religious individuals solidarize with each other across religious boundaries.

Sarah Carol (University of Cologne), Marc Helbling (University of Bamberg) und Ines Michalowski (WZB) investigated attitudes towards religious rights for Christians and Muslims in Belgium, Germany, France, Great Britain, Netherlands and Switzerland. The analyses are based on the EURISLAM survey conducted among more than 7,000 natives and Muslim minorities from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco and Pakistan. The focus lies on attitudes towards Christian religious symbols for teachers (e.g. habit or cross), the headscarf for teachers, Islamic education and Christian education in public schools.

The researchers were able to show that natives do not reject Islamic rights per se, but clearly differentiate between religious symbols for teachers and religious education. They accept Islamic education to a greater extent than the headscarf for teachers. However, also Muslim minorities themselves support the headscarf for teachers to a lesser extent than religious education. Yet, there are differences between ethnic groups: Moroccan and Pakistani minorities are more likely to support religious rights than the Yugoslav or Turkish minority.

Besides differences between ethnic groups, they observe cross-national differences:

Controlled for gender, age and education of the individuals, they find that Dutch natives accept the headscarf to the greatest extent (natives 45%, minorities 79%). In Germany only 36% of the natives and 66% of the minorities said so. On average, Christian and Islamic education is most supported in Germany and Belgium (about 70% of the natives), and least supported in France and Great Britain. Switzerland and Netherlands are positioned in-between. In France, a large gap between natives’ and minorities’ attitudes towards religious education is observed, which is a potential source of conflict.

August/September, 2016


Did you know that sympathy is more important than economic considerations when it comes to the acceptance of immigrants?


The so-called (PE)GIDA protests and the increasing number of immigrants and refugees coming to Germany have been dominating public and political debates in Germany for more than a year. A central issue is the question who shall be welcome in Germany and who not. A study by Christian Czymara and Alexander Schmidt-Catran takes up this dispute by investigating which characteristics determine the public acceptance of immigrants. To this end, they conducted a factorial survey where respondents had to rate 14 fictitious immigrants. They differentiate respondents’ acceptance along three dimensions: the general right to live in Germany, the right to seek employment in Germany, and the right to receive social benefits from the German welfare state.

Generally, the surveyed sample has a rather positive view on immigrants, many even accepted all 14 fictitious immigrants regardless of their actual characteristics. But a significant amount of respondents also universally rejected all immigrants. The latter is especially true for the right to receive social benefits from the German welfare state, whereas respondents almost consensually agreed on giving immigrants the possibility to work in Germany.

Investigating the effects of an immigrant’s characteristics on her or his acceptance, the study shows that an immigrant’s perceived impact on society as well as on the national economy plays a key role: higher qualification, good skills in the German language, and a prospective job all significantly increase an immigrant’s likelihood of being accepted on all three dimensions. Anticipated competition on the labor market and economic self-interest, on the other hand, fail to predict respondent’s acceptance.

Most acceptance, however, is shown toward individuals who flee from political persecution. This points to the possibility that sympathy may be able to reduce considerations about an immigrant’s profitability under certain circumstances. Non-economic aspects are important, too: individuals from France, which is arguably culturally more similar to Germany, have a higher likelihood of being accepted as compared to those coming from Kenia or Lebanon. Furthermore, Muslims were significantly less accepted than Christians or non-religious immigrants.

July, 2016



Did you know that the increase in divorce rates in Germany cannot be explained by a change in the role of women?

In Germany, divorce rates have continued to rise over the past 100 years. Only recently, this trend might have stagnated. A prominent thesis in family sociology suggests that the increase in divorce rates could be explained by a change of the role of women. This change includes increases in women’s labour market participation and improvements of their educational opportunities. The question is whether this rise in female employment and educational attainment explains the increase in divorce rates. Employment raises the earning ability of women. Therefore, employed women are more financially independent from a spouse and less bound to a malfunctioning marriage. Moreover, the negative financial impact of a divorce is less severe for employed women. Finally, it can be expected that a gainful employment of both partners leads to a more balanced division of domestic work. This might reduce the gains a male partner would get from a gendered division of domestic work and in fact destabilize the marriage.

In empirical studies, Michael Wagner, Lisa Schmid (ISS) und Bernd Weiß (University Duisburg-Essen) analyse data from the German Life History Study (GLHS).  The GLHS contains observations of marriages formed between 1936 and 2005 and distinguishes six marriage cohorts (1936-1945, 1946-1955, 1956-1965, 1966-1975, 1976-1985, 1986-2005). The study is confined to West Germany since divorce rates developed differently in eastern and western Germany. The empirical analysis shows that divorce rates are higher in younger marriage cohorts. This finding is consistent with the corresponding numbers in official statistics. The educational attainment of women as well as the proportion of married women in the labour force increases from the earliest to the most recent marriage cohort observed. However, these trends cannot explain sufficiently the continuous rise in divorce rates. Neither does the increasing proportion of well-educated or employed women explain the rise of the divorce rates over the years, nor has the effect of educational attainment or labour market participation on the risk of divorce substantially changed in the observed time range. In our article (Wagner et al. 2015), we discuss alternative explanations for the historical development of the divorce rates. It seems likely that normative barriers constraining the possibilities of a divorce have become weaker in more recent marriage cohorts. Furthermore, partners in more recent cohorts may have higher demands (to express themselves) on their spouses, which may not be met in an increasing number of marriages. In conclusion, it may be the case that a cultural instead of a sociostructural change accounts for the increase in divorce rates.

June, 2016


Did you know that cynicism grabs into your wallet?

People usually hold quite specific views of human nature, assessing others in general as either good, honest, and trustworthy or egoistic, deceitful, and evil. But which effects do these very different views of human nature have on the lives of cynical or idealistic individuals?
While previous studies have proved that, compared to idealists, cynical individuals show a lower sense of subjective well-being, poorer physical and mental health, higher mortality, and poorer social relationships, a recently published study by Olga Stavrova and Daniel Ehlebracht deals with the question of how cynicism affects a person’s economic success. First, one might assume that persons with cynical beliefs are better protected against deception and fraud and should therefore be better off than trustful and idealistic persons. The authors argue, however, that cynics often considerably overrate the danger of becoming a victim of deceit. Consequently, they shy away from valuable opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation and miss out on achieving their goals with combined strength.
Longitudinal analyses of representative samples from the US and Germany confirm this hypothesis and show that cynical beliefs about human nature negatively affect individuals’ income and lead to flatter income development trajectories than idealistic beliefs. Apparently, for cynical individuals the costs of missing out on cooperation opportunities exceed the potential benefits of protection against presumed exploitation. Apart from that, a final cross-cultural comparison using representative survey data from 41 countries shows that the financial losses resulting from cynical beliefs are greater the more positive the social climate in a country is. In a country with a cooperative climate and low crime rates, financial losses are substantial. In countries with low helping and high crime rates, however, there is often no negative correlation to be found between cynicism and income. 
The results of the analyses imply that cynical persons generally cultivate unrealistically negative beliefs about human nature, which causes them to distrust people unnecessarily and to avoid cooperation. Because of missed opportunities for mutual help, in most socio-cultural contexts cynics have to sustain financial losses compared to idealistic persons. Following the authors, it therefore may often be financially worthwhile to abandon cynical beliefs and rather regard other people in a more favorable way.

February, 2016