S. Katherine Nelson

What leads people to live happy and fulfilling lives? How do major life events, such as having children, alter the course of adults' lives and ultimately shape their well-being? These questions are…

Day: January 13, 2022

Family, Health, & Well-Being Laboratory

Family, Health, & Well-Being Laboratory – What leads people to live happy and fulfilling lives?

How do major life events, such as having children, alter the course of adults’ lives and ultimately shape their well-being?

These questions are the central focus of our research program.

We take a multi-method approach to understanding how simple behaviors and major life changes influence well-being, including randomized interventions, longitudinal studies, daily diary methodology, and cross-sectional surveys.…

Stressed and Happy? Investigating the Relationship Between Happiness and Perceived Stress

Stressed and Happy? Investigating the Relationship Between Happiness and Perceived Stress


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 relationship 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

1 Introduction

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 positive 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 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.…





  • Lyubomirsky, S., Layous, K., Chancellor, J., & Nelson, S. K. (in press). Thinking about rumination: The scholarly contributions and intellectual legacy of Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 
  • Nelson, S. K., Della Porta, M. D., Jacobs Bao, K., Lee, H.C., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). “It’s up to you”: Experimentally manipulated autonomy support for prosocial behavior improves well-being in two cultures over six weeks. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 
  • Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). Juggling family and career: Parents’ pathways to a balanced and happy life. To appear in Page, K., Burke, R., & Cooper, C. (eds.), Flourishing in life, work, and careers. London, UK: Edward Elgar.
  • Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (in press). Gratitude. To appear in Friedman, H. S. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
  • Nelson, S. K., Kurtz, J. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2015). What psychological science knows about achieving happiness. In S. J. Lynn, W. O’Donohue, & S. Lilienfeld (Eds.), Health, happiness, and well-being: Better living through psychological science (pp. 250-271). New York: Sage.


  • Nelson, S. K., Fuller, J. A. K., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Beyond self-protection: Self-affirmation benefits hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 998-1011
  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenthood: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846-895.
  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Parents are slightly happier than nonparents, but causality still cannot be inferred: A reply to Bhargava, Kassam, and Loewenstein (2014). Psychological Science, 25, 303-304
  • Nelson, S. K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Finding happiness: Tailoring positive activities for optimal well-being benefits. In M. Tugade, M. Shiota, & L. Kirby (Eds.), Handbook of positive emotions (pp. 275 – 293). New York: Guilford.


  • Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., English, T., Dunn, E. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). In defense of parenthood: Children are associated with more joy than misery. Psychological Science, 24, 3-10.
  • Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). What is the most optimal way to deliver a positive activity intervention? The case of writing about one’s “best possible selves.” Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 635-654.  
  • Peréz-Edgar, K., Kujawa, A., Nelson, S. K., Cole, C., & Zapp, D. J. (2013). The relation between electroencephalogram asymmetry and attention biases to threat at baseline and under stress. Brain and Cognition, 82, 337-343


  • Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., Oberle, E., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Kindness counts: Prompting prosocial behavior in preadolescents boosts peer acceptance and well-being. PLOS ONE, 7, e51380.
  • Cole, C., Zapp, D., Nelson, S. K.& Pérez-Edgar, K., (2012). Speech presentation cues moderate frontal EEG asymmetry in socially withdrawn young adults. Brain and Cognition, 78, 156-162
  • Martin-Krumm, C., Lyubomirsky, S., & Nelson, S. K. (2012). Psychologie positive et adaptation: Quelle contribution? [What is the contribution of research in positive psychology and hedonic adaptation?] In C. Tarquinio & E. Spitz (Eds.), Psychologie de l’adaptation (pp.333-354). Bruxelles: De Boeck.

2009 – 2011 

  • Schiffrin, H. H., Rezendes, D., & Nelson, S. K(2010). Stressed and happy? Investigation of the relationship between happiness and perceived stress. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 33-39.
  • Falkenstern, M., Schiffrin, H. H., Nelson, S. K., Ford, L., & Keyser, C. (2009). Mood over matter: Can happiness be your undoing? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 365-371.
  • Nelson, S. K., & Schiffrin, H. H. (2009). Happy people don’t follow the stereotype: The impact of mood on stereotyping. Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research, 14, 148-157.




S. Katherine Nelson, Ph.D.
Lab Director 
Katherine Nelson is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. She earned her bachelor’s of science in Psychology from the University of Mary Washington in 2008 and her Ph.D. in 2015 from the University of California, Riverside, where she studied personality and social psychology with Sonja Lyubomirsky. You can read about her research interests here.  When she’s not at work, Katie enjoys spending time with friends and family and her dog, Smoky. She also loves hiking, reading, and yoga. 

John K. Coffey, Ph.D. 
John Coffey is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. He earned his B.A. in Psychology from Creighton University, his M.S.W. from the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. in Positive Developmental Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. John’s research focuses on integrating research on developmental and positive psychology to examine the early life determinants of adolescent and adult well-being and psychopathology. When he’s not working, John enjoys a range of activities, including hiking, soccer, swimming, socializing with friends and family, cooking, reading, and playing the occasional video game. 

Current Members
Chandler Altenbern, Undergraduate RA 
Olivia Bailey, Undergraduate RA 
​Hannah Faulkner, Undergraduate RA
​Gray Lochbihler, Undergraduate RA 
Claire Johnson, Undergraduate RA 
Micah Nicholas, Undergraduate RA 
Ashlin Ondrusek, Undergraduate RA 
Diamond Stewart, Undergraduate RA 
Tessa Thomas, Undergraduate RA …

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