What is happiness? And how can you add more to your life? Here’s what research has to say.
What is happiness?
Ask several people this question (including yourself), and you will likely get a wide variety of answers.
While it plays an important role in our lives, researchers have yet to agree on a definition or framework for happiness because it is hard to define scientifically. In fact, happiness guru Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, recently told Forbes that there are 15 academic definitions of happiness!
Most of us probably don’t think too much about an actual definition for happiness anyway – we know it when we feel it.
However, in the last few decades, researchers have learned a lot about happiness.
Experts have developed several theories about what happiness is.
Researchers in the positive psychology field (the scientific study of what makes life most worth living) use the term happiness interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” according to Greater Good Magazine. This is measured by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing.
The article What is Happiness and Why is It Important? (+ Definition in Psychology)explains that there are many different theories of happiness, but they generally fall into one of two categories based on how they conceptualize happiness (or well-being):
Hedonic happiness/well-being is happiness conceptualized as experiencing more pleasure and less pain; it is composed of an affective component (high positive affect and low negative affect) and a cognitive component (satisfaction with one’s life).
Eudaimonic happiness/well-being conceptualizes happiness as the result of the pursuit and attainment of life purpose, meaning, challenge, and personal growth; happiness is based on reaching one’s full potential and operating at full functioning (AIPC, 2011). (source)
In the book, The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Happiness International has developed a theory on happiness that is largely based on scientific discoveries about how the brain works and on current happiness theories. It “identifies 9 universal and overlapping human needs which go by the handy acronym WE PROMISE.” The 9 categories “cover the range of human needs in a very general way and are intentionally overlapping, just as our thoughts and feelings overlap in our mind,” the site explains.
WE PROMISE stands for:
Wellbeing – mind-body connections, aspects of your physical body that affect your mood, and vice versa
Environment – external factors like safety, food availability, freedom, weather, beauty, and your home
Pleasure – temporary experiences such as joy, sex, love, and eating
Relationships – as a social species, relationships are at the foundation of what it means to be human
Outlook – how you approach the world through adventurousness, curiosity, and making plans
Meaning – having a purpose and the wisdom to understand it
Involvement – to be happy you have to be engaged and actively involved
Success – confirmation from yourself and others that what you do has value
Elasticity – how you recover from life’s inevitable negative events (source)
There are a few common myths about happiness.
Have you found yourself saying things like “I’ll be happy if I get this promotion” or “When I’m married, I’ll finally be happy?” If so, you may be falling for some happiness myths, as Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in The Pursuit of Happiness: 3 Myths Everyone Should Stop Believing:
Psychological research has revealed two important findings when it comes to these beliefs: Things that we think will make us happy never make us happy for as long as we think they will. Conversely, negative life events and challenges don’t have as enduring an impact on our happiness as we believe they will, either. (source)
In that article, Dr. Lyubomirsky shares three valuable lessons from her book, The Myths of Happiness.
Here’s a summary of each.
Myth #1: I won’t be happy until I get a promotion or land my “dream” job. The excitement of a new job eventually fades, and often, our expectations about the new position or company might be unrealistic. Instead, try to make the most of the job you have – and keep in mind that that dream job you keep fantasizing about might not be so great after all.
Myth #2: I’m going to lead a sad, lonely life because I’m single. If you aren’t happy on your own, why do you believe you will be happy as part of a couple? Sure, it is nice to have someone to share your life with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be happy while you are waiting for that special someone. Many people remain single – and happy – for their entire lives, so keep that in mind as well. There are many possible sources of happiness in life – meaningful work, volunteering, and hobbies – to name a few. Going solo doesn’t mean happiness has to elude you.
Myth #3: I can’t be happy when… Dr. Lyubomirsky explains why this belief is flawed: “We all have dreams that we’ve harbored since the early years of our lives, but we often have flawed assumptions about whether we can still be happy despite not achieving those dreams. Psychologists argue that to be truly unburdened by regrets involves freeing ourselves from our “lost possible selves”—the neurosurgeon self, the grandparent self, the small-business owner self.” She recommends keeping a journal or making lists of the pros and cons of what happened, what might have happened, and what didn’t happen. Committing yourself to new pursuits will help you leave the past behind you – and will get you excited about future possibilities.
Experiencing happiness provides many benefits.
Happiness is important because it has some undeniably positive benefits. In an article called What’s So Great About Happiness, Anyway? (The Answer: Plenty!), June Silny outlined 14 answers to that question.
She explained that happy people…
Are more successful: Numerous studies show that happy individuals are successful across multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health.
Get sick less often: A study from Carnegie Mellon University found that people who are happy are less likely to catch colds. Depressed, nervous, or angry people are more likely to complain about cold symptoms. The study also found that the happier study participants weren’t infected as often, and experienced fewer symptoms even when they did get sick.
Have more friends: This probably doesn’t surprise you – happy people are more fun to be around. Happy people have more friends because they are stable, giving, and supportive.
Donate more to charity: And, giving money to charity makes you happy, too. Generosity lights up the pleasure and reward regions of the brain. Research shows that it works both ways: giving makes us happier, but happy people also donate more to charity than unhappy people.
Are more helpful: Studies show that happy people are more likely to volunteer, and those who do so tend to become happier. This is yet another indication of the circular relationship between giving and happiness.
Have a positive attitude, which makes life easier: An optimistic outlook makes dealing with pain, sadness, and grief a bit easier. Bad things are a part of life, but you deal with them better when you have a positive outlook. For more on this, please read Stoicism: How This Ancient Philosophy Can Empower You to Improve Your Health and Your Life.
Have a positive influence on others: Just like negative energy, positive energy is contagious. Which would you rather give and receive? If you want someone else to be happy (and in turn, increase your happiness), express your enthusiasm when you greet them.
Enjoy deeper conversations: Negative thinkers engage in gossip. Dr. Matthias Mehl reported in the journal Psychological Science that happier people had twice as many meaningful conversations as unhappy people.
Smile more: Smiling is beneficial to your health. It lowers stress hormones and blood pressure, and may even increase your lifespan. Other studies have found that people who smile frequently are rated higher in generosity, trustworthiness, and extroversion by others.
Exercise more and eat more healthfully: Research shows that when you’re happy, you’re more likely to engage in good habits like exercising more and eating healthfully, which results in greater health and well-being.
Are happy with what they have: The happiest among us know that envying others is a bad use of their time, and if things don’t go their way all the time, that’s okay. When you’re happy, you’re less likely to stress out about wanting more, being jealous of others, or about trying to keep up with the Joneses. Being happy with what you’ve got allows you to concentrate on living your own life to the fullest—to live a life that’s meaningful to you.
Are healthy people: Studies have found that people who are in a more positive state of mind have a good chance of experiencing better health in the future.
Live longer: Happy people have been found to live longer lives than those who are not happy.
Are more productive and creative: Several studies have shown that people are more creative when they’re experiencing positive emotions. Some research suggests a clear link between employee happiness and productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate us, while negative emotions have the opposite effect.
How happy are we, anyway?
Unfortunately, according to the World Happiness Report 2019, negative feelings are rising around the world. The United States is particularly hard-hit with an epidemic of addictions. Technology addiction is one serious issue that is interfering with happiness. Screen time is replacing activities that are key to our happiness, like in-person social contact. Forty-five percent of adolescents are online “almost constantly,” and the average high school senior spends six hours a day texting, on social media, or on the Internet.
The report also shows a widening happiness gap, with some people reporting much higher feelings of well-being and others showing much less within each country.
This year’s report also analyzes how global happiness has changed over time, based on data going back to 2005. One unfortunate trend is prominent: Negative feelings – worry, sadness, and anger – have been increasing around the globe, up by 27 percent from 2010 to 2018. “We are in an era of rising tensions and negative emotions,” wrote economist and report editor Jeffrey D. Sachs. “These findings point to underlying challenges that need to be addressed.”
In the article, World Happiness Report Finds That People Are Feeling Worse, Kira M. Newman says “The report also features commentary and analysis from economists, psychologists, and public policy experts about urgent issues in well-being, and one theme this year is the ‘sad state of happiness in the United States.’”
Research suggests that American adults have been getting less happy since 2000, while adolescents have been experiencing more depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm since 2010. It’s difficult to say why this is happening, and to tease out symptoms from causes. Some researchers blame rising income inequality; others blame political polarization. (source)
Research suggests that some portion of our happiness is influenced by our genetics, but the amount varies from about 10% up to 50%.
All of this might seem a bit discouraging, but the good news is that you CAN do things that will help you lead a happier life.
11 things you can do to increase your happiness.
- Discover your strengths – and use them. Research shows that people who identify their strengths and use them in daily life are happier overall. If you aren’t sure what your strengths are, try taking an assessment like this one: Character Strengths Survey
- Build healthy relationships. Research consistently shows that social connections are key to happiness. Close relationships and support from others also matter a great deal.
- Practice savoring. This is the art of maintaining and deepening positive feelings by becoming more aware of them. “Research suggests that our ability to savor impacts how much of a mood boost we get from happy events,” explains Greater Good Magazine. For more on savoring, see 10 Steps to Savoring the Good Things in Life.
- Be forgiving. Studies show that forgiving people helps us feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions, and feel closer to others.
- Express gratitude. Every morning when you wake up, and every evening before you go to sleep, think of at least one thing you are grateful for. Keeping a gratitude journal can also help you learn to recognize and appreciate all the little (and not so little) things that matter.
- Be kind to others. In his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives: “…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” And, research has revealed that people report greater happiness when they spend money on others than when they spend it on themselves. And, neuroscience research shows that when we do nice things for others, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward.
- Get moving. Studies consistently show that physical activity does wonders for mental health and has profound positive impacts on happiness and overall well-being. Even a few minutes a day can help – some is better than none, so do what you can. You don’t need fancy equipment or a gym membership. Schedule time to walk every day, if you can. For more on how to build a regular walking routine, please see Why You Should Walk 10,000 Steps Per Day, and How to Do It.
- Spend time outside. “Being connected to nature and feeling happy are, in fact, connected,” reported a 2014 study. Time spent in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood.
- Get adequate sleep. How can you expect to be happy if you are sleep-deprived? Research has consistently linked lower sleep to less happiness. A study led by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman that involved more than 900 women found that getting just one more hour of sleep each night might have a greater effect on happiness than a $60,000 raise. For a list of things you can do to naturally improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, please see Six (More) Reasons to Get Better Quality Sleep.
- Be mindful about spending. How you spend money matters a great deal, according to Greater Good Magazine:
Spend money in the right ways by buying social experiences, giving to others, and expressing your identity.
But don’t focus on material wealth: After our basic needs our met, research suggests, more money doesn’t bring us more happiness—in fact, a study by Kahneman found that Americans’ happiness rose with their income only until they’d made roughly $75,000; after that, their happiness plateaued. And research by Richard Easterlin has found that in the long run, countries don’t become happier as they become wealthier. Perhaps that’s why, in general, people who prioritize material things over other values are much less happy, and comparing ourselves with people who have more is a particular source of unhappiness. It also suggests why more egalitarian countries consistently rank among the happiest in the world. (source)
- Study Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that can help you find the strength and stamina to gracefully handle the challenges of everyday life, improve your health, and experience true happiness. As I explained in Stoicism: How This Ancient Philosophy Can Empower You to Improve Your Health and Your Life:
Stoicism is an eudaimonic philosophy. Eudaimonia is a term that means a life worth living, often translated as “happiness” in the broad sense, or more appropriately, flourishing.
It teaches us to embrace problems, accept them, prepare to challenge them, and take action to overcome them.
Stoicism is a vibrant, action-oriented, paradigm-shifting way of living. It is an ideal philosophy for those seeking the Good Life.
Want to learn more about creating a happier life? Take this free course from Greater Good Magazine: The Science of Happiness
What makes YOU happy?
Do you have any tips or tricks for increasing happiness? Please feel free to share your ideas and thoughts in the comments.