What Is Happiness?
Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.
But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
That definition resonates with us here at Greater Good: It captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life—and suggests how these emotions and sense of meaning reinforce one another.
Why Practice Happiness?
In addition to making us feel good, studies have found that happiness actually improves other aspects of our lives. Here is an overview of some of the good stuff that research has linked to happiness.
- Happiness is good for our health: Happy people are less likely to get sick, and they live longer.
- Happiness is good for our relationships: Happy people are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages, and they have more friends.
- Happy people make more money and are more productive at work.
- Happy people are more generous.
- Happy people cope better with stress and trauma.
- Happy people are more creative and are better able to see the big picture.
For More: Read why the GGSC’s happiness expert, Christine Carter, believes happiness is important.
How to Cultivate Happiness?
Based on her research, Lyubomirsky has concluded that roughly 50 percent of happiness is determined by our genes and 10 percent by our life circumstance, but 40 percent depends on our daily activities. Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating happiness on our new site Greater Good in Action:
- Awe Narrative: Recall and describe a time when you experienced awe.
- Best Possible Self: Imagine your life going as well as it possibly could, then write about this best possible future.
- Best Possible Self for Relationships: Imagine your relationship going as well as it possibly could.
- Mental Subtraction of Positive Events: Visualize what your life would be like without the good things you have.
- Meaningful Photos: Photograph, then write about, things that are meaningful to you.
And here are some of the keys to happiness Lyubomirsky and other researchers have identified.
- Build relationships: Perhaps the dominant finding from happiness research is that social connections are key to happiness. Studies show that close relationships, including romantic relationships, are especially important, suggesting we should make time for those closest to us—people in whom we can confide and who’ll support us when we’re down.
- Give thanks: Research by Michael McCullough, Robert Emmons, Lyubomirsky, and others has revealed the power of simply counting our blessings on a regular basis. People who keep “gratitude journals” feel more optimism and greater satisfaction with their lives. And research shows that writing a “gratitude letter” to someone you’ve never properly thanked brings a major boost of happiness.
- Practice kindness: Research by Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues finds that people report greater happiness when they spend money on others than when they spend it on themselves, even though they initially think the opposite would be true. Similarly, neuroscience research shows that when we do nice things for others, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward.
- Give up grudges: Groundbreaking studies by Everett Worthington, Michael McCullough, and their colleagues show that when we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions, and feel closer to others.
- Get physical: Exercise isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s good for our minds. Studies show that regular physical activity increases happiness and self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and can even lift symptoms of depression. “Exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities,” writes Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness.
- Get rest: Research has consistently linked lower sleep to lower happiness. What’s more, a study of more than 900 women, led by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, found that getting just one more hour of sleep each night might have a greater effect on happiness than a $60,000 raise.
- Pay attention: Studies show that people who practice mindfulness—the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and external circumstances—not only have stronger immune systems but are more likely to be happy and enjoy greater life satisfaction, and they are less likely to be hostile or anxious. Pioneering research by Richard Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and others has found that a basic eight-week mindfulness training program can significantly improve our physical and psychological well-being.
- 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.
What Are the Pitfalls and Limitations of Happiness?
Pursuing happiness isn’t always so straightforward. Paradoxically, it may require making room for negative emotions:
- High emodiversity—experiencing many positive and negative emotions—is linked to less depression, more than high levels of positive emotion alone.
- It’s better for our overall happiness and mood to feel emotions like anger, sadness, and disgust at appropriate times—and not to fake a smile.
- Experiencing major adversity can actually help us better savor the present moment.
This may explain some recent findings suggesting that “extreme” levels of happiness are detrimental:
- Moderately happy people go on to have higher income, academic achievement, and job satisfaction than very happy people, perhaps because they’re more motivated to improve.
- Intense or manic levels of happiness may not afford us the same creativity boost and cognitive flexibility that happiness typically does.
- “Highly cheerful” children tend to die at younger ages, possibly due to excessive risk-taking.
How Happy Are You?
Find out by taking some of these research-tested questionnaires:
- The Subjective Happiness Scale, created by Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Three scales created by Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: his Satisfaction with Life Scale, Scale of Positive and Negative Experience, and Flourishing Scale.
- The Positivity Self Test, created by Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
- The Fordyce Emotions Questionnaire, created by Michael Fordyce, who was a professor of psychology at Edison State College (login required).
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