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Happiness Defined

What Is Happiness?

Coming up with a formal definition of happiness can be tricky. After all, shouldn’t we just know it when we feel it? In fact, we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including amusement, joy, pride, and contentment.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. For most, the term happiness is interchangeable with “subjective well-being,” which is typically measured by asking people about how satisfied they feel with their lives (evaluative), how much positive and negative emotion they tend to feel (affective), and their sense of meaning and purpose (eudaimonic). 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.”

However, it’s important to note that social and cultural factors also influence how we think about happiness. For example, studies by William Tov and others have found that people from cultures that embrace more collectivist ideals think about happiness more in terms of harmony and contentment, while more individualistic-minded people connect it to feelings of exuberance and joy. Happiness levels are also shaped by social groups, like families; happier people increase the happiness of people around them.

Though people around the world have different ways of thinking about happiness and perhaps even experience it in different ways, most involve feeling positive generally and about life overall.

What are the Limitations?

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Why Practice It?

Many 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.

Of course, there will be times in life when happiness feels out of reach. That’s OK. Our unpleasant emotions are appropriate responses to difficult situations; they’re there to guide our responses and help us make meaning from challenges and adversity.

Indeed, there is a great deal of research suggesting that trying to feel or falsely express happiness in bad situations is harmful to mental and physical health—and that striving to feel constantly happy can actually diminish your overall happiness in life. Multiple studies suggest that experiencing and embracing a range of emotions, not just the positive ones, is good for our mental and physical health. It’s also important to note that injury and illness can make happiness harder to achieve. For example, concussions and long COVID are both associated with depression.

In short, happiness in life is a worthy aspiration, and there are benefits to feeling happy—but it’s not realistic or healthy to expect a constant stream of positive emotions. When you do feel unhappy, it’s important to listen to that signal. Perhaps it’s time to change what you’re doing or thinking, seek support from a friend or therapist, or work to address a challenge you are facing. During especially hard times in life, suggests the research, you might look for meaning or psychological richness in your experiences, instead of trying to force yourself to be happier.

“Aim for noticing how you really feel right at that moment—and embrace all your diverse feelings,” suggests James Baraz. This will pave the way to happiness down the line.

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How Do I Cultivate It?

Our happiness is shaped by genetics, life experience, social forces,  and culture, as well as individual choices. While your control over most of those domains is limited, there are steps you can take on a personal level to increase your chances of experiencing happiness in life. And all of us can act to change culture and address inequalities that affect happiness on a collective level.

Here are some of the keys to happiness identified by researchers, along with some specific, science-based activities for strengthening skills of happiness, in ourselves and in society.

Build relationships: Perhaps the dominant finding from happiness research is that social connections are fundamental. Try these practices to strengthen trust, mutual support, and affection in your relationships:

Practice different kinds of appreciation. Life can be hard, because negative events and emotions are inevitable. But we can bolster our resilience by shining the light of our attention on the good things.

  • Savoring Walk: Take a walk and pay attention to positive feelings and experiences, to deepen and extend them.
  • Gratitude: Count your blessings on a regular basis, whether by writing a letter, keeping a journal, or just saying thanks.
  • Time Capsule: Create a collection of positive experiences to surprise your future self.
  • Mental Subtraction of Positive Events: Visualize what your life would be like without the good things you have.

Pay attention. Studies find that people who practice mindfulness—the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and external circumstances—score higher on measures of happiness, and lower on measures of anxiety and distress.

Practice kindness. Researchers believe generosity feels good because it highlights and incentivizes positive social interactions and strengthens the social bonds that support happiness. Here are some ways to be kind.

  • Do nice things for other people: Neuroscience research shows that when we do nice things for others, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward.
  • Compassion Meditation: This meditation fosters feelings of compassion and concern for others by training you to notice suffering and strive to alleviate it.
  • Spend money on other people: Similarly, 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.
  • Learn more ways to practice kindness at Greater Good in Action.

Move your body—and then rest. Exercise isn’t just good for our bodies; it’s good for our happiness. So is sleep!

  • Get physical: 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 Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness.
  • Spend time in nature: People who are more connected to nature tend to experience more positive emotions, vitality, and life satisfaction.
  • Then get rest: Research has consistently linked lower sleep to lower happiness. What’s more, a study of more than 900 women, led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, found that getting just one more hour of sleep each night might have a greater effect on happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.

Address inequalities. More egalitarian countries consistently rank among the happiest in the world—and there is evidence that economic, racial, and gender inequality hurts the happiness of disadvantaged groups. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to address these inequalities.

  • Remove barriers to voting. Inequality depresses the vote of low-income people, which reduces their political power. You can help address that situation by supporting organizations dedicated to voter mobilization and reform.
  • Work against racial prejudice and xenophobia. There are many research-tested ways to address racial inequality, on individual and collective levels.
  • Work for gender and LGBTQ+ equality. There are also evidence-based ways to reduce inequality between men and women, and to expand and protect the human rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.
  • Support efforts to address poverty. “Economic wealth matters across cultures,” says researcher William Tov. “In every culture, wealthier people generally are happier than less wealthy people.” Fortunately, volunteering and political activism—or more specifically, the sense of meaning and purpose those involve—seem to be good for both mental and physical health. If we can help our society address poverty, says the evidence, then everyone benefits.

Of course, happiness-boosting activities don’t work equally well for everyone. Understanding yourself better can help you choose practices and exercises that align with your personality, your situation, and your goals.

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