Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, contentment, satisfaction, satisfaction and fulfillment. Although happiness has many different definitions, it is often described as involving positive emotions and satisfaction in life.
When most people talk about happiness, they may be referring to how they feel in the present moment or a more general sense of how they feel about life in general.
Because happiness tends to be such a broad term, psychologists and other social scientists often use the term “subjective well-being” when talking about this emotional state. Just as it sounds, subjective well-being tends to focus on an individual’s overall personal feelings about his or her life in the present.
Two key components of happiness (or subjective well-being) are:
- Emotional balance: Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions, feelings, and moods. Happiness is usually related to experiencing more positive than negative feelings.
- Life satisfaction: This is related to the degree of satisfaction felt in different areas of life, such as relationships, work, achievements and other things that are considered important.
Signs of happiness
Although perceptions of happiness may differ from person to person, there are some key signs that psychologists look for when measuring and assessing happiness.
Some key signs of happiness are
- Feeling that you are living the life you wanted to live
- Feeling that the conditions in your life are good
- Feeling that you have achieved (or will achieve) what you want in life
- Feeling satisfied with your life
- Feeling more positive than negative
It is important to remember that happiness is not a state of constant euphoria. Rather, happiness is a general feeling of experiencing more positive emotions than negative ones.
Happy people still feel the full range of human emotions – anger, frustration, boredom, loneliness and even sadness – from time to time. But even when faced with discomfort, they have an underlying sense of optimism that things will get better, that they can cope with what’s happening and that they can feel happy again.
Types of happiness
There are many different ways of thinking about happiness. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle made a distinction between two different types of happiness: hedonia and eudaimonia.
- Hedonia: Hedonic happiness is derived from pleasure. It is usually associated with doing what feels good, taking care of oneself, fulfilling desires, experiencing enjoyment and feeling a sense of satisfaction.
- Eudaimonia: This type of happiness is derived from the pursuit of virtue and meaning. Important components of eudaimonic well-being include feeling that your life has meaning, value and purpose. It is most associated with fulfilling responsibilities, investing in long-term goals, caring about the well-being of other people, and fulfilling personal ideals.
Today, hedonia and eudemonia are more commonly referred to in psychology as pleasure and meaning, respectively. More recently, psychologists have suggested adding a third component related to engagement. These are feelings of engagement and involvement in different areas of life.
Research suggests that happy people tend to score quite high on eudaimonic life satisfaction and better than average on their hedonic life satisfaction.1
All of these can play an important role in the overall experience of happiness, although the relative value of each can be highly subjective. Some activities may be both pleasurable and meaningful, while others may lean more to one side or the other.
For example, volunteering for a cause you believe in may be more meaningful than pleasurable. Conversely, watching your favorite TV show may be less meaningful and more pleasurable.
Some types of happiness that can be included in these three main categories are
- Joy: An often relatively brief feeling that is felt in the present moment
- Excitement: A feeling of happiness that involves looking forward to something with positive anticipation
- Gratitude: A positive emotion that involves being thankful and appreciative
- Pride: A feeling of satisfaction for something that has been achieved
- Optimism: A way of looking at life with a positive and optimistic perspective
- Contentment: This type of happiness involves a feeling of contentment
How to cultivate happiness
Although some people tend to be naturally happier, there are things you can do to cultivate your sense of happiness.
Pursue intrinsic goals
Pursuing goals that intrinsically motivate you, especially those that focus on personal growth and community, can help increase happiness. Research suggests that pursuing these types of intrinsically motivated goals can increase happiness more than pursuing extrinsic goals such as earning money or status.
Enjoying the moment
Studies have found that people tend to over-earn: they become so focused on accumulating things that they lose track of actually enjoying what they’re doing.
So, instead of falling into the trap of mindlessly accumulating to the detriment of your own happiness, focus on practicing gratitude for the things you have and enjoying the process as you go along.
Reframe negative thoughts
When you find yourself stuck in a pessimistic outlook or experiencing negativity, look for ways to reframe your thoughts in a more positive way.
People have a natural negativity bias, or a tendency to pay more attention to bad things than good things. This can influence everything from the way you make decisions to the way you form impressions of other people. Dismissing the positive-a cognitive distortion in which people focus on the negative and ignore the positive-can also contribute to negative thoughts.
Reframing these negative perceptions is not about ignoring the bad. On the contrary, it means trying to take a more balanced and realistic view of events. It allows you to become aware of your thought patterns and challenge negative thoughts.
The impact of happiness
Happiness has been shown to predict positive outcomes in many different areas of life.
- Positive emotions increase satisfaction with life.
- Happiness helps people develop stronger coping skills and emotional resources.
- Positive emotions are linked to better health and longevity. One study found that people who experienced more positive emotions than negative ones were more likely to survive over a 13-year period.
- Positive feelings increase resilience. Resilience helps people manage stress better and recover better when faced with setbacks. For example, one study found that happier people tend to have lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and that these benefits tend to persist over time.
- People who report having a positive state of well-being are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors, such as eating fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly.
- Being happy may help you get sick less often. Happier states of mind are linked to higher immunity.
How to be a happier person
Some people seem to have a naturally higher baseline level of well-being: a large-scale study of more than 2,000 twins suggested that about 50% of overall life satisfaction was due to genetics, 10% to external events, and 40% to individual activities.9
So, while you can’t control what your “baseline” level of happiness is, there are things you can do to make your life happier and more fulfilling. Even the happiest people can feel depressed from time to time and happiness is something all people should consciously pursue.
Exercise is good for both the body and the mind. Physical activity is linked to a number of physical and psychological benefits, such as improved mood. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise can play a role in preventing symptoms of depression, but evidence also suggests that it can help make people happier.
In an analysis of previous research on the connection between physical activity and happiness, researchers found a consistently positive link.
Even a little exercise produces an increase in happiness: people who were physically active for as little as 10 minutes a day or who exercised just once a week had higher levels of happiness than people who never exercised.
In one study, participants were asked to do a writing exercise for 10 to 20 minutes each night before bedtime. Some were asked to write about everyday problems, others about neutral events, and others about things they were grateful for. The results revealed that people who had written about gratitude had increased positive emotions, subjective happiness and life satisfaction.
As the study authors suggest, keeping a gratitude list is a relatively easy, affordable, simple and enjoyable way to improve mood. Try setting aside a few minutes each night to write or think about the things in your life for which you are grateful.
Find a purpose
Research has found that people who feel they have a sense of purpose have greater well-being and feel more fulfilled. A sense of purpose involves seeing your life as having purpose, direction and meaning. It can help improve happiness by promoting healthier behaviors.
Some things you can do to help find a sense of purpose include
- Exploring your interests and passions
- Participating in pro-social and altruistic causes
- Working to address injustices
- Seek out new things you want to learn more about
This sense of purpose is influenced by a number of factors, but it is also something you can cultivate. It involves finding a goal that you care deeply about and that leads you to take productive and positive actions to work toward that goal.
The Challenges to finding it
While the pursuit of happiness is important, there are times when the pursuit of life satisfaction falls short. Some of the challenges to watch out for include
Valuing the wrong things
Money may not be able to buy happiness, but there is research showing that spending money on things like experiences can make us happier than spending it on material possessions.
One study, for example, found that spending money on things that buy time-such as spending money on time-saving services-can increase happiness and life satisfaction.13
Instead of overvaluing things like money, status, or material possessions, pursuing goals that result in more free time or enjoyable experiences can have a greater happiness payoff.
Not seeking social support
Social support means having friends and loved ones to turn to for support. Research has found that perceived social support plays an important role in subjective well-being. For example, one study found that perceived social support was responsible for 43% of a person’s level of happiness.14
It is important to remember that when it comes to social support, quality is more important than quantity. Having only a few very close and trusted friends will have a greater impact on your overall happiness than having many casual acquaintances.
Think of happiness as an endpoint
Happiness is not a goal that can be reached and finished. It is an ongoing pursuit that requires continuous nourishment and sustenance.
One study found that people who tend to value happiness more also tend to feel less satisfied with their lives.15 Essentially, happiness becomes such a lofty goal that it is virtually unattainable.
“Valuing happiness may be counterproductive because the more people value happiness, the more likely they are to be disappointed,” the study’s authors suggest.
Perhaps the lesson is not to make something as broadly defined as “happiness” a goal. Instead, focus on building and cultivating the kind of life and relationships that bring you fulfillment and satisfaction.
It is also important to consider how you personally define happiness. Happiness is a broad term that means different things to different people. Rather than looking at happiness as an end point, it may be more helpful to think about what happiness really means to you and then work on small things that help you be happier. This can make achieving these goals more manageable and less overwhelming.
History of Happiness
Happiness has long been recognized as a fundamental part of health and well-being. The “pursuit of happiness” even appears as an inalienable right in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. However, our understanding of what brings happiness has changed over time.
Psychologists have proposed various theories to explain how people experience and pursue happiness. These theories include:
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
The hierarchy of needs suggests that people are motivated to satisfy increasingly complex needs. Once the most basic needs are satisfied, people are motivated by more psychological and emotional needs.
At the top of the hierarchy is the need for self-actualization, i.e., the need to reach one’s maximum potential. The theory also stresses the importance of peak experiences or transcendent moments in which the person feels deep understanding, happiness and joy.
The pursuit of happiness is central to the field of positive psychology. Psychologists who study positive psychology are interested in learning ways to increase positivity and help people live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Rather than focusing on mental pathologies, this field strives to find ways to help individuals, communities and societies enhance positive emotions and achieve greater happiness.