Life potentials The Definition of Happiness in Psychology

“For me, happiness is the joy we feel striving for our potential” - Shawn Achor.

More from The Happiness Advantage

Happiness def

Different definitions of happiness

Happiness can be defined in many different ways:

Three levels of happiness

  1. Momentary feelings of joy and pleasure 
  2. Judgements about feelings
  3. A higher meaning of life, flourishing and fulfilling one’s potential 

Read more about the three levels.

Four levels of happiness

  1. Happiness from material objects
  2. Happiness from comparison: being better, more admired than others etc.
  3. Happiness from doing good for others and making the world a better place.
  4. Ultimate, perfect happiness - finding your calling

Read more about the four levels.

Five different dimensions of well-being

  1. Positive emotion
  2. Engagement 
  3. Relationships 
  4. Meaning
  5. Achievement  

Read more about the five dimensions of well-being.

The Benefits of Being Happy 

If happiness is a universal goal, then we need to understand its cause and effect. But before we go on to the studies and definitions, we need to know why it’s so important to us. Why are we so hung up on being happy?

Aside from a greater appreciation of life, being happy… 

  • Is good for our health. Happy people have stronger immune systems and have a longer lifespan, than depressed and unhappy people. 
  • Makes you more giving. Since they are happy, they feel more contentment and tend to share their blessings with others. 
  • Helps you handle stress better. Helps you recover from trauma faster. 
  • Is beneficial to your relationships. Compared to discontented people with a lot of hang-ups, happy people have a higher chance of getting married and having successful relationships. They also have a broader and more meaningful network of friends. 
  • Encourages success. Happy people are more creative and energized and this attitude translates to their work performance. 
  • Happy people are reported to live 14% longer, increasing their lives by 7.5 to 10 years.

The Search for Happiness is Universal 

The search for happiness is a human endeavor – a universal goal. We all want to be happy, and we empathize with each other’s need for it. We search for it with all our might, our thoughts and actions focused on only one goal in life – to be happy.

But what is happiness, really? Is it that feeling that rushes over you when you achieve a goal, when you have your first child, or when you love someone and they love you back? You know it when you’re happy or not, but can something so intangible really be defined and measured?

The Studies on Happiness 

Since the 1960s, scientific disciplines have conducted research on happiness, to determine how humans can live happier lives. The scientific pursuit of positive emotion and happiness is the pillar of positive psychology, first proposed in 1998 by Martin E. P. Seligman.

The studies have come up with varied results and views on the cause of happiness. Here are some of their findings:

  • One result from the 75-year Grant Study of Harvard undergraduates show that loving relationships, especially with parents, have a great impact on our well-being in our later years. 
  • Based on twin studies, Sonja Lyubomirsky concludes that 50% of our happiness level is determined by our genes, 40% is related to our self-control, and 10% is influenced by personal situations and life circumstances. 
  • Finnish research on 701 individuals showed that happiness activates our whole body, from the head down to the legs. 
  • People are able to extract more pleasure out of ordinary experiences as they age. Younger people defined their happiness more by extraordinary experiences. 
  • Excessive money, beyond what we need to feed, clothe and house ourselves only increases happiness by a fraction. 
  • A Harvard Business School Study found that we are happier when we spend money on others, rather than on ourselves. 
  • Relationships are keys to long-term happiness. The effect is strongest on married couples, but deep meaningful relationships with others have the same impact. 
  • Surveys by Gallup, the National Research Center and the Pew Organisation states that people who are more spiritual tend to be happier than those who are not.
  • Religious people who benefit from social contact and peer support also showed an increased tendency to be happy and satisfied with their lives. The practice of optimism and service to others are contributing factors. 
  • Research findings show that 8 hugs a day can increase your levels of oxytocin, and result in a happier you. A higher level of oxytocin is attributed to feelings of trust and camaraderie. 
  • People’s moods significantly improve after engaging in exercise. (University of Bristol, 2008) 
  • Acts of kindness make people more well-liked and accepted. This leads to social acceptance and an improved self-image. (University of British Columbia, 2012) 
  • In a significant study by the University of California in 2008, researchers concluded that surrounding yourself with happy people will increase the possibilities of your future happiness. Happiness is said to be contagious. 
  • The experience of being able to buy material things causes happiness, not the possession itself. It satisfies our higher order needs for social connectedness and vitality, and heightens the feeling of being alive. (San Francisco State University, 2009.

What is Happiness? Different definitions of happiness 

Happiness means different things to different people. 

  • In her book, “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, defines happiness as, “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” 
  • The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as: A state of well-being and contentment A pleasurable or satisfying experience 
  • Author Ayn Rand says: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values“. 
  • Mahatma Gandhi says: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. 
  • To psychological researchers, the two components of Subjective Well-Being (SWB) are "feelings of happiness" and "thoughts of satisfaction with life".

Every individual has their own definition of what makes them happy. But the extensive research on happiness have shown that there are certain needs that must be satisfied in order to achieve this emotional state. What we are referring to is long-term happiness and not the momentary feelings of joy we experience in our everyday lives.

What Makes Humans Happy?

Psychologist Martin Seligman and the findings from Positive Psychology studies asserts that humans are happiest when they have the following: 

  1. Pleasure (delicious food, a warm bed, anything that pleases one of the 5 senses) 
  2. Engagement or Flow (the experience of an enjoyable and challenging activity) 
  3. Relationships (social ties are an extremely reliable factor of happiness) 
  4. Meaning (belonging to something bigger than ourselves) 
  5. Accomplishment (the achievement of goals)

Are you Happy? 

Psychologists have long distinguished the difference of Life Satisfaction (your thoughts and feelings about your life as a whole) from Subjective Well-Being (your actual feelings of happiness at the moment.) One does not decide the outcome of the other.

If you were asked to rate your happiness right now, it will not be an accurate indicator of your Life Satisfaction. You may be feeling discontented with your work, or having a fight with your loved one – and you will give your state of happiness a low rating. Subjective Well-Being is dependent on current situations.

Maybe you just had a promotion or bought a new car and you’re feeling on top of the world. You’re happy. But if you were asked if you’re satisfied with your life in general, you may rate your Life Satisfaction differently. You probably have more plans for your life that have not come to pass.

This shows that happiness is not equal to Life Satisfaction or feelings of fulfillment, which equates to long-term happiness. Your overall sense of well-being cannot be determined by how happy you are today or last Friday.

Make a difference for others!

The studies suggest that to achieve long-term happiness, you need to see yourself as a person who is making a difference in this life, and improving the well-being of others. Someone who matters. If you focus on these areas, you will have a greater chance of achieving the state of happiness that every human being long for. What about you? What gives you happiness? 

References 

  1. Wikipedia: Happiness
  2. Scholarpedia: Psychology of Happiness
  3. Psychology Today: How Should Psychology Define Happiness?
  4. Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life: What is Happiness?
  5. Being Minimalist: 10 Positive Psychology Studies to Change Your View of Happiness
  6. Psyche Central: 5 Reliable Findings from Happiness Research
  7. Psyblog: Happiness: 10 Fascinating New Psychology Studies Everyone Should Know

The Happiness Advantage

Read more about happiness research and how you use it to create the good life in the book “The Happiness Advantage” by Harvard graduate Shawn Achor.


Get the Book today
Popout amazon

More from The Happiness Advantage