Life potentials Types of Happiness in Psychology

What is the good life? There are at least three different types of happiness. Have you found the right right mix or do you need to change?

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Three different types of happiness 

We all want happiness. But what sort of happiness do you want?

Happiness is a complex concept that cannot be pinned down to one simple dimension. Daniel Nettle describes three levels / types of happiness in psychology each representing different aspects of the positive emotions we strive for as human beings.

Level 1 happiness: Represents momentary feelings of joy and pleasure 

The first level of happiness represents short-term positive emotions sometimes referred to as “simple pleasures”. They can result from a good meal, a hobby we enjoy, watching a good movie, listening to piece of music we like, sex and so on.

It is quite easy to observe this level of happiness because of the immediate feelings of joy people experience. These types of emotions are also pretty easy to measure and compare because brain scans show that certain parts of our brain are active when we have these emotions.

This level of happiness is pleasurable but the good feelings do not last for very long and we will return to our “baseline” mental state quite quickly.

Level 2 happiness: Represents judgements about feelings 

Sometimes referred to as well-being The second level of happiness is more thoughtful and requires an assessment that goes beyond the momentary feelings of level one. Questions about happiness and well-being normally works at this level - if you are asked about how happy you are with your life in general your answer will reflect a level two assessment of your happiness (probably you are not enjoying a hobby or having sex when asked this question so level one is out).

Level 2 happiness is also relative in the sense that you compare your situation with other people as well as how you have felt in the past.

Many studies of happiness in psychology works at this level. If you read about research saying for example that people in country A are happier than people in country B then most likely it refers to level 2 happiness measured through various surveys.

Level 3 happiness: Represents a higher meaning of life, flourishing and fulfilling one’s potential 

The third level of happiness represents fulfilment at a higher level - achieving one's full potential. It can be seen as accomplishments with a higher meaning and has to do with self-realization.

It is related to Maslow's hierarchy of needs where self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid (following physiological and safety needs and needs for love, belonging and self-esteem).

Level 3 happiness is more difficult to measure than the other two levels. People high in level 3 happiness live more in harmony with their deeper values and therefore have fewer inner conflicts because they often feel that what they do has meaning and is contributing to a greater cause.

According to Daniel Nettle you could say that one is optimally happy at this level.

To summarise: Towards the lower level, happiness is more immediate, sensual, and measurable. Towards the higher level, happiness is more rational, reflective, and relative.

Can you be happy in all senses of the term all the time? 

That’s very unlikely if not impossible. There’s a trade off between the different levels in the sense that you can’t have high levels on all three all the time - at least that’s very difficult. If you focus too much on the momentary joys and pleasures of level one then you probably won’t work hard enough to reach your potential and succeed on your long term objectives in life.

On the other hand, if you spend all your time working towards long time goals you’ll probably forget to enjoy the simpler things in life.

It’s all about balance! 

It’s all about finding the right balance and accepting the natural ups and downs of the different levels that inevitably are a part of life.

That said, there are plenty of things you can do to become happier (on all levels) and have a more fulfilling life. Check out our posts on happiness, well-being etc. as well as the books we recommend!

Other categorizations of levels of happiness 

Daniel Nettle distinguishes between three levels of happiness but others identify four or even five different types or aspects of happiness that we need in our lives to feel content and fulfilled.

Read more about the four types of happiness.

Read more about the five aspects of happiness we need in our life.


Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile

Read more about the different types of happiness in psychology and how you can increase your own level of happiness and well being in the book “Happiness - the science behind your smile” by Professor of Behavioural Science Daniel Nettle.


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