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What is happiness?

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What is happiness?

Happiness is thought of as the good life, freedom from suffering, flourishing, well-being, joy, prosperity, and pleasure.
Its pursuit is enshrined as a fundamental right in the United States and occupies most of us. But what do we really know about happiness? Can we study it? Are we born with it? Can we make ourselves happier? Who’s happy and who’s not, and why? What makes us happy? Researchers are learning more and more about the answers to these questions.

What does happiness mean to you?

Defining happiness
Defining happiness can seem as elusive as achieving it. We want to be happy, and we can say whether we are or not, but can it really be defined, studied and measured? And can we use this learning to become happier?

Psychologists say yes, and that there are good reasons for doing so. Positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” These researchers’ work includes studying strengths, positive emotions, resilience, and happiness. Their argument is that only studying psychological disorders gives us just part of the picture of mental health. We will learn more about well-being by studying our strengths and what makes us happy. The hope is that by better understanding human strengths, we can learn new ways to recover from or prevent disorders, and may even learn to become happier.

So how do these researchers define happiness? Psychologist Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, describes what psychologists call “subjective well-being” as a combination of life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions.

Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, describes happiness as having three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. Seligman says that all three are important, but that of the three, engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life.

Moment-by-moment vs. long term
Researchers also distinguish between the moment-by-moment feeling of happiness produced by positive emotions and how we describe our lives when we think about it. Regardless of whether you had a good day or not, do you describe your life as a happy one? Or describe yourself as a happy person? Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes this difference as the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” Psychologists study both to better understand how daily experiences add up to a happy life.

Scientifically measuring happiness
Since happiness is so subjective, can it really be measured and studied scientifically? Researchers say yes. They believe that we can reliably and honestly self-report our state of happiness and increases and decreases in happiness. After all, isn’t our own perception of happiness what matters? And if we can report it, scientists can measure it. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert compares this to optometry: “Optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, ‘Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?’”

Research framework
Researchers have formed a useful framework for studying happiness:

  • Happiness is made up of pleasure, engagement, and meaning
  • It involves both daily positive emotions and a global sense that life is worthwhile
  • People can accurately report their own levels of happiness

Using this framework, researchers are learning more and more all the time about who is happy, what makes them happy, and why.

What are the sources of happiness?

Happier people are more likely to live longer and tend to be healthier, more successful, and more socially engaged than people who describe themselves as less happy. But what causes happiness? And can we change how happy we are?

Three basic sources of happiness
Researchers have explored three basic sources of happiness: genetics, including temperament and personality; life circumstances, such as wealth and health; and our own choices.

We tend to overestimate the importance of life circumstances in how happy we are.
We think if only we had more money, or a better job, or fell in love, that we would be happier. And we sometimes underestimate how much control we have over our own happiness. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, analyzed studies and reports that 50% of our happiness is set by our genes, 10% by life circumstances beyond our control, and 40% by our own actions.

Researchers say that people tend to have a “set point” or “baseline” level of happiness, but that this point can change.
Even though genetic factors like temperament and personality play a large role, there is almost an equally large role under our own control. We have the power to make choices that can raise—or lower—our set point.

One way to become happier is to cultivate positive emotions.
At one time psychologists saw positive emotions simply as the sign of a happy person. Now they are learning how positive emotions actually cause us to be happier.

Some of the positive emotions that psychologists are studying:

  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Joy
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love


Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's research

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has done research demonstrating the positive effects of experiencing these emotions on a regular basis:

The undo effect. Fredrickson demonstrated that positive emotions “undo” some of the physical effects of stress, such as increased heart rate. Study subjects who experienced a positive emotion returned to a normal resting heart rate more quickly after experiencing stress than subjects who had not experienced a positive emotion.

Broaden and build. The broaden-and-build theory describes how positive emotions broaden our outlook on life and help us build skills for stressful times. Fredrickson points out that negative emotions—anger and fear, for instance—evolved to narrow our focus and help us get out of a threatening situation safely. Positive emotions, on the other hand—like kindness, amusement, interest, and gratitude—put us in a frame of mind to explore the world around us and build a larger repertoire of actions that we can draw on in stressful times. Fredrickson sees a parallel in the animal kingdom. Think, for instance, of how a cat playing with a toy is “practicing” to catch prey. People playing and laughing over a game of softball may be strengthening social ties, increasing their physical health, sharpening reflexes, and increasing their confidence.

Fueling resilience. Positive emotions are the “fuel” for resilience. They help people find meaning in ordinary and difficult events. Finding meaning in life events leads to more positive emotion, which in turn leads to a greater ability to find meaning and purpose. Fredrickson calls this an “upward spiral” of greater well-being.

Fredrickson and her colleagues have analyzed people’s ratio of positive to negative emotions in various situations, including individuals, marriages and work teams, and found that a ratio of three to one positive emotions to negative emotions is the point at which people tend to flourish and thrive.

So while there are strong influences on our happiness—genetics and temperament and, to some extent, life circumstances—there are actions and choices we can make with the other 40% to cultivate positive emotions daily and greater happiness over our lifetime.

Who is happier?

As social scientists gather more and more data about happiness and well-being, we can see who tends to be happier:

  • People with strong ties to families and friends are consistently happier than those without social ties.
  • Some personality traits tend to go along with happiness. People who are optimistic, have high self-esteem, and are extroverted are more likely to describe themselves as happy.
  • Married people are happier, though scientists aren’t sure whether this is because of the marriage or because happy people are more likely to get married. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the couples are parents or not.
  • People who grew up with parents who divorced or in a home with a high level of conflict are less happy than people who grew up in homes with intact marriages.
  • In the United States, Republicans are happier than Democrats. Worldwide, conservatives are happier than liberals.
  • People who attend worship services regularly are happier than those who don’t.
  • The middle-aged and seniors are happier than the young; and this does not seem to be generational, as this is consistent across time in longitudinal studies. Younger people tend to have higher levels of negative emotions such as anxiety and anger.
  • People with enough money to make ends meet are happier than people who are poor, but beyond that more money doesn’t make much difference.
  • While men and women report similar levels of happiness in most studies, men now are somewhat more likely to be happy than women. This is a switch in recent decades; women used to be happier than men.

Subjective Well-Being, Indian Journal of Clinical Psychology
Republicans, Still Happy Campers, Pew Research
Are We Happy Yet?, Pew Research
"The New Science of Happiness," Time
"Older Americans May Be Happier Than Younger Americans," Washington Post
"He's Happier, She's Less So," the New York Times

What doesn't make us happy -- and why we think it will

Most of us have a mental list of what would make us happier. Our culture celebrates the pursuit of money, fame, good looks, material possessions, health, love and power. Yet we’re often disappointed—even when we do get what we want. Research confirms that some of the things we think will make us happy don’t, and researchers are learning more and more about why that is.

Having enough income to meet basic needs and live above the poverty level is very important to happiness. Beyond that, however, research suggests that more wealth does not translate to greater happiness.

Why is this? Research suggests that we’re good at adapting; we’re bad at predicting; our brains are wired for negative emotions; and we’re looking in the wrong places.

Humans are very good at adapting to changing circumstances.
Researchers believe we have a “set point,” or baseline, of happiness that is partly determined by genetics. When something good happens to us, we’ll be happier for a while, but then adapt to our new situation and return to our set point. For example, getting a huge raise is a cause for celebration. After a while, your budget and lifestyle adjust to the higher income. Your expectations for what you need, and your goals for what you want, change. Researchers call this ability to quickly adapt to new circumstances the “hedonic treadmill.”

We are not very good at predicting how happy or sad a future event will make us.
Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we think they will. Daniel Gilbert and other researchers call this “impact bias”: we overestimate the impact of a future event. We tend to do this even if we’ve experienced similar events in the past; part of impact bias is that we aren’t very good at taking into account our past levels of emotion and adaptation. Similar to impact bias, we’re also not very good at assessing how happy people in other life circumstances are. One example of this is found in physical health and disability. People without disabilities or health problems assume people with disabilities are unhappier than they are. There are studies, however, that show that many people with disabilities are able to adapt to their conditions and report being just as happy as those not living with disabilities. Meanwhile, people with health problems often overestimate how happy healthy people are.

We come up empty when we’re looking for happiness because we’re wired for negative feelings.
Psychologist Martin Seligman says: “Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what’s wrong.” Or, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert says: “We have a word for animals that never feel distress, anxiety, fear, and pain: That word is dinner.” Negative emotions like anger and fear motivate us to stay safe and solve problems. But what worked in the Pleistocene Era may not be optimum in the modern world, and Seligman says we can train our brains to be more positive and optimistic. Still, no research suggests that it is possible or desirable to feel only positive emotions all the time. In fact, some research found that people who rated themselves as 8 or 9 on a 10-point happiness scale had significantly more income and education than people who rated themselves a 10. Psychologist Ed Diener, the author of the study, also noted research that being extremely happy can be counterproductive when health problems strike. It may be that being moderately happy is happy enough.

When we do pursue happiness, we may be looking in the wrong places.
Chasing—and achieving—wealth, fame, and good looks may actually make us less happy. Researchers asked young adults for two years after graduation from college what they wanted in life and categorized the answers as intrinsic or extrinsic. They also asked the young people how much progress they had made toward their goals, and asked them to rate their well-being and happiness. The researchers found that young adults who valued intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, close relationships, and community involvement, were more satisfied with their lives than those who had extrinsic goals, such as wealth and “achieving the look I’ve been after.” Even the young people who had achieved their extrinsic goals reported more negative emotions like shame and anger, more physical ailments, and less satisfaction with life. It seems that happiness really does come from within.

So is the deck stacked against us? Not at all. Forty percent of what makes us happy is within our control. Genetics and evolution explain about half; and life circumstances only about 10%.

Common misconceptions

There isn’t much people can do to change how happy they are. Some people are just happier than others.
Researchers have found that genetics and temperament form a baseline or “set point” for happiness. However, genetics only explains about half of our happiness level, and life circumstances beyond our control are only another 10% or so. That means 40%—nearly half—of our happiness level is determined by our own choices and actions. Even people with a more melancholy temperament or difficult life circumstances can be happier with some effort.

Happiness is subjective and can’t be studied.

Happiness is subjective—each of us has our own individual experience of happiness—but it can be studied. Researchers accumulate data on happiness by asking people to report their levels of happiness. Since our memories are not always very accurate, scientists design studies to collect reports on happiness “in the moment” as well as asking people to reflect on their overall happiness levels. Studying happiness is like any other field where we have to rely on people’s own reports of their experience.

Happy people aren’t very bright.

There’s a stereotype in our culture that happy people aren’t very bright, or they’re naïve. This stereotype is not at all accurate. There’s no relationship between happiness and education or IQ. And happy people tend to be more successful at work; have a higher income; are viewed as more likable and attractive; have better relationships; get and stay married; are healthier; and live longer.

Young people are happier than old people, and people get less happy over their lifetimes.

Older people consistently report higher levels of happiness than young adults, and this research has held up over time, so it’s not a matter of some generations being happier than others. A big part of the difference seems to be that younger people experience more negative emotions like anger, anxiety and shame. Seniors tend to experience fewer negative emotions and with less intensity.

Money makes people happy.

Once people have enough money or income to meet their basic needs and stay out of poverty, wealth and income don’t make as much of a difference to how happy people are as you might think. People with more money are slightly happier than people at lower income levels, but it doesn’t seem to be the money so much as satisfaction in earning it and giving it away. And a windfall typically doesn’t make people more happy than they were before. People who get a big raise or win the lottery tend to settle back to their previous level of happiness before long.

“I’ll be happy when….”

It’s easy for people to think that they’ll be happy once something they want happens. This is usually not the case, however. People are not very good at predicting how happy (or sad) an event will make them or for how long. We are very good at adapting to changing circumstances, so even though we may be happier for a short time, we often revert back to our prior levels of happiness. Happier people are ones who tend to enjoy the journey, cultivating relationships and positive emotions along the way.

People who think about their own happiness are self-indulgent and selfish.

The opposite may be true. It may be that the best thing you can do for other people is to be happy yourself. Research shows that happy people boost the happiness of others in a wide network through three degrees of acquaintance. The happiest people are the most engaged with others and the least wrapped up in their own problems. Happy people are more likely to express positive emotions like gratitude, altruism, and forgiveness.

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