What is Happiness, Anyway?

What is happiness? People have agonized over this question for centuries, but only recently has science begun to weigh in on the debate.

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing. 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.”

Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being. A variety of biological,psychological, economic, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including positive psychology and happiness economics are employing the scientific method to research questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained.

The United Nations declared 20 March the International Day of Happiness to recognise the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals.

Before I get into what the science has concluded, let me start by giving some answers to a somewhat easier question: what isn’t happiness?

Happiness is Not Feeling Good All The Time

Turn on the TV, open a magazine, glance at a billboard, and the results are the same. From ear-to-ear grins to endless laughter, it’s like the whole world is happy all the time.

And yet that doesn’t add up. Whether it’s the sense that it all seems too good to be true, or the fact that more than 7 percent of the U.S. population is depressed and more than 27 percent of Americans have sought mental health therapy, something about this joyful frenzy seems off. Maybe you’ve reassured yourself intuitively that no one can be that happy all the time. If so, you’d be right.

Skeptics have often asked whether a person who uses cocaine every day is “happy.” If feeling good all the time were our only requirement, then the answer would be “yes.” However, recent research suggests that an even-keeled mood is more psychologically healthy than a mood in which you achieve great heights of happiness regularly—after all, what goes up must come down. Furthermore, when you ask people what makes their lives worth living, they rarely say anything about their mood. They are more likely to cite things that they find meaningful, such as their work or relationships. Recent research even suggests that if you focus too much on trying to feel good all the time, you’ll actually undermine your ability to feel good at all—in other words, no amount of feeling good will be satisfying to you, since what you expect (all the time) isn’t physically possible for most people.

Living in a world where there’s an overemphasis on being happy 24/7 can actually have just the opposite effect. “If you’re too focused on becoming happier, it’s going to backfire,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor and author of The How of Happiness.

“People’s happiness levels are just different from each other; and that’s OK,” says Alex Korb, Ph.D., a researcher at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Some people’s brains respond more to positive events than negative ones, and vice versa. As a result, some people might just be happier—all the time.


I just want to remind you, happiness is within you already, but you might not know it yet. Traumatic experiences in your life have blocked it maybe, but it is there already and you just need to unblock it. The first, crucial step is to recognise that you are happy and believe it. The rest will fall into place and you will naturally find your path, the purpose you have in life. And this purpose is the real dream that you have, but without the process, you will be unable to fulfil it and truly enjoy it. Happiness is the process, not the final destination!

The old adage, “Are we there yet?” is often applied to discussions of happiness, as if a person works towards happiness and one day “arrives.” Contrary to popular belief, however, unless you are one of the few who won the genetic lottery and are naturally happy, it takes regular effort to maintain happiness. Most established techniques for becoming happier—keeping a gratitude journal, for example—are habits, not one-shot events, and most life events that make us happy in the short-term, like getting married or being promoted, fade over time as we adapt to them.

So, What Is Happiness?

Happiness is a difficult thing to measure due to its subjective nature, but scientists have been trying nonetheless.

Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. Happiness in this sense was used to translate the Greek Eudaimonia, and is still used in virtue ethics. There has been a transition over time from emphasis on the happiness of virtue to the virtue of happiness. Since the turn of the millennium, the human flourishing approach, advanced particularly by Amartya Sen has attracted increasing interest in psychological, especially prominent in the work of Martin Seligman, Ed Diener and Ruut Veenhoven, and international development and medical research in the work of Paul Anand.

The 2012 World Happiness Report stated that in subjective well-being measures, the primary distinction is between cognitive life evaluations and emotional reports. Happiness is used in both life evaluation, as in “How happy are you with your life as a whole?”, and in emotional reports, as in “How happy are you now?,” and people seem able to use happiness as appropriate in these verbal contexts. Using these measures, the World Happiness Report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness.

The research suggests that happiness is a combination of how satisfied you are with your life (for example, finding meaning in your work) and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis. Both of these are relatively stable—that is, our life changes, and our mood fluctuates, but our general happiness is more genetically determined than anything else. The good news is, with consistent effort, this can be offset. Think of it like you think about weight: if you eat how you want to and are as active as you want to be, your body will settle at a certain weight. But if you eat less than you’d like or exercise more, your weight will adjust accordingly. If that new diet or exercise regimen becomes part of your everyday life, then you’ll stay at this new weight. If you go back to eating and exercising the way you used to, your weight will return to where it started. So it goes, too, with happiness.

In other words, you have the ability to control how you feel—and with consistent practice, you can form life-long habits for a more satisfying and fulfilling life.

Psychologist Martin Seligman asserts that happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures, and provides the acronym PERMA to summarize Positive Psychology’s correlational findings: humans seem happiest when they have

  1. Pleasure (tasty food, warm baths, etc.),
  2. Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
  3. Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
  4. Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
  5. Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).

6 thoughts on “What is Happiness, Anyway?”

  1. There are many wonderful TED talks that touch on some of the ideas you mention broadly, but I think probably the most profound things you offer is (I hope you will forgive me if I paraphrase a bit) that we have an innate capacity to somewhat “generate” our happiness. Well done.

  2. I have come to my own definition. I think Happiness is a byproduct of living life in accordance with your values. The more closely aligned your life is with your values, the happier you will be.

    Being happy isn’t a goal, it’s a byproduct. And I do not think there is any way to become happy by buying things.

    Creating beauty makes me happy. Getting rid of my car made me happy. Being a frugal thrifty maker makes me happy. Quitting smoking made me happy. Teaching another person about the Zen of String makes me happy.

    It’s because it’s in harmony by my deepest values:
    Live as lightly as possible on the Earth.
    Practice compassion.
    Do nothing that you would be ashamed to have known.
    Be a tinkerer, a problem solver, a maker, a crafter.
    ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’

    And enjoy everyday pleasures! Drinking good tea, crocheting, and reading a good book is pretty much my own personal bliss.

    Lots of love,
    Baba StringThings

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