On Happiness, Positive Emotions, and a Meaningful Life
THC Editorial Team August 5, 2021
- What Is Happiness?
- Factors That Affect Happiness
- Benefits of Happiness
- How to Cultivate and Improve Happiness
Happiness is a central theme in the human experience. It has been debated by philosophers, theologians, and other individuals for millennia. More recently, it has been researched by psychologists and scientists to firm up our understanding of it.
Broadly, the term happiness can encompass well-being, health, human flourishing, eudaemonia, hedonism, subjective well-being, psychological well-being, contentment, and more.1
What Is Happiness?
According to the American Psychological Association, happiness is an emotional state that involves feelings of joy, satisfaction, and well-being.2 Happiness is a highly desired emotion, and it has been well researched. However, many misconceptions about achieving it still exist. In addition to being a momentary emotional state, many people think of happiness as a state or life goal is the broader concept of well-being.3 Certain conditions and actions can help cultivate it.4
Happiness is not a personality trait; it is a dynamic emotional state influenced by many factors over time. Some research has even identified a U-shaped curve to life satisfaction; the lowest point occurs in middle age, and higher points arise during adolescence, young adulthood, and senescence.5
A 2010 paper published in the journal Social Indicators Research details a study regarding happiness’s eudaemonic and hedonic components. The research team used the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) to measure hedonic happiness and found that participants defined happiness as a “condition of psychological balance and harmony.”6,7 That said, the participants, spread over seven different countries, reported that both eudaemonic and hedonic elements contributed to their overall happiness, but the former was more significant. That same study revealed that family and social relations were significantly associated with happiness and a sense of meaning.6
Aspects or Types of Happiness
Diener and colleagues summarize several key terms that help inform the concept of happiness.8
Eudaemonic Happiness and Hedonic Happiness.
One of the ways to conceptualize happiness is by distinguishing two types: eudaemonic and hedonic happiness.
Eudaemonia involves “developing the best in oneself, in accordance with one’s true self and one’s deeper principles.”9 In his essay Nicomachean Ethics, as cited in Delle Fave (2021), Aristotle first proposed the definition of eudaemonia and stated that living in accordance with one’s values and character leads to a good and meaningful life.10 According to Miao, Koo, and Oishi, “Aristotle used the term eudaimonia (good spirit) interchangeably with the Greek term ‘makario’ (blessed).”11 The forms of virtue and happiness often described in religion are similar to eudaimonia.
Hedonic happiness is often related to the pursuit of positive emotions, maximum pleasure, and instant or short-term gratification.1 Around the same time as Aristotle’s introduction of eudaemonia, another philosopher, Aristippus, promoted the goodness of pleasure and the evil of pain.9
Eudaemonia and hedonia represent the “age-old distinction between virtue and pleasure.”9
Well-being is a general term broadly describing how people are doing in their lives. Well-being can include social, health, material, and subjective dimensions.8
Subjective well-being (SWB) refers to a person’s evaluation of their quality of life from their own perspective. It represents the degree to which a person believes that their life is going well.8
Psychological well-being refers to feeling good and functioning well, and has become conflated more with the description of eudaemonic well-being.8
Emotional well-being is a descriptor of the degree to which people experience positive rather than negative moods and feelings. Emotional well-being also concerns resilience and the ability to articulate emotions appropriately.8
Quality of Life.
Quality of life is a general descriptor of someone’s overall life circumstances, including social, financial, environmental, and other factors.8
Life satisfaction refers to a person’s clear and conscious evaluation of their life based on what they deem important.8
Domain satisfaction refers to a person’s clear and conscious evaluations of specific domains in their life, such as health, career, or others.8
Positive affect refers to positive and “desirable emotional feelings and moods.”8
Affect balance is the balance of positive emotional feelings and moods over negative ones.8
Experienced well-being describes well-being that is felt and experienced by a person in the present moment.
Recalled well-being describes a person’s recollected feelings of well-being from specific times in their past.
Happy or Happiness.
Happy, or happiness are terms better suited for public discourse, and less so for scientific study, because it is nonspecific and can refer to many different concepts.8
Factors That Affect Happiness
People encounter many factors that affect their happiness over time. Many elements heavily influence happiness, including social and environmental factors, human neurology, and biology. Individual characteristics that affect happiness include mental and physical health, gender, age, and personal values. External factors affecting happiness include income, job satisfaction, community norms, and family dynamics.12
Individual and Social Factors
One’s personal value system and day-to-day outlook affect overall happiness. Generally, those who experience life satisfaction and a positive outlook have higher levels of happiness. Some areas where this is clear are the following:
Materialism and wealth.
Individuals who believe that comparing their income to others’ is important were less satisfied with their lives on average.13 Traits associated with materialism, such as envy, lack of generosity, and possessiveness, are negatively associated with reported happiness in life.14 However, having money to spend on self and others can be conducive to increased happiness. In a 2009 study at Harvard Business School, two randomly selected groups were given money to spend. One group was instructed to spend it on themselves, and the other was instructed to spend it on others. The latter group reported greater happiness.15
Strong social relationships are an essential factor for happy lives, particularly SWB. Positive social interactions tend to lead to greater well-being, and greater SWB improves and increases social interactions.16
Self-determination theory (SDT) is a scientifically validated theory of human motivation, development, and wellness.17
SDT suggests that “social and environmental factors that support the satisfaction of basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness facilitate happiness and wellness, providing practical, evidence-supported directions for human betterment.”18 Self-determination theory sees happiness as a symptom of overall well-being.18
Neurological and Biological Factors
Through extensive research, scholars have identified the parts of the brain that are activated when someone is happy. A review of positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies found that remembering happy events activated the anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex, and insula. These areas are also associated with other basic emotions, including anger and sadness, and the anterior cingulate cortex is one of the areas that compose our brain’s “pleasure network.”19 In another study from 1997 conducted with 12 healthy women, Lane and colleagues researched the neuroanatomical correlates for happiness, sadness, and disgust. They discovered that all three emotions were associated with activation of anterior and posterior temporal structures. Happiness was distinguished from the other two emotions because it was accompanied by more activity near the ventral medial frontal cortex, associated with decision-making, emotion, and social behavior.20 This study helped solidify the idea that specific brain regions correspond to particular emotions.21
In addition, fMRI data detailed in a 2015 article published in Scientific Reports revealed that, among 51 participants, those who had higher scores on a questionnaire that measured happiness tended to have greater gray matter volume in the precuneus—an essential region in the human brain with high levels of cortical glucose metabolism22 and involvement in producing subjective experiences.23,24,25 This study suggests that happy emotional states are associated with activation of the medial parietal cortex.22,26,27,28
There may be ways for the average neurotypical person to harness the interplay between biology and happiness to increase one’s happiness. However, they require much more research to be safe and effective. There is also a genetic disposition to happiness. It needs to be studied further, but it is possible that in the future, scientists could develop a drug that would give those who do not have the genes associated with happiness the qualities of those who do.29
Benefits of Happiness
Numerous studies have demonstrated the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of happiness. Diener and Tay described research findings on happiness as showing that
it has a generative capability that brings about a host of beneficial effects. When people are happy, they are more likely to be productive, creative, helpful, and have good health. Happiness does not merely feel good; it benefits both the person and the society.30
The benefits of happiness can include the following:30
- Improved health and longevity
- Improved social relationships
- Greater workplace success
- Improved social citizenship among individuals
Happiness appears to have a causal effect on success and successful behaviors. Frequent positive emotional feelings and moods can help people be more approachable, approach other people and situations more comfortably, and help build their inner resources and skills. These inner resources can, in turn, help people approach opportunities in life creatively, productively, healthfully, and positively.31
How to Cultivate and Improve Happiness
Individuals can cultivate happiness in many ways, but researchers in the social psychology field have identified several ways that people who seek happiness commonly use.
Changes in wealth or one’s life circumstances through significant events such as buying a new home, switching careers, or altering marital status can be impactful in the short-term. However, they may not be as promising or as effective a path to happiness in life as simple thinking and behavioral strategies that one employs daily.32
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a prominent social psychologist and happiness researcher, wrote The How of Happiness. The book explores tactics to enhance short- and long-term happiness. Her tips are listed below:33,34
- Do engaging activities.
- Savor joy.
- Be forgiving.
- Practice small acts of kindness.
- Nurture your relationships.
- Practice optimism.
- Avoid overthinking and comparison.
- Develop coping strategies.
- Express gratitude for what you have.
- Strengthen your spiritual connection and community.
- Dedicate yourself to meaningful goals.
- Take care of your body.
Other researchers have also focused on the relationship between gratitude and happiness. For example, according to a 2003 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough conducted a study investigating the relationship between expressing gratitude and happiness. One hundred ninety-two participants were assigned to write a few sentences on either what they were grateful for, what they were irritated by, or what events had affected them that week. After 10 weeks, each group rated their mood, physical symptoms, social support received, amount exercised, and global life appraisal. The researchers found that the group instructed to express gratitude was significantly more optimistic and had higher SWB in comparison to the other groups.35
Meditation can be another tool to increase happiness. A well-known study from 2003 conducted by psychologists Kabat-Zinn and Davidson investigated the neural systems of employees in a biotech company. Half of the employees were assigned to meditate for 3 hours a week for 4 months, while others were not. The group assigned to meditation had an improvement in mood, a decrease in anxiety, and stronger immune systems.36
Implementing some of the above techniques in your daily life may contribute positively to your long-term health, happiness, and personal growth.