What is happiness? It’s the eternal question that’s been on the lips of philosophers, theologians and regular people like you and I for centuries. Much more recently, this question has received a great deal more attention from the scientific community. But does all the recent research into well-being bring us any closer to a well-rounded definition of happiness?
Well, before getting into what science has discovered about what happiness truly is, perhaps it’s first easier to rule out what happiness definitely isn’t.
Data from the first half of the 20th century – a period of world wars and depression – indicated that happiness levels increased as household incomes rose. Researchers used to believe that more money made people happier. However, this is not the case nowadays.
And while living in poverty surely makes happiness harder to achieve, recent research suggests that after a certain point, money does not buy us any more happiness.
In a well-cited 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton from Princeton University, a magic number was put on the relation between happiness and income: $75,000 (€65,000). The researchers found that money increases happiness up until this amount annually, but exceeding that amount, there is no rise in happiness.
What is happiness? Experiences with loved-ones is one of its main elements
One key exception to money not leading to happiness is when you choose to spend your cash on experiences, specifically with friends and family. In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton showed that spending our hard-earned cash on experiences or investing it in others does makes us happy.
“By giving to another person, you’re… creating a connection and a conversation with that person, and those things are really good for happiness," says Norton, an associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.
When trying to answer the question 'What is happiness?', science also suggests that happiness does not come from feeling happy all of the time. Indeed, almost all happy people will experience periods of sadness in their lives. In fact, what researchers have found is that humans have a baseline level or 'set-point' of happiness.
This psychological term describes our general level of happiness, and all humans have different set-points: those with higher ones will be happier most of the time compared with those that have a less joyful outlook (and lower set-point).
“What is happiness? Science suggests that happiness does not come from feeling happy all the time. Almost all happy people will experience periods of sadness in their lives.”
It follows then that unhappy life events shift happiness levels below their set-point while positive or exciting events boost your happiness levels above your set-point. However, sooner or later, when the life event finishes, happiness levels returns to their natural base level (that's why we often feel the 'holiday blues' when coming down from the high of a recent trip).
Many people still view happiness as a destination to arrive at after they’ve achieved certain tick-lists: the well-paid job, the partner, the mortgage, the kids, the latest hi-tech gadget or pair of sneakers.
Happiness is flow: find what you love to do and do more of it!
But often we forget that we're living in the present, and this is key: to experience happiness as journey and not a destination. Likewise, it takes effort to gain and maintain happiness. Indeed, many techniques for becoming happier – such as writing a gratitude journal or exercising – only work if they are regular habits and not one-off events.
On the contrary, one-off life events such as getting married or getting a promotion will bring some short-term happiness but this will quickly wear off (remember that set-point?).
Now we know what it isn’t, how can we define happiness? In her well-respected book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky 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.”
So, day-to-day pleasure and meaning in life (through job satisfaction, for example) are considered two key factors in defining what happiness is. This resonates with the ancient Greeks who believed happiness consisted of two parts: Hedonia or pleasure, and Eudaimonia or meaning.
More recently, positive psychologists – such as Martin Seligman in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness – have added the component of ‘engagement’ or ‘flow’ to the happiness definition. Combining these trio of happiness components – pleasure, meaning and engagement – psychologists have come up with a scientific term for defining happiness: subjective-well being (SWB).
What is the definition of happiness? © YouTube/Greater Good Science Center
So, your SWB, or happiness, is a combination of how good you feel on a daily basis, how satisfied you are with your life (does your life have meaning?), and how engaged you are with both activities that you love and your network of friends and family.
Luckily, aside from our genetics – which determine or set-point of happiness – we can keep working on the happiness variables by enhancing engagement, meaning and purpose in our lives. Indeed, with consistent practice, we can create life-long habits which will ultimately lead to a more satisfying, fulfilling and joyful life. Now that’s our definition of happiness! ●
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