Clearly, happiness is popular. In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of scientific research revealing precisely how positive feelings like happiness are good for us.
We know that positive emotions motivate us to pursue important goals and overcome obstacles, protect us from some effects of stress, connect us closely with other people, and even stave off physical and mental ailments.
Researches on happiness enable us to deeply understand it, but also allow us to recognize the potential drawbacks of happiness, help us to better promote healthier and more balanced lives.
Happiness academic papers and scientific findings made the covers of magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites and they have spawned a small industry of motivational speakers, psychotherapists, and research enterprises.
This has made happiness pretty trendy.
Are we sure we know exactly what we are talking about?
We’d like to highlight here three big misconceptions about happiness, outlining what Happiness is NOT.
1 - Happiness does NOT equals feeling pleasure all the time in every place.
The idea that happiness means having all our personal needs met really quickly, being satisfied every moment with how things are going or feeling pleasure all the time is not a realistic nor helpful way to define happiness. Recent research indicates that psychological flexibility is the key to greater happiness and well-being. As an example, being open to emotional experiences and the ability to tolerate periods of discomfort can allow us to move towards a richer, more meaningful existence.
2 - Happiness does NOT mean never feeling negative emotions, like pain, sadness or anger.
There are important times to feel these emotions. They need to happen and having that experience doesn't subtracts from our ability or general status of happiness. There's a wonderful body of research showing that seeking happiness in this unidimensional way, about seeking pleasure all of the time, can be really harmful. June Gruber, has shown that excessive or extreme positive emotions, seeking positive emotions intensively all the time, or even expressing positive emotions in the wrong context is associated with being at risk for mania. Another body of research has shown that when you have too much emotional state of pride or are seeking pride too frequently, you end up being socially suffering, perceived as conceited or somehow inaccessible by other people.
Lastly, as Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky studies have demonstrated, the way we respond to the circumstances of our lives has more influence on our happiness than the events themselves. Experiencing stress, sadness and anxiety in the short term doesn’t mean we can’t be happy in the long term.
3 - The common belief that there’s a "one size fits all" cure for anyone feeling their happiness level is not where they’d like it to be.
Different practices, habits and pieces of knowledge are going to contribute in a more or less impactful ways on different people, or what Sonja Lyubormirsky calls “fit”.
In our blog we're going to cover some of the ideas, practices, studies, activities, habits to provide a broad overview on science of happiness works and tools, for you to find the most compatible ones with own general sense of the world.
In order to define happiness, we must take a broader look at it from different perspectives, disciplines and periods in time:
Philosophical & spiritual views on happiness
Since ancient times, the greatest thinkers have been pondering happiness trying to explain the meaning of our existence.
Confucius advocated a kind of dignity or reverence as happiness, where you focus on enhancing the welfare of others.
Aristotle believed that happiness is about living a life of virtue, and it can only be judged when looking at your life as a whole.
During the Enlightenment, utilitarianism advocated actions that bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama preaches equanimity, compassion, kindness, and detachment to alleviate suffering.
In general, the happiness of Western traditions tends to be more individualistic and high-spirited, while that of the Eastern traditions is more communal and calm.
Philosophically speaking there are two paths to feeling happy, the “hedonistic” and the “eudaimonic”. Hedonists take the view that in order to live a happy life we must maximise pleasure and avoid pain. This view is about satisfying human appetites and desires, but it is often short lived.
In contrast, the “eudaimonic” approach takes the long view. It argues that we should live authentically and for the greater good. We should pursue meaning and potential through kindness, justice, honesty and courage.
Historical views on Happiness
Before the late 17th century, people thought of happiness as the result of luck or divine favour. In fact, the word for happiness in every Indo-Europe language comes from the same word for luck. Greco-Roman languages are an exception, but their virtuous happiness (Eudaimonia, the Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare, although "human flourishing or prosperity" has been proposed as a more accurate translation), complete with effort, struggle, and possibly pain, looks a lot different from happiness as we understand it today.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, a kind of happiness revolution took place. Happiness was declared to be natural, a right, and the goal of life to increase pleasure and decrease pain. However that perspective has some drawbacks, it minimizes the effort that happiness requires and frustrates us when we feel the normal negative emotions of life.
In some ways, positive psychology is finding a balance between these perspectives and reintroducing the notions of virtue and effort to our understanding of happiness.
Since its establishing the research in psychology has been focusing on the negative, trying to figure out ways to go from the unpleasant or the ill states to neutral.
We have more literature on mental diseases than researches on what allow us to flourish.
Fortunately, over the past two years, the positive psychology movement has brightened up the research with its science of happiness, human potential and flourishing, claiming that psychologists should not only investigate mental illness but also what makes life worth living. The current works in the field of science of happiness are dedicated to try to shift that dialogue on how we can optimize our inner resources, how we can figure out ways to be happier than just neutral and be able to fulfil own sense of achievement as human beings. This is a different narrative about human nature from the one that we typically hear.
The founding father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, describes happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, excitement and contentment, combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose.
It implies a positive mindset in the present and an optimistic outlook for the future.
The approach nowadays is looking at evidences from human evolution, psychology, neuroscience, all are pitching a similar objective.
Importantly, happiness experts affirm that happiness is not a stable, unchangeable trait but something flexible that we can work on and ultimately strive towards.
How scientists define and measure happiness
Being “happy” could refer to many things: a sense that our life is going well, a momentary emotion, a trait we have, or even a sensation.
Many scientists focus on two aspects: life satisfaction and positive affect, which combine to form something called "subjective well-being."
To study happiness, researchers can observe our behavioural indicators like facial expressions or beep us throughout the day and ask how happy we are (experience sampling). Happiness studies might be cross-sectional, looking at a group of people across a slice of time or longitudinal, looking at the same people over time. Scientists also do experiments in the lab to observe how different factors affect happiness. Neuroscience is giving a great hand in monitoring brain activities related to different happiness observations.
So what is Happiness in the end?
While trying to provide a general understanding on the matter, we might probably land on a more nuanced notion of what happiness is to find out that it has more to do with meaning, engagement with other people, and contributing to something outside of ourselves.
The relationship between happiness and meaning is not quite easily understood. On one hand, the concepts are clearly different. Health, money, and comfort affect happiness but not meaning. Happiness is often about the present, while meaning encompasses the past, present, and future. We derive happiness from receiving and meaning from giving.
We can generally feel meaning but not happiness in the face of worry, stress, and anxiety, or through self-expression. So combining meaning and happiness into one concept is tricky.
Meaning can make us happier, and happier people may be more capable of finding meaning. As an example, when we say that becoming a parent makes us unhappier yet gives us more meaning is confusing. There is more work to do in understanding the relationship between these two concepts.
Feeling happy is a transient state, while leading a happier life is about individual growth through finding meaning. It is about accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, enjoying the positive emotions, and harnessing painful feelings in order to reach our full potential.
When it comes to the most promising way to be happy, we have to look to social connections, community, and our ability to be kind. There’s an overwhelming body of research suggesting that social connection and kindness, what researchers call “prosocial behaviour” are key to the pursuit of happiness.
We’ll explore more in our next articles about the important relationship between social connection and happiness and wish to conclude today with a quote by Brene Brown:
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. Connection is why we're here, that's what gives us meaning and purpose in life”.
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