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What Is Happiness?

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Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. While happiness has many different definitions, it is often described as involving positive emotions and life satisfaction. 

When most people talk about happiness, they might be talking about how they feel in the present moment. Or they are referring to a more general sense of how they feel about life overall.

Happiness is such a broadly defined term. Psychologists and other social scientists typically use the term ‘subjective well-being’ when discussing this emotional state. Just as it sounds, subjective well-being tends to focus on an individual’s overall personal feelings about their life in the present.  

Two key components of happiness (or subjective well-being) are:

  • The balance of emotions: Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions, feelings, and moods. Happiness is generally linked to experiencing more positive feelings than negative.
  • Life satisfaction: This relates to how satisfied you feel with different areas of your life including your relationships, work, achievements, and other things that you consider important.

How to Know If You’re Happy

Perceptions of happiness may be different from one person to the next. However, there are some key signs that psychologists look for when measuring and assessing happiness.

Some key signs of happiness include:

  • Feeling like you are living the life you wanted
  • Feeling that the conditions of your life are good
  • Feeing that you have accomplished (or will accomplish) what you want in life
  • Feeling satisfied with your life
  • Feeling positive more than negative

One important thing to remember is that happiness isn’t a state of constant euphoria. Instead, happiness is an overall sense of experiencing more positive emotions than negative ones.

Happy people still feel the whole range of human emotions—anger, frustration, boredom, loneliness, and even sadness—from time to time. But even when faced with discomfort, they have an underlying sense of optimism that things will get better. They can deal with what is happening, and that they will be able to feel happy again.

Types of Happiness

There are many different ways of thinking about happiness. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle made a distinction between two different kinds of happiness: 

  • Hedonia: Hedonic happiness derived from pleasure. It is most often associated with doing what feels good, self-care, fulfilling desires, experiencing enjoyment, and feeling a sense of satisfaction.
  • Eudaimonia: This type of happiness is derived from seeking virtue and meaning. Important components of eudaimonia well-being including feeling that your life has meaning, value, and purpose. It is associated more with fulfilling responsibilities, investing in long-term goals, concern for the welfare of other people, and living up to personal ideals.

Hedonia and eudemonia, commonly known today in psychology as pleasure and meaning, respectively. More recently, psychologists have suggested the addition of the third component that relates to engagement. These are feelings of commitment and participation in different areas of life.

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All of these can play an important role in the overall experience of happiness. However, the relative value of each can be highly subjective. Some activities may be both pleasurable and meaningful, while others might skew more one way or the other.

For example, volunteering for a cause you believe in might be more meaningful than pleasurable. Watching your favorite tv show, on the other hand, might rank lower in meaning and higher on pleasure.

Some types of happiness that may fall under these two main categories include:

  • Joy: A often relatively brief feeling that is felt in the present moment
  • Excitement: A happy feeling that involves looking forward to something with positive anticipation
  • Gratitude: A positive emotion that involves being thankful and appreciative
  • Pride: A feeling of satisfaction in something that you have accomplished
  • Optimism: This is a way of looking at life with a positive, upbeat outlook
  • Contentment: This type of happiness involves a sense of satisfaction

How to Practice Happiness

Time needed: 2 minutes.

While some people just tend to be naturally happier, there are things that you can do to cultivate your sense of happiness.

  1. Pursue Intrinsic Goals 

    Achieving goals that you are intrinsically motivated to pursue, particularly ones that are focused on personal growth and community, can help boost happiness. Research suggests that pursuing these types of intrinsically motivated goals can increase happiness more than pursuing extrinsic goals like gaining money or status.

  2. Enjoy the Moment

    Studies have found that people tend to over earn—they become so focused on accumulating things that they lose track of actually enjoying what they are doing.
    So, rather than falling into the trap of mindlessly accumulating to the detriment of your own happiness, focus on practicing gratitude for the things you have and enjoying the process as you go. 

  3. Reframe Negative Thoughts

    When you find yourself stuck in a pessimistic outlook or experiencing negativity, look for ways that you can reframe your thoughts in a more positive way. 
    People have a natural negativity bias, or a tendency to pay more attention to bad things than to good things. This can have an impact on everything from how you make decisions to how you form impressions of other people. Discounting the positive—a cognitive distortion where people focus on the negative and ignore the positive—can also contribute to negative thoughts.
    Reframing these negative perceptions isn’t about ignoring the bad. Instead, it means trying to take a more balanced, realistic look at events. It allows you to notice patterns in your thinking and then challenge negative thoughts.

Impact of Happiness

Happiness predicts positive outcomes in many different areas of life.

  • Positive emotions increase satisfaction with life.
  • Happiness helps people build stronger coping skills and emotional resources.
  • Positive emotions are linked to better health and longevity.
  • Positive feelings increase resilience. Resilience helps people better manage stress and bounce back better when faced with setbacks. For example, one study found that happier people tend to have lower levels of stress.
  • People who report having a positive state of well-being are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors.
  • Being happy may make help you get sick less often.
Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.

Improving Your Happiness

Some people seem to have a naturally higher baseline for happiness. So while you might not be able to control what your “base level” of happiness is. There are things that you can do to make your life happier and more fulfilling. Even the happiest of individuals can feel down from time to time. Happiness is something that all people need to consciously pursue.

Get Regular Exercise

Exercise is good for both your body and mind. Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise may play a role in warding off symptoms of depression. But, evidence also suggests that it may also help make people happier too.

In one analysis of past research on the connection between physical activity and happiness, researchers found a consistent positive link.

Even a little bit of exercise produces a happiness boost. People who were physically active for as little as 10 minutes a day or who worked out only once a week had higher levels of happiness than people who never exercised.

Show Gratitude

Participants were asked to engage in a writing exercise for 10 to 20 minutes each night before bed in one study. Some were instructed to write about daily hassles, some about neutral events, and some things they were grateful for. The results found that people who had written about gratitude had increase positive emotions. Increased subjective happiness and improve life satisfaction.

As the study’s authors suggest, keeping a gratitude list is a relatively easy, affordable, simple, and pleasant way to boost your mood. Try setting aside a few minutes each night to write down or think about things in your life that you are grateful for.

Related: 4 Ways To Find Your Purpose In Life

Find a Sense of Purpose

Research has found that people who feel like they have a purpose have better well-being and feel more fulfilled. A sense of purpose involves seeing your life as having goals, direction, and meaning. It may help improve happiness by promoting healthier behaviors. 

Some things you can do to help find a sense of purpose include:

  • Explore your interests and passions
  • Engage in prosocial and altruistic causes
  • Work to address injustices
  • Look for new things you might want to learn more about
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Challenges

While seeking happiness is important, there are times when the pursuit of life satisfaction falls short. Some challenges to watch for include:

Valuing the Wrong Things

Money may not be able to buy happiness, but there is research that spending money on things like experiences can make you happier than spending it on material possessions. 

For example, one study found that spending money on things buys time. Such as spending money on time-saving services—can increase happiness and life satisfaction.

Rather than overvaluing things such as money, status, or material possessions, pursuing goals that result in more free time or enjoyable experiences may have a higher happiness reward.

Thinking of Happiness as an Endpoint

Happiness is a constant pursuit that requires continual nurturing and sustenance.

One study found that people who tend to value happiness most also tended to feel the least satisfied with their life. Essentially, happiness becomes such a lofty goal that it becomes virtually unattainable. 

“Valuing happiness could be self-defeating because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed,” suggest the authors of the study.

Perhaps the lesson is to not make something as broadly defined as “happiness” your goal. Instead, focus on building and cultivating the sort of life and relationships that bring fulfillment and satisfaction to your life. 

It is also important to consider how you personally define happiness. Happiness is a broad term that means different things to different people. Rather than looking at happiness as an endpoint, it can be more helpful to think about what happiness really means to you. Then work on small things that will help you become happier. This can make achieving these goals more manageable and less overwhelming.

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