What is happiness? The science of feeling happy

Here’s a look at what the science says about happiness, its health benefits, and what experts suggest for feeling more of those positive vibes.

Understanding the meaning of happiness

Most people want to be happy. Adding more smiles to your life can affect so many aspects of your life. Happiness affects physical, emotional and mental health, according to 2017 study in Applied Psychology: Health and Wellbeing.

But what exactly does it mean to be ‘happy’?

“Psychologists tend to define happiness as a person’s subjective well-being. In other words, how people personally judge the quality of their own lives,” explains Heather Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group in Towson, Maryland. (These are the happiness secrets psychologists wish you knew.)

A sense of contentment and satisfaction with life

There isn’t one concept of happiness that applies to every individual, says Sherry Benton, the Golden, Colorado-based founder and chief science officer of online therapy resource TAO Connect. In general, it’s a feeling of contentment or satisfaction with life, she says. Biologically, happiness seems to be related to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the feelings of pleasure.

“Things don’t have to be perfect to make us happy, and pursuing perfection in our lives can actually make us less happy. Happiness is more of a skill we can work on every day by actively choosing thoughts, connections, and beliefs that make us feel good,” says Benton. (These are the 10 keys to true happiness.)

It’s important to note that fleeting moments like a promotion, a raise, or a new pair of hiking boots can feel good (or happy) for a few moments or even a few weeks. But, says Benton, “If we focus on pursuing something external, there are no long-term benefits when it comes to our happiness.” She adds, “We can even hurt our sense of happiness because we always want more and will never be really satisfied.”

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How to measure happiness?

Because it’s a feeling or a state of being rather than a condition, you can’t just do a blood test or get a body scan that confirms, “You’re X percent happy!”

To begin your general understanding of your personal happiness levels, Lyons suggests asking yourself three questions:

  • Am I living in accordance with my values?
  • Do I prioritize important relationships and feel that my relationships are reciprocal and supportive?
  • Do I spend time stopping and appreciating my blessings? (PS Here are gratitude quotes that remind you to think about the good.)

“Researchers need an objective definition of happiness for their scientific research into happiness. That said, one of the things we know from happiness research is that personal definitions of happiness can actually help determine how happy someone is,” Lyons says. “The simpler a person’s definition of happiness or the less it takes to be happy, the more likely that person will be happy,” she says.

You can be dissatisfied with small parts of life and still be happy overall, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The how of happiness.

“Happiness is correlated in the different domains of life,” she says, so if you’re not feeling excited and uninspired in the work you do five out of seven days a week, chances are those negative feelings will affect your interactions with you. sneak into your family or friends.

Tests to measure happiness

When people struggle to know how happy they are, Lyubomirsky suggests filling in a subjective measure of happiness. She believes so much in its effectiveness that she created her own: The Subjective Happiness Scale. Rate four items on a scale of 1 to 7 and it can give you an estimate of your overall joy levels. (Based on her research, the average for working adults was about 5.6.)

There are dozens of other surveys and questionnaires that can also help you measure your happiness, including:

The benefits of happiness

Lyubomirsky and her team at the Positive Activities and Well-Being Laboratory found or learned from other researchers in related labs that those who are happier tend to:

  • Have higher incomes
  • Produce better work at work
  • Have more satisfying and longer marriages
  • Have stronger social support, more friends and richer social interactions
  • Live a longer life
  • Be more confident, creative and charitable

But seriously, who wouldn’t be happy with all that great stuff? Keep in mind that these are things associated with people saying they are happy, they are not necessarily the way to or reason for happiness. Of course, some of the things on this list would also make people more prone to feeling happier.

It’s not always clear how all of these factors — such as supportive friends or work productivity — are related, but it’s often true that feeling good about life makes it easier to make good life decisions, such as exercising more or getting healthy. to eat.

For example, young adults who were more grateful throughout their daily lives reported not only that they were happier, but also had more nutritious eating habits, according to an August 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

And doing random acts of kindness may even affect immune cells that have a lower risk of certain diseases, according to an April 2016 study published in Emotion.

I think it’s probably also important to emphasize that socioeconomic status is also a factor.

What you can do today to feel happier

Just as there is no one group that can determine what happiness is for all people, there is not one single path to happiness. It varies from person to person, but researchers agree that the following five things can help you feel happier overall:

  • Save time to think about what you are grateful for
  • Thinking, talking or writing positively about yourself
  • Be nice to others
  • Live by your values
  • Enjoying positive experiences and allowing yourself to have fun in those moments

To help practice gratitude, Benton recommends keeping a daily gratitude list. (Here’s how a gratitude journal can bring happiness.)

“Write down the things you are grateful for, no matter how big or small they are. You can even alter the neural connections in your brain to increase the frequency of positive thoughts,” she says. (Check out these products on Amazon to invest in your mental health and feel happier.)

Lyubomirsky admits that she notices the biggest mood boost when she can connect with others.

“By strengthening connections I feel happier, especially social interactions with people that make me feel understood. It’s tough during the pandemic, but phone and video calls still work when face-to-face meetings aren’t secure,” she says.

So schedule a Zoom happy hour or email or text a friend or loved one. Even random positive conversations with the person paying your groceries can increase dopamine levels. If you feel like you’re stuck, Lyubomirsky suggests setting a goal per week, say, to reach three different people outside of your household. (Discover six more surprising happiness boosters.)

What you can and can’t control about happiness

“Part of happiness is influenced by genetics and life circumstances,” Lyubomirsky says.

Social injustice, childhood or other trauma, socioeconomic inequality, and emotional distress are real and can be a significant barrier to happiness. However, everyday actions and ways of thinking can help increase or decrease your happiness.

Ask yourself: Do you tend to worry about what goes wrong or express gratitude for what goes right? Do you interact with those in your circle or do you tend to isolate? Do you go outside to get some fresh air or do you stay inside most of the time?

Your external circumstances do play a role, but Lyons says you can noticeably move the needle if you try.

“Psychologists are fortunate to have access to a lot of research on happiness. One finding I try to hold on to is that success does not lead to happiness. Happiness is more likely to lead to success,” Lyons says.

“When we are happy, we learn more, we are more focused on growth and our social networks are wider. These are the factors that lead to success. This reminds me to invest in my happiness, instead of spending so much time investing in work,” she explains.

(Try these tips for a cheerful morning routine.)

When do you ask for help about your happiness?

Time and the impact on your overall functioning are the two main criteria psychologists use to determine when it is time to seek help.

If you find yourself feeling sad, depressed or “off” or have trouble experiencing constant happiness for two weeks, seek help. Or, if these feelings have made it difficult to fulfill your responsibilities at work, school, or home, it could be a sign of a diagnosable concern like depression, Lyons says. Learn about the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist and see how to find a mental health therapist even if you can’t leave your home.

If you or someone you know has had thoughts about harming yourself or suicideContact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support to those in need.

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