There’s a lot of philosophical debate over what it actually means to “be happy,” but if you’re looking for concrete answers, it can leave you wanting. Here’s what scientific research says happiness is, and — perhaps more importantly — what it isn’t.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
We all know what it feels like to be happy, but the actual source of our happiness has always been hard to pinpoint. Can we become happier? If so, how? As Darrin M. McMahon, Ph.D., a Professor of History at Florida State University, explains, ancient people actually viewed happiness more as a sign of luck:
It is a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck… What does this linguistic pattern suggest? For a good many ancient peoples — and for many others long after that — happiness was not something you could control.
This kind of thinking is actually still pretty common today. A lot of people assume that being happy means that you’re fortunate, your life was blessed, or that you’re just one lucky son of a gun. We know that it’s possible to create some luck, but positive psychology, in combination with other scientific fields like neurology, has made a lot of headway in finding out what causes happiness, and that we do have some control over it.
How We Measure and Study Happiness
As abstract a concept as happiness may seem, it’s studied the same way as any other scientific concept: with a wide variety of experiments. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., and Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, explains in his online course The Science of Happiness (free to enroll in right now) that there are four major types of happiness studies:
- Observation & experience sampling: Capturing people in a moment of their daily lives. “How happy are you feeling when you’re doing the dishes, when at work, etc.”
- Cross-sectional/correlation studies: Survey studies where people answer a bunch of questions about how they feel at one moment in time.
- Longitudinal studies: When people’s lives are studied over time to find the trajectory of a happy life.
- Experimental studies: Experiments that allow the pinpointing of causal relationships between happiness and outside sources.
That's fine and dandy, but how does one actually measure happiness? The answer is remarkably simple (and imperfect): self-reporting. Usually these studies will ask questions like "How satisfied are you with your life?" and "On a daily basis, what kind of positive and negative emotions are you feeling?" There are no energy outputs to measure, or happiness midichlorians to count in your bloodstream. They simply use surveys to ask study participants if they're happy at a specific moment in time.
It may sound wishy-washy, but it's the best we have. The only person that can say whether you're feeling happy or not is you. That means you're the most reliable tool for measuring your own levels of happiness (at least for now). These self-reports can be made as a one-time survey, during experience sampling (pinging participants on their phones randomly with "what are you doing?" and "how happy are you feeling right now?"), or sometimes reported by others through behavioural indicators (particularly beneficial for studying infants and children).
Self-reporting is far from perfect, though. After all, feeling "happy" can mean a few different things. That's why Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., developed the "four levels of feeling analysis." When it comes to happiness, it can be broken down into four conceptual domains to clarify what kind of happiness is being examined. For example:
- Well-being: "Overall my life is going well."
- Traits: "I am an enthusiastic and positive person."
- Emotions: "I feel gratitude and appreciation."
- Sensations: "It feels good to sit in this hot tub."
All four of those things are somewhat synonymous with happiness, and it allows study participants to more thoroughly identify what kind of happiness they're experiencing (or lacking). Someone's overall life satisfaction and well-being is usually what researchers use these methods to study the most, but to get a good picture of someone's happiness, all conceptual domains need to be considered. For example, knowing that someone with a high level of life satisfaction also regularly feels gratitude and spends time in a hot tub could be helpful in determining correlations and, perhaps somewhere down the road, causation.
To make happiness somewhat easier for researchers to measure, Edward F. Diener, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, developed an index called subjective well-being. It allows psychologists to more accurately define your happiness as a combination of life satisfaction and the relative frequency of positive and negative emotions with various methods of self-reporting. There are two parts:
- Satisfaction with Life Scale: This is a self-reported, five part questionnaire that makes it possible to numerically measure your overall life satisfaction. If you're curious, you can try it in the appendix at this link.
- Positive Affect Negative Affect Schedule: PANAS is, again, a self-reported questionnaire that asks what emotions you're feeling at that moment in time. You can try one for yourself at this link.
The combination of the two is what makes up your subjective well-being. Your "happiness level" at any given time is equal to your Satisfaction with Life score plus your PANAS score. Of course, your happiness fluctuates, so your score only measures how happy you're feeling at that point in time. You can take the questionnaires multiple times to see a more average score over days or months. With the knowledge of how science explores happiness, you can begin to paint the picture of how psychological science actually defines it (and how you can use that to help yourself become happier).
As we discuss this, however, know that there has been some controversy in the psychological studies field as of late. A recent, massive study known as the Reproducibility Project, and published in full in the journal Science, found very few psychological studies could be reproduced with similar results. Of course, The New York Times notes that the main focuses of this study were on studies conducted on learning, memory, and cognition, not happiness studies or other branches of positive psychology. It's always good to bear in mind that no matter what studies might suggest, the results aren't ever set in stone.
What Research Says Happiness Is Not
Perhaps the best way for science to attempt to define happiness, or anything else for that matter, is with the process of elimination. If you learn what happiness isn't, you'll at least able to narrow down what happiness is. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, explains there are some basic rules that studies have determined over the years. The bottom line? Happiness is not:
- Having all your personal needs met
- Always feeling satisfied with life
- Feeling pleasure all the time
- Never feeling negative emotions
Surprised? If so, your definition of happiness might be a little skewed in the wrong direction. What the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has found with their research is true happiness is more about overall peace of mind and focusing on the, well, greater good. Happiness isn't about wanting more, always feeling "good," or even being satisfied with every aspect of your life. Hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence, has proven to bring temporary bouts of happiness, but as Kahneman's research explains, it is not effective at maintaining your overall happiness over time.
An especially important part of the happiness equation is the negative feelings you may be feeling right now. As nice as it might seem, happiness is not the absence of negative feelings. As Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, explains, real happiness is about taking the good with the bad:
One of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It's not -- being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the bad.
You can experience negative feelings and overall happiness with your life at the exact same time. In fact, learning how to do that is essential to being a happier person.
The Limitations of Pursuing Happiness
So we know how science defines happiness, but that's only the first half of the equation. The more important question is: Can you become happier? The short answer is yes, but save for prescription medications designed to adjust chemical imbalances, there's no "magic pill" for it. It takes some conscious effort, and even then, there are some limitations.
First, you probably have a genetically determined set range for happiness. That means, as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., at University of California, Riverside, explains, that your inherited genes may be what keeps you at your current, or "chronic," state of happiness. If you come from a long line of melancholic people, you might just be kind of a melancholic person. Your genes might also set a maximum limit for how happy you can ever be. Essentially, your happiness is part of your personality, part of who you are. According to Lyubomirsky, longitudinal studies have shown people's happiness remain quite stable over the course of their lives, so nothing is going to shoot you from being miserable to the happiest person alive.
Second, you can set unnecessary limitations for yourself by trying too hard to be happy. Lahnna I. Catalino, Ph.D., at the University of California at San Francisco, suggests that overly pursuing happiness can actually backfire on you. Catalino cautions that you should avoid relating to your happiness in extreme ways. Don't set unrealistic goals for yourself, and don't try to only feel positive emotions all of the time. You're guaranteed to fail, which will -- ironically -- lead to unhappiness. Michael Bennett, psychiatrist and co-author of the book F*ck Feelings, notes the importance of staying grounded in your pursuit of happiness:
The important thing is not what therapy you follow but that you stay grounded in common sense, and whatever therapy or therapies you're pursuing, you ask yourself repeatedly, have I reached my limit? Has this taken me as far as I'm going to go? So that you don't get stuck in the "if I did it better" or "if I did it longer" or "if I found a better therapist." And it's more, "Has this taken me as far as I'm going to go, and what am I going to do now?"
Remember, you have a limit that you can't control. Don't beat yourself up about it, you're just being yourself. Instead of trying to force yourself to be happy, Catalino advises you simply reflect on the moments and activities that give you joy. So stop trying so hard.
The Common Factors of the Happiest People
The truth is, real happiness and contentment isn't a single thing. It's a culmination of genetics, feelings, personality, emotions, and other life variables and circumstances. The dirty little secret about happiness is that researchers are still debating about it, and we don't know exactly what it is. But research does give us a pretty good idea of what happiness looks like, at least. Even though everyone has their own limitations, there are things you can do to strive for your personal maximum level of happiness.
Specifically, getting plenty of exercise (especially with a set goal in mind), getting plenty of sleep, developing emotional intelligence, and buying experiences over material goods are good places to start. If you're still not sure what you should be striving for, remember "PERMA." Created by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and published in his book Flourish, PERMA stands for the five key elements that comprise well-being:
- Positive Emotion: Peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and love fall into this category.
- Engagement: Losing ourselves to a task or project that provides us with a sense of "disappeared time" because we are so highly engaged.
- Relationships: People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not.
- Meaning: Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. Whether a religion or a cause that helps humanity in some way, we all need meaning in our lives.
- Accomplishment/Achievement: To feel significant life satisfaction, we must strive to better ourselves in some way.
There's still a lot for us to learn when it comes to the science of happiness, but research has so far proven that there's more to it than luck. Yes, you can be dealt a worse hand than others, but how you play it really is up to you. In fact, many researchers would argue that it's not even about how you play the cards, but about finding a way to enjoy the playing of the game no matter what.