What is Happiness, Really?

by Andrea Blundell

In the UK’s third annual Measuring National Well-being (MNW) survey, it appears happiness is on the rise in the UK. Lower rates of anxiety were reported alongside higher levels of personal wellbeing, with over a quarter of adults rating their life satisfaction as at its highest levels.

The survey looked at things like health, education, and employment. Is this what happiness is really made of? Or is there more to it?

What is the definition of happiness?

Happiness is a term that seems to gain ever more meaning, especially with the rise of positive psychology.

There is the emotion of happiness, where we say we are happy because we feel good. But we also say we are happy when really we are experiencing other emotions like gratefulness, pride, relief, and joy.

In psychological circles, happiness has grown in meaning to not just be positive emotions but to also refer to how satisfied one feels with life. Psychologists call this “subjective well being”. This can include things like contentment, but also things like thinking your life is good and that it has meaning and purpose.

With this expanded definition of happiness, someone can feel happy but not be happy. They might feel positive emotions but not be content with their life and where it is heading. Or they could be happy but not feel happy, appreciating where their life has taken them but still experiencing a lot of sadness or upset.

It also means that happiness is increasingly subjective, varying with each individual. One person’s sense of of purpose can be another person’s feeling of limitation.

Although, to be fair, happiness has never been something that can be measured with a tool, and one person’s bliss is perhaps to another person an average feeling of happiness.

Why is feeling happy so important?

Nobody needs a researcher or study paper to tell them that on days we feel content we feel better. We tend to feel more energised, more benevolent to others, and get more done. But why else is it important to feel happy?

It’s often claimed that happiness leads to a better immune system. This is hard to quantify, as you can’t measure happiness. Psychoneuroimmunology, the field that searches to explain how subjective moods connect with the nervous and immune systems, is often criticised for not being rigorous enough.

But studies can prove that stress and loneliness lower the immune system, and it could be said that days without stress and in good company are generally days we feel happy.

Research based on questionnaires has also shown that people who come across as content tend to do better in life. They have better jobs, are liked more by their employers, and are financially better off.

This begs to question, though, is it because they are truly happy that people do well, or because we are a world that only rewards those who appear together and happy? And if the latter, what are the consequences of a world that encourages ‘cherry-picking’ some emotions while denying others, when suppressed emotions and shame are at the root of many psychological problems?

A Western viewpoint of happiness?

Not all societies and cultures obsess on the happiness factor like western countries do.

A recent review carried out at the Victoria University of Wellington points out that not only do some cultures not see happiness as the ‘supreme value’ like Western society, but that some are even averse to certain forms of happiness that Western culture promotes.

The review pointed out that some Eastern cultures value happiness less than Western cultures and are less likely to find it appropriate to show happiness in social situations.

Examples cited include a study where Taiwanese participants did not declare happiness as their life goal like American participants, and another where Chinese participants felt it was important to seek a balance between happiness and unhappiness.

And then there is Russia. Another paper put together by researchers in the United Kingdom, Spain, and America concluded that for Russians, happiness is related to luck over something one can just attain, and to a series of very fortunate and rare conditions falling into place.

Why do these other viewpoints matter? Perhaps they allow us to understand that life does not need to be perfectly happy all the time for life to be satisfying, and that what matters is not that we are happy according to others, but according to ourselves.

Is happiness genetically determined?

According to extensive research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness, 50 per cent of a person’s level of happiness is determined by genetics, and 10 per cent by the events and circumstances life presents.

This leaves 40 per cent of your happiness at your disposal and under your control. It’s a substantial amount – so how can you best maximise it?

How to to feel happier

1. Learn what actually makes YOU happy.

It’s easy to have an idea of happiness we have inherited from family and friends and not questioned. If you think you know what will make you happy, only to achieve it then feel no different, take time to readjust your personal definition of contentment. Try new things, and ask yourself good questions. What is happiness to you? Left by yourself for a month, with all the money you need to do anything, what would you actually want to do?

2. Identify your values.

If you can’t seem to figure out what makes you happy it can help to identify your personal values, which are the core beliefs that you live your life from. Choosing things in line with your values brings a great sense of satisfaction. For example, if your value is actually charity and giving to others, but you are trying to seek happiness by buying things, you might end up only frustrated.

3. Be sad and angry.

Who hasn’t had a big cry and then felt much better? The truth is that life is challenging, and at certain points we all feel upset and frustrated. If we pretend we don’t, and suppress our feelings, it’s like throwing stones in a river. Soon we’ve made a dam, the river is blocked, and nothing can get through. Allowing all emotions to be experienced clears the way for the positive emotions like joy and love to flow freely, too.

If you are not sure how to express feelings in a healthy way, or are scared to do so, a counsellor can create a safe space for you to do so.

4. Extend compassion to yourself as well as others.

Self-compassion is the art of accepting all of yourself, all of the time, and treating yourself with as much kindness as you treat others with. It is proving to be a more sustainable way to boost self-esteem, and self worth is connected to higher levels of contentment.

5. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness has now been proven comparable to antidepressants for preventing and managing depression. The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it keeps us more in the present moment, which means we are less likely to miss the smaller moments of joy that can add up to a good day.

6. Exercise.

Exercise has now been identified as so important to a sense of wellbeing the NHS is even offering it on prescription for patients suffering depression (read more in our article on exercise and depression).

7. Include others in the plan.

Connecting with others alleviates loneliness, one of the leading causes of sadness. Why not connect with others via volunteering? It has also now been linked to more confidence, less stress, and an increase in positive thought patterns (read our article on how volunteering helps depression for more information).

8. Don’t give up on gratitude.

It might have been given too much press, but that is only because gratitude works. Studies show it lowers anxiety while raising positive thoughts and energy levels.

Do you have a viewpoint on happiness you’d like to share? Do so below, we love hearing from you.

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