Everyone knows what it feels like to be happy. But what is happiness? Can we obtain more of it? What steps can we take to increase our happiness?
Let’s start with a general definition of happiness that resonates with most people. In her book, The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Specific definitions of happiness vary from person to person, of course: a touching and funny Huffington Post article lists 99 of them, from “Hearing your children laugh…” or “Coming home after a hard day at work to find your selfless animals waiting at the door”, to “The ability to create, connect and live my life outside the boxes that people find themselves in now” or “Waking up on Sunday with no plans.”
The limitations of happiness
To really understand happiness, it’s important to understand what happiness is not. Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, says “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.”
Emiliana Simon-Thomas, of the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, agrees: “Happiness is not having all your personal needs met, always feeling satisfied with life, feeling pleasure all the time or never feeling negative emotions”. Happiness isn’t about hedonism, the relentless pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. While hedonism may procure brief bursts of happiness, it cannot maintain a state of happiness over time.
The truth is, you can experience both 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.
Can anyone become happier?
If you suffer from depression or a chemical imbalance, there are prescription medications that can make you feel more content with your life. But for most of us, there’s no “silver bullet”: it is indeed possible to become happier, but it takes effort – and your genetics play an important role.
If you have melancholic parents or siblings, you might just naturally be a rather 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. Lyubomirsky also explains that the levels of people’s happiness remain quite stable over the course of their lives, so it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to shoot from being miserable to the happiest person alive.
But as long as you set realistic goals for yourself and don’t try to only feel positive emotions all of the time, the answer is yes: you can learn to be happier. How? Most of it is pretty logical: eat well, get plenty of exercise and sleep (a healthy body is essential for a happy mind!); strive to develop more emotional intelligence; and rather than buying material things, invest in experiences.
PERMA: the 5 elements of well-being
Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, the PERMA model has five core elements of psychological well-being and happiness. Seligman believes that these by developing these five elements, people can attain lives of fulfilment, happiness, and meaning.
- P = Positive Emotion: This element is one of the most obvious connections to happiness. Being able to focus on positive emotions is more than just smiling, it’s the ability to be optimistic and view the past, present, and future from a positive perspective.
- E = Engagement: We all need something in our lives that entirely absorbs us into the present moment, creating a ‘flow’ of blissful immersion into the task or activity. This type of ‘flow’ of engagement stretches our intelligence, skills, and emotional capabilities.
- R = Relationships: We humans are social animals and we thrive on connection, love, intimacy, and emotional and physical interaction with other humans. Building positive relationships with your family, colleagues, peers, and friends is vital to spread love and joy. Strong relationships give us support in difficult times. People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not.
- M = Meaning: Having a purpose is important in order to live a fulfilling and happy life. Far more than pleasure and material wealth, a purpose gives true meaning to our lives.
- A = Accomplishments: Having goals and ambition in life can help us to achieve things that can give us a sense of accomplishment. Our goals should be realistic and achievable, but even the effort of reaching for those goals can provide us with a deep sense of satisfaction.
We still have a lot to learn about the science of happiness, but we do know that there’s more to it than luck. While it’s true that some people are dealt a worse hand than others, research suggests it’s not really about how you play the cards, but about learning to enjoy the game as you go through life.