What is Happiness?


This part one of a three part series.

What is Happiness?

We know it when we feel it, and it often mixes with a range of other positive emotions, including excitement, contentment, and gratitude, but to better understand the causes and effects of happiness, we need a more universal definition.

Definition of happinessPositive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky coined a popularly accepted definition of happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

It is this combination of generally happier present moment emotions, (regularly feeling grateful or joyous without too many “negative emotions”), combined with the broader feeling that one’s life is aligned to our values.

Eastern cultures typically value the latter half of the equation, holding high regard for mental calmness, whereas Western cultures can tend to objectify shorter term joy and delight as the more valuable.

Happiness therefore is a positive effect from more than just emotions, and can be effected by mindset and lifestyle.

Positive psychology highlights the stark difference between happiness and the absence of misery.  It is therefore important to clarify that happiness and unhappiness are not two endpoints on a single continuum.

Every conscious human mind has an average baseline happiness level that, without dedicated intervention, we naturally return to (surprisingly quickly) following almost all life changes.

Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reports the primary three factors contributing to our average baseline happiness are:

Factors of Baseline Happiness[1] Circumstantial Effects - which have surprisingly small impact, around 10%, which is primarily one’s spirituality and one’s friendships, but also includes others factors such as health and wealth to perceived freedoms.

[2] The Inherited Genetic Set Range - like our weight, is determined by our genetics and our upbringing;

[3] Voluntary Control factors - our ability to change one’s baseline happiness through behavioural choices and attitudes.

Although studies have proven that our genetic makeup shifts as we grow up (adult identical twins develop differences in their DNA) via activating epigenomes, the availability of gene therapy today rules out the Genetic Set Range as an unrealistic approach.

Our Circumstantial Effects only account for around 10% influence and are also mostly beyond our ability to influence, so it’s fortunate we can impact the last factor of our baseline happiness, which accounts for around 50% of our baseline affects, the Voluntary Control. This factor is the focus of all self-improvement.

Increasing our Happiness Intelligence is the way we impact this Voluntary Control, and can be thought of as “the ability to recognize the impact of events, actions and interactions within your life on your happiness, how those things impact the happiness of others, and to change your behaviour to protect and build that happiness.”

Increasing one’s happiness intelligence results in increased control of one’s state of mind, so we can process all of our emotions more healthily without negative emotions suffocating our capacity for more productive or value adding thoughts.

Research into various interventions and exercises designed to promote positive emotional qualities, such as kindness, compassion and mindfulness, suggest that these qualities are the product of skills we can learn through training. This has proven that in just the same way that dedicated practice improves our musical or athletic abilities, over time, we can build lasting habits that measurably increase our happiness.

Click here to read the next article: “The Value of Happiness”