The pursuit of happiness: what is happiness, and how can we make ourselves happier?

What are the scientifically proven ways to be happier?

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If you’re a human being, I suspect you want to be happy. What is happiness for you? Happiness for me is reminiscing about good times with a friend while I indulge in some Nando’s chicken, or receiving a standing ovation at the end of a theatre performance. My versions of happiness may not be your cup of tea, but the stimulus for happiness is subjective and thus hard to measure objectively.

What is the definition of happiness?

“Happiness” is not only hard to measure, but it is also difficult to singularly define. You can’t define happiness without using a synonym for happiness, and you can’t interpret it to everyone’s satisfaction. Oxford dictionaries’ Captain Obvious definition for happiness is “the feeling of being happy”. 

So if the feeling of happiness is hard to define, then what? The solution to understanding feelings like happiness is through examination and experimentation, and by that I mean science.

Compared with misery, happiness has come out virtually unscathed in the study of social science. A quick Wiley Online Library search reveals 50,522 results for the word “happiness”, compared with 409,708 for the word “depression”.

However, over the past decade, the science of happiness has received a fair bit of attention, because, of course, everyone would like to be happier, and probably more now than ever because studies show modern living is depressing.

The progressive nature of humans to distort nature has had some dire consequences for the human brain. Let's be honest here, our barely evolved brains are struggling to handle the modern world properly. What should have taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to a digital environment through the process of evolution, has taken merely decades.

When the brain comes into contact with technology, it can become extremely addicted to it and reliant on it. This can lead to negative effects such as anxiety, stress, loneliness and depression. Severe mental illnesses have dramatically increased in the US, “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007 — from one in 184 Americans to one in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling — a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades,” writes physician Marcia Angell in the New York Times Book Review.

Since the days of Aristotle, happiness was thought to have at least two aspects: hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well lived). In contemporary psychology, happiness is referred to as simply pleasure and meaning. Positive psychologists such as Dr Martin Seligman have recently added one more distinct component to the definition of happiness: engagement. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family friends and hobbies.

Using these three aspects, psychologists have come up with a scientific term for happiness called “subjective-well being (SWB)”, which is defined as a person’s cognitive and affective evaluations of his or her life. According to a 2012 paper on SWB, these evaluations include emotional responses to stimuli as well as cognitive judgements on what is satisfying and fulfilling. So SWB is a combination of life satisfaction and feelings of fulfilment.

In identifying SWB across people in the real world, it was found that roughly 50 per cent of our happiness is determined by our genes, 40 per cent by our daily activities and the remaining 10 per cent by our circumstances – so what you choose to do with the 40 per cent is entirely up to you.

How do you measure happiness?

Happiness is intangible; you can’t put it in your pocket and save it for later. So can it really be measured and studied scientifically? Yes. Researchers believe it’s through an honest self-report of our own state of happiness. So do you feel happier or less happy when you’re presented with X stimulus?

A 2015 study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry measured students’ happiness and psychological well-being status in a sample of 403 high school students. The students’ general health status, happiness, self-efficacy, perceived stress, hopefulness and life satisfaction were measured using self-reported written questionnaires.

It was concluded that there was a significant relation between happiness and psychological well-being. From the paper, “Those students with good relationship and those who had reported to enjoy attending social events indicated better mental health status.”  

In a talk, psychologist Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University compares happiness to optometry in terms of subjectivity:  “Optometry is another one of those sciences that is built entirely on people's reports of subjective experience. The one and only way for an optometrist to know what your visual experience is like is to ask you, ‘Does it look clearer like this or (click click) like this?’”

In the late Thirties and early Forties, researchers at the Harvard Study of Adult Development began studying the health and well-being of 268 seemingly promising male students from Harvard University. Under the direction of Dr George Vaillant, these men, some now in their 90s, are still being studied today.

Called the “Grant Study”, the study examines the lives of these men through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood and old age. Some of the study's archived content is published in The Atlantic (the study is in Vaillant’s book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study).

A newer and similar social study is the BBC documentary Child of our Time. The documentary is presented by Professor Robert Winston and plans to examine the first 20 years of the lives of 25 British children born in 1999/2000. 

So, by using Seligman’s definition of happiness (pleasure, meaning and engagement), subjective well-being and self-reports on happiness, researchers are continuing to learn more about who is happy, what makes them happy, and why.

This infographic by Webpage FX nicely sums up some of the studies on the science of happiness so far:

How is happiness linked with depression?

You can't talk about happiness without relating it to depression. I ask Shawn Achor, author of the New York Times bestselling book The Happiness Advantage (2010), and founder of the Institute of Positive Research and GoodThinkInc., how happiness is linked with depression:

I went through two years of depression while at Harvard. The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness.  Unhappiness serves a valuable purpose.  The opposite of happiness is apathy, which is the loss of joy we feel moving toward our potential.

I also ask why there is a stigma associated with depression:

There is a stigma associated with depression because people mistakenly believe that if you were tough enough, negative feelings would not get you down. The toughest CEOs, Navy SEALS, Harvard professors, and NFL players I know have gone through depression.  Sometimes, trying to be tough by ignoring emotions backfires and makes us weaker.  The key to a good emotional immune system is being aware of your emotions and channeling the energy they provide toward constructive ends.

Watch segments of Achor's recent two-hour interview with Oprah Winfrey:

What can I do with the 40 per cent?

I presume you read this piece hoping I would live up to my end of the bargain by revealing the secrets to happiness. Well, I can’t, I’m sorry. As happiness is subjective, the stimuli needed to be happy are also subjective. It’s up to you to find out what makes you happy, whether that be getting a dream job, finding love or picking up a hobby. If it's any consolation, The Huffington Post lists the habits of extremely happy people that you can introduce into your everyday life that might make your life that bit more blissful.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar.