What is happiness?


Another discussion with a client this week brought up a very common topic. As they searched for what they want in their relationships, we looked at the bigger topic of – What is Happiness? 

I guess this is one of the age old questions that you can ask yourself throughout life, that you may have conversations about or spend a lot of the time seeking. Is there actually an answer to this question? In this article I will talk about the topic as a whole and hopefully shed some light on what it looks like, feels like and how it can be attained.

It is obviously a very personal thing to feel or be happy as we are all very different and complicated beings and therefore will have our own ways and things and thoughts about what is right for us. I have even written a 21 day audio programme on it and how to increase your levels of it, but there will be things within that course that will resonate with and make you feel better and others that won’t. 

I assume that (although you may know people who may not be very happy or seem better off miserable, maybe this makes them happy), we all want to be happy. We can look for it in the wrong types of places without realising it, so I thought I would begin by talking about what happiness isn’t. 

Is happiness the same as excitement? 

New experiences can be fun and even exhilarating at times, releasing dopamine and it feels good. But these rushes are temporary and so are they in fact happiness? Excitement like this doesn’t tend to take much to achieve and therefore I wouldn’t class this hit as happiness.

Does happiness give your live meaning? 

A meaningful life, doesn’t always equate to a happy life and researchers have found key differences between the two. Happy people tend to satisfy their own wants and needs and are in the present moment. Meaningfulness on the other hand involves the past, present and future and how this all connects and is associated with giving more to others. Focusing on meaningful acts can lead to a neglect of yourself and therefore a lack of ultimate happiness. That doesn’t mean that meaning isn’t important, but not meant in the same way!

Does achieving bring you lasting happiness?

In many societies and cultures, there is an expectation to be in a constant state of learning, doing and striving for new milestones in life will make you happy. And again, this is true if it leaves you feeling good about yourself. But what if you don’t achieve your goals and reach those outcomes? Disappointment, guilt, regret or self-criticism can manifest. 

So, in this are you actually just aiming to feed your ego and validate yourself? In some cases, the answer is yes and you are looking for external things to validate you. 

As with excitement, when you achieve the fix it’s temporary and, at times, can lead you to continue to seek that fix again without taking the time to be present and enjoy your success. 

Have you heard of toxic positivity? 

This is when you always try and put a positive spin on things and ignore the fact that you have feelings that don’t feel so great or address issues that aren’t that good for you. And so, happiness is not an absence of negative emotions. These are inevitable and it doesn’t bode well to ignore them. Processing them and dealing with things will actually make you happier in the long run.

Happiness isn’t a destination to be reached. It is a constant everyday thing. 

I hear people say: ‘I will be happy when I have the right relationship’ or ‘when I have an x amount of money’, but as mentioned, happiness is a current state thing, something you cultivate in the hear and now. 

It isn’t about being in a constant state of euphoria. At times you may not even be aware that you are happy as it is a fleeting, almost imperceptible thing. 

If that is what happiness isn’t, then what is it?

It is typically characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment and fulfilment. It involves positive emotions and life satisfaction. 

I have intermated to this somewhat already, but research has found that what makes people most happy are pleasure (doing things you enjoy), engagement (feeling interested in your activities and connected to others), and meaning (feeling like what you do matters). 

Here, as opposed to living a meaningful life, it is the meaning that you give to your experiences that will affect how happy you feel about them. Being satisfied with what you do and who you are. 

The 80-year grant/glueck study into happiness from Yale University also discovered that, the quality of your relationships was the biggest indicator to your overall level of happiness. 

It is about the balancing of emotions as I mentioned earlier, being able to bounce back from negative spaces and creating a positive mood for yourself. 

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, had a view on happiness. That happiness is the one human desire, and that all other human desires exist to obtain happiness. 

How do you know you are happy and what are the signs to look out for?

  • Feeling satisfied with your life
  • Feeling like you are living the life you want
  • You take life as it comes, or can go with the flow and open to new experiences
  • You are satisfied with who you are and accept all of you – practise self-care, self-compassion and have self-awareness.
  • You have a good set of relationships that make you feel good and don’t cause you too much stress
  • Being more positive than negative
  • Experience gratitude for things, even if they are small
  • You want to share and spread your happiness and are happy when others are happy too

Coming back to Aristotle, he suggested there are two types of happiness.

  • Hedonia – happiness derived from pleasurable pursuits.
  • Eudaimonia – Seeking virtue and meaning. 

Psychologists have added to this list with Engagement – how you commit and participate in life.

How do you cultivate your own happiness? 

If you are going to pursue goals, set intentions or whatever word you like to use for things to achieve then ensure that they are intrinsically motivated. Ones that are focused on your personal growth. The same can be said about finding purpose, make sure that it is your purpose. As already mentioned, live more in the moment and enjoy it as much as possible. 

Practice gratitude or appreciation – have a gratitude diary so that you keep on top of all things that you are grateful for or appreciate. Every time I make myself a cappuccino at home I have a big smile on my face as I am grateful for the fact I can make one at home.

Reframe negative thoughts – be hopeful and optimistic (but not to the toxic positivity levels).

Most of us have a natural negativity bias from our evolution to remember negative things in order to protect ourselves. This means we pay attention to negatives more than positives, but obviously this will impact on the levels of happiness you can achieve if you aren’t able to shift from that mindset.

Remember, it isn’t about ignoring the negative, but reframing and moving forward as soon as practicable and possible.

Get regular exercise if possible – it is good for your mind as well as your body. One study suggests that walking for 30 minutes three times a week helped with lowering depression by 20% in the participants.

Get out into nature.

Cultivate strong and positive relationships

Why is happiness so important anyway? 

From what I have said so far, that could be fairly self-explanatory, but just to push the point a bit more. 

Happiness is a good predictor of overall physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, success and even longevity (one study suggests a huge higher life expectancy of 13 yrs. – 13 yrs. more happiness included). You live a more positive life overall. It helps build stronger emotional resources. More positive and less negative hormones floating around your body. 

It can change your outlook on life, your healthy and non-healthy behaviours, such as what foods you decide to eat.

You can build your happy life by increasing your own self awareness and understanding what makes you tick, knowing what you enjoy. Letting go of what and who doesn’t serve you positively and how to manage things if they are a permanent fixture in your life you are not willing to let go of.

If you struggle with finding your own happiness, then think of one thing that you can begin today that will help you to begin that journey.

It is within your reach.