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What Is Happiness?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Happiness is an electrifying and elusive state. Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and even economists have long sought to define it. And since the 1990s, a whole branch of psychology—positive psychology—has been dedicated to pinning it down. More than simply positive mood, happiness is a state of well-being that encompasses living a good life, one with a sense of meaning and deep contentment.

Feeling joyful has its health perks as well. A growing body of research also suggests that happiness can improve your physical health; feelings of positivity and fulfillment seem to benefit cardiovascular health, the immune system, inflammation levels, and blood pressure, among other things. Happiness has even been linked to a longer lifespan as well as a higher quality of life and well-being.

Attaining happiness is a global pursuit. Researchers find that people from every corner of the world rate happiness more important than other desirable personal outcomes, such as obtaining wealth, acquiring material goods, and getting into heaven.

How to Be Happy

Happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; researchers find that achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort. Genetic makeup, life circumstances, achievements, marital status, social relationships, even your neighbors—all influence how happy you are. Or can be. So do individual ways of thinking and expressing feelings. Research shows that much of happiness is under personal control.

Regularly indulging in small pleasures, getting absorbed in challenging activities, setting and meeting goals, maintaining close social ties, and finding purpose beyond oneself all increase life satisfaction. It isn't happiness per se that promotes well-being, it’s the actual pursuit that’s key.

For more, see How to Find Happiness.

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Signs of a Happy Person

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Happy people live with purpose. They find joy in lasting relationships, working toward their goals, and living according to their values. The happy person is not enamored with material goods or luxury vacations. This person is fine with the simple pleasures of life—petting a dog, sitting under a tree, enjoying a cup of tea. Here are a few of the outward signs that someone is content.

  • Is open to learning new things
  • Is high in humility and patience
  • Smiles and laughs readily
  • Goes with the flow
  • Practices compassion
  • Is often grateful
  • Exercises self-care
  • Enjoys healthy relationships
  • Is happy for other people
  • Gives and receives without torment
  • Lives with meaning and purpose
  • Does not feel entitled and has fewer expectations
  • Is not spiteful or insulting
  • Does not hold grudges
  • Does not register small annoyances
  • Does not angst over yesterday and tomorrow
  • Does not play games
  • Is not a martyr or victim
  • Is not stingy with their happiness

For more, see How To Find Happiness.

Myths of Happiness

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Misperceptions abound when it comes to what we think will make us happy. People often believe that happiness will be achieved once they reach a certain milestone, such as finding the perfect partner or landing a particular salary.

Humans, however, are excellent at adapting to new circumstances, which means that people will habituate to their new relationship or wealth, return to a baseline level of happiness, and seek out the next milestone. Fortunately, the same principle applies to setbacks—we are resilient and will most likely find happiness again.

Regarding finances specifically, research shows that the sweet spot for yearly income is between $60,000 and $95,000 a year, not a million-dollar salary. Earnings above $95,000 do not equate to increased well-being; a person earning $150,000 a year will not necessarily be as happy as a person earning a lot less.

The type of thoughts below exemplify these misconceptions about happiness:

  • "I’ll be happy when I’m rich and successful."
  • "I’ll be happy when I’m married to the right person."
  • "Landing my dream job will make me happy."
  • "I can’t be happy when my relationship has fallen apart."
  • "I will never recover from this diagnosis."
  • "The best years of my life are over."

For more, see The Science of Happiness.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the branch of psychology that explores human flourishing. It asks how individuals can experience positive emotions, develop authentic relationships, find flow, achieve their goals, and build a meaningful life.

Propelled by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, the movement emerged from the desire for a fundamental shift in psychology—from revolving around disease and distress to providing the knowledge and skills to cultivate growth, meaning, and fulfillment.
For more, see Positive Psychology.

Happiness Over the Lifespan

Every person has unique life experiences, and therefore unique experiences of happiness. That being said, when scientists examine the average trajectory of happiness over the lifespan, some patterns tend to emerge. Happiness and satisfaction begin relatively high, decrease from adolescence to midlife, and rise throughout older adulthood.

What makes someone happy in their 20s may not spark joy in their 80s, and joy in someone’s 80s may have seemed irrelevant in their 20s. It’s valuable for people to continue observing and revising what makes them happy at a given time to continue striving for fulfillment throughout their lifetime.

For more, see Happiness Over the Lifespan.

Happiness and Health

Health and happiness are completely intertwined. That’s not to say that people with illnesses can’t be happy, but that attending to one’s health is an important—and perhaps underappreciated—component of well-being.

Researchers have identified many links between health and happiness—including a longer lifespan—but it’s difficult to distinguish which factor causes the other. Making changes to diet, exercise, sleep, and more can help everyone feel more content.

For more, see Happiness and Health.

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