- With few exceptions, everyone wants to be happy.
- Pursuing happiness in the wrong ways can decidedly result in unhappiness.
- How to define happiness varies from person to person, but results in satisfaction in key areas of life.
- Three big categories help frame the specific ingredients of happiness: health, hope, and harmony.
The pursuit of happiness is a matter pondered at every age, in every time, and in many different ways. Researchers have poured boundless energy into figuring out what happiness is and how to get it, often quoting Aristotle still, even after over two millennia: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim, and the end of human existence.” Was he right?
Pursuing happiness in ways that lead to misery–becoming obsessed, driving oneself in frustration and self-reprobation, failing to slow down and appreciate what there is—is a recipe for anti-happiness. Likewise, there are many false idols one can end up worshiping in the pursuit of happiness—money, power, fame, success—aspects of which may be relevant for satisfaction but which, in excess or monomaniacal preoccupation, lead to ruin.
Is happiness about what you do or what it means? Is it a state of mind, a function of health, or a question of how we choose to see it? Each question leads to more. Greater clarity would be useful to frame such questions, given the high degree of individual variability.
A recent systematic review of the literature on happiness by Singh and colleagues in the International Journal of Public Health (2023) takes a close look at research on happiness across many cultures, pulling findings together into an integrated model. Using the standard PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses), they identified nearly 2,500 peer-reviewed research papers on happiness. Applying rigorous quality standards, a final set of 155 studies were selected for deep analysis and inclusion.1
They sorted the findings into three categories: those relating to health, including mental, emotional, and/or physical health; those relating to hope, including life goals, personal development, and economic or material circumstances; and those related to harmony, pertaining to social, family, cultural, spiritual and religious, and environmental factors.
The paper reviews all of the findings in detail, looking at the data for each of the numerous aspects of happiness identified, to arrive at a final framework.
Integrated Model of the Determinants of Happiness
Finding Your Own Groove
The model is really useful, although at first blush it may be a lot to take in. Each individual factor is perhaps a no-brainer. "Health is important for happiness? Yeah, I know." But if we sit with the Integrated Model of the Determinants of Happiness (IMDH) a bit and meditate, applying some wisdom, it becomes clear that health, hope, and harmony form an ecosystem, a living system that is part of our day-to-day experience. It offers not a quick fix, but better a slow fix than no fix.
Hope, for example, covers various elements of purpose, goals, intention, and personal growth. If we apply personal growth toward health, we can start with self-assessment and review each factor to see how we are doing. There are a lot of people who are nailing it when it comes to physical health but avoiding mental health considerations; people who are doing great on the job but suffering in personal relationships. It's helpful to have an integrated model as a roadmap to work out a personal itinerary, in community with those close to us.
An additional consideration is the way we go about self-governance. Do we set impossible standards, all but ensuring failure—or do we set ourselves up to make progress over time? I can tell myself I will start exercising four days a week for 90 minutes a session and fail at that within a short time, or do it for a few weeks and then mysteriously forget to go after a few guilt-ridden days–or I can give myself a longer time frame with achievable steps along the way, assessing as I go and updating my planning responsively.
Developing self-compassion along the way is critical for being able to learn effectively (Laudel & Narciss, 2023), taking in more difficult feedback along with supportive, self-esteem- and efficacy-boosting rewards, to create a thriving personal happiness ecosystem.
Making intangible changes related to psychological illness and well-being is a bit more complicated, but in many respects it's simply helpful to figure out and establish consistent (but not perfectionistic) routines, aiming for them while being resilient to ups and downs along the way. For serious clinical concerns, physical, emotional, or combined, professional help is often necessary. The IMDH is notable as well for being cross-cultural. It's useful to include a global perspective for an inclusive, broadly applicable model. Future research can look at how to apply this model for individuals seeking to live their best life.
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Singh, S.; Kshtriya, S.; Valk, R. Health, Hope, and Harmony: A Systematic Review of the Determinants of Happiness across Cultures and Countries. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2023, 20,
3306. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph 20043306
Helena Laudel, Susanne Narciss, The effects of internal feedback and self-compassion on the perception of negative feedback and post-feedback learning behavior, Studies in Educational Evaluation,
Volume 77, 2023, 101237, ISSN 0191-491X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stueduc.2023.101237.
1. "The studies that we included in the systematic review were mainly empirical studies. The three inclusion criteria applied within the study, (i) the happiness variable was measured specifically within the study, (ii) happiness was a dependent variable only and not an independent variable, and (iii) happiness was measured quantitatively. It involved looking at crucial elements such as (i) the study’s purpose, (ii) objectives, (iii) a methodological design that included p‐value significance testing (p ≤ 0.05), (iv) the use of valid and reliable happiness measures that showed high Cronbach’s alpha coefficient values (0.7 or higher) for the population in each study, (v) sample demographics such as size, age, gender distributions, geographic, or ethnic distributions, and (vi) institutional review board‐compliant studies. Ranking the research methodology was also performed based on (i) methodology quality—prevent systematic errors, (ii) precision—random errors (width of confidence around the results), (iii) external validity—the extent to which we applied results to the target population and, (iv) conclusion—expressed on the bases of exploration of ‘what ifs’ and sensitivity analysis. Finally, the following three exclusion criteria were applied for excluding studies beyond the scope of this systematic review, (i) no happiness variable was measured specifically within the study, (ii) happiness was an independent variable only and not a dependent variable, and (iii) happiness was only measured qualitatively."
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