What Makes You Happy...Really?
Happiness has to do with emotion, but perhaps not in the way you imagine.
Posted Nov 08, 2013
Happiness, according to the dictionary definition, is “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience” (Merriam-Webster, 2013). Yet, from a psychological point of view, a state of happiness arises from the complex interaction among your biology, biography (history and culture), and physiological sensations. The experience of positive emotions, such as elation, gladness, relief, bliss, or amusement is “scripted” early in life by the circumstances around which such emotions have been felt. If your family, culture, or environment discouraged the expression of intensely felt positive emotion, for example, you may fear judgment or some other impediment when you are excited. Regardless of how the circumstances of your past might impact your interpretation of an emotion in the present, its actual source, an affect, is biological and remains constant. Affective responses to specific stimuli originate in your brain. These affects direct your attention and motivate your behavior by creating various emotional responses. The emotion that follows involves the images and thoughts you attribute to what you feel in your body.
So, then, how do you become happy or get happier? Among nine basic affects, only two are involved in creating the emotions and sensations that lead to an experience of happiness. The affect theorist, Silvan Tomkins (1962/1991), described these affects on a mild-to-intense-spectrum as enjoyment-joy and interest-excitement.
You may recognize a smile or laughter as the expression of enjoyment-joy. The smile of joy may be relief, as well as the sudden reduction of pleasure that is found in orgasm or following a good meal (Tomkins, 1962/1991). Yet the enjoyment produced by the conscious experience of a smile may also be the result of retrieved unconscious memories of your own past smiles, according to Tomkins. Similarly, he notes that simply remembering, anticipating, or imagining may evoke the smile of joy, and that this capacity in humans serve a social significance as it ties us to others. Thus, we might infer that happiness, based on the experience of enjoyment-joy, is more than just good feeling; it is a foundation upon which human connection is based.
The affect of interest-excitement can also motivate auras of happiness, as well as connect humans, since it is often activated or accompanied by pleasurable looking or listening, and by sexuality (Tomkins, 1962/1991). Excitement is a crucial affect since it attracts and holds a person to a particular way of life; much of what we become depends on what excites us (Tomkins 1962/1991). Without the activation of excitement, whether it is from thinking, doing, imagining, or interacting, we can feel tired and lifeless.
Excitement, combined with other affects, such as fear or shame, produces a potent combination. A frightening amusement park ride is concurrently exciting. And many people link shame or humiliation to excitement in their sexual encounters. In any case, the resulting positively elevated feelings can be interpreted as happiness.
Some theorists have speculated that interest motivates novelty-seeking and exploration, in contrast to enjoyment which motivates attachment to familiar events, such as having a favorite restaurant or vacation destination (Tomkins, 1962). Although trying something new may end up in disappointment, novelty-seeking builds knowledge and skills (White, 1959), and it certainly can provide you with the experience of happiness.
Interest is an emotion associated with curiosity, exploration, and information seeking (Frederickson, 1998; Izard & Ackerman, 2000; Tomkins, 1962/1991). Interest can make you happy. In a recent interview wtih Charlie Rose, Margaret Atwood noted that, "happiness is a byproduct of being interested in what you do" (Season 22, October 2013). The emotion of interest—both being interested and interesting—also can profoundly affect one's physiological and psychological well-being. According to a study by A.S.Heller (2013) and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, a sense of purpose, meaning, and engagement with life, which they refer to as eudaimonic well-being, predicts physical health (including lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol), and is protective against psychopathology.
Given that positive affects can provide the resources for happiness, the trick you must use to create it is to welcome those affects when they are activated. But you must remember that the feelings associated with the activation of any affect are short-lived since affects are triggered in response to something specific. We do not experience enjoyment, joy, interest, or excitement all of the time, any more than we continuously experience any of the negative affects. Both positive and negative affects are part of humanness, and the positive emotions we experience that create happiness are differently important than the negative ones from which we can learn. But certainly, they do feel better.
(For information about my books, please see my website: www.marylamia.com)
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Heller, A.S.; vanReekum, C.M.; Schaefer, S.M.; Lapate, R.C.; Radler, B.T.; Ryff, C.D.; & Davidson, R.J. (2013). Sustained striatal activity predicts eudaimonic well-being and cortisol output. Psychological Science, 23.
Izard, C. E., & Ackerman, B. P. (2000). Motivational, organizational, and regulatory functions of discrete emotions. In M.Lewis & J. M.Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed., (pp. 253-264). New York: Guilford Press.
Tomkins, Silvan S. (1962/1991), Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Positive Affects (Vol. 1), New York: Springer