Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You Happy?

Happiness may not be as conspicuous as you thought.

Key points

  • Most people tend to build their happiness from a constructivist process.
  • Happiness has typically been researched and understood both diachronically and synchronically across cultures.
  • Unabridged happiness considers both the highs and lows of one's experiences in the potentials of happiness.
Are you happy?
Source: "Кирилл Рыжов/Adobe Photostock", "Disappointed girl, licensed for use".

What is happiness? Throughout my years of asking people what makes them happy, the reaction I often get is usually punctuated by a quizzical look, and maybe a lingering silence. Some tell me it's based on a variety of things such as family, money, living a good life, getting their next big break at work, and more. Most will amend that with something like “I’m not sure if it makes me totally happy, but I think it does?”

Research tells us that when we are engaging the positive potentials available to us, there is a neurochemical release that produces that elated feeling we refer to as happiness. “In research on feeling positive affect, Ashby and Isen (1999) theorized that the positive affect of happiness is associated with increased dopamine levels via dopamine release.” That's the neurochemical outcome, but it still doesn't answer the following inquiry:

Something (x) = [must equal] Happiness?

For many, the challenges of an introspective definition can be elusive and amorphous, and may even feel somewhat one-dimensional. In fact, our view of happiness is built in part from a "constructivist perspective." Constructivism is based on the principle that we construct what we know from what we experience in the world. From this particular perspective, an individual's perspective will always be unavoidably personal (Caby et al., 2014). Everything that we observe, we observe on the basis of our own "personal" experiences. Others may see the same thing, but its depiction varies based on their own internal encoding and decoding, which is inevitably different. So, we may say that everyone observes the same thing, but many may experience the same thing differently. Thus, we may assign different meanings.

The stewarding of "self"

Happiness, however, is a commonly dispensed term that is variable both diachronical [vertically throughout history] and synchronical [horizontally across various cultures and politics]. As well, there have been many fractious debates concerning the subject. As several researchers have remarked, "happiness is one of the major goals regarded as exceptionally valuable in the sociocultural imaginary of our contemporary societies” (Romaní Rivera et al., 2024). At its core, and from research, as well as the many patients I have encountered over the years, it always comes back to a basic stewarding of the “self.” That is, happiness may be based on one's self-willingness and mental expanse of engaging both an emotional and intellectual diversity concerning one's valuation of happiness, which may also add richness and depth in what it means to truly feel "happy."

In a recent interview with the SERO Boost podcast from Australia, I had a chance to explore the idea of happiness and hope with host Lu Ngo. The podcast explores happiness, and in this episode, I discussed happiness and its relative connections to the notions of hope and potentiality.

How happiness shows up

How happiness shows up for many may not be as apparent as you think. For instance, take a moment and simply breathe in, taking a long, deep breath, holding it for 5 seconds, and then releasing while slowly saying at the end of it, “Be at peace.” How did that feel? Probably really good, as we tend to unconsciously hold our breath routinely in micro-moments throughout the day. That feeling from the extension of breath probably feels nice as a pleasant affectivity.

Would you say, as well, that you experienced some happiness from the relief you felt in that moment? The answer for some might be an emphatic yes! For others, though, perhaps it's no, and that's okay. Happiness is part of a "positivity stack" that we would put under the prospects of positive emotions, or those “felt” expressions of what we might consider "happy states" internalized through a series of sensory systems. In that, we might include feelings of contentedness, joy, elatedness, peacefulness, and more. Some of these extensions of happiness, and well-being, were characterized by researchers as they uncovered them during the Human Affectome Project (Alexander et al., 2021). Happiness is one of those facets considered as an expression of one's emodiversity.

"Emodiversity considers the relative abundance of emotions experienced. Compared to emotional granularity and covariation, greater emodiversity is theorized to reflect a healthier emotional life" (Alexander et al., 2021).

In the researcher's study, hedonic well-being, or subjective well-being, is characterized by one’s subjective state of happiness and eudaimonic well-being explores the deeper and more profound states of well-being indicative of meaning in life, growth, and flourishing.

What's missing?

In the economy of happiness, what many may equate in their minds as happiness may be missing some important facets of experience. Moreso, happiness may be the cumulative composite of valuating positive experiences on a spectrum of both highs and lows.

“Happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next; researchers find that achieving happiness typically involves times of considerable discomfort” (Psychology Today).

Yes, the idea of experiencing the "low points" of life can be integrated into how we evaluate our own happiness. So when we consider happiness, inclusive of the lows, we should try to understand the full girth of emotional diversity.

The potentiality of self

What we are coming to understand from studies regarding "happiness" is that there is a lot of connective tissue linked to our internal perspective of how we view life daily and act on it in a purposeful way. From a meditative moment, to a cup of tea, the completion of a challenging meeting, or smaller accomplishments, happiness unabridged means that we are not bound to an unrealistic expectation of what it means to be happy, but rather a consideration of all the possibilities of things that we may have left unconsidered.

The “potentiating” components of self, an idea coined by psychologist Mark McCaslin, who has developed a trifecta theory of the potentiating self, suggests that when we potentiate, we engage the prospects of seeing the entire palette of elements available to us. By examining the potentials, we are also engaging in self-actualizing, of becoming more than a "static" self.

Inside of this exploration into happiness, we can ask ourselves daily, even weekly: How are we being generative in producing and affecting our experiences? Are we living a life that explores beyond our own wants? Are we being purposeful? Are we recognizing the diversity of our emotional experiences rather than retracting to an untenable position of negativity?

In the end, perhaps the solution to happiness is not a simple black-and-white equation, but more of a response to being human, to how we live our days, and an integration of all things high and low, not in a subtractive way, but recognizing the important nuances of what it means to be happy.


Alexander, R., Aragón, O. R., Bookwala, J., Cherbuin, N., Gatt, J. M., Kahrilas, I. J., Kästner, N., Lawrence, A., Lowe, L., Morrison, R. G., Mueller, S. C., Nusslock, R., Papadelis, C., Polnaszek, K. L., Helene Richter, S., Silton, R. L., & Styliadis, C. (2021). The neuroscience of positive emotions and affect: Implications for cultivating happiness and wellbeing. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 121(121), 220–249.

Ashby, F. G., & Isen, A. M. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological review, 106(3), 529.‌

Caby, A., Caby, F., & Piening, J. (2014). The therapist’s treasure chest : solution-oriented tips and tricks for everyday practice. W.W Norton & Company.

Romaní Rivera, A., Gálvez-Mozo, A., & Tirado-Serrano, F. (2024). The imperative of happiness in positive psychology: Towards a psychopolitics of wellbeing. New Ideas in Psychology, 72, 101058.

More from Rodney Luster Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today