What Is Happiness?

To find happiness, we have to understand what it is (or can be).

Posted Feb 19, 2020

Devostock, public domain
Understanding Happiness
Source: Devostock, public domain

This post discusses three different ways psychologists conceive of happiness, with the hope of drawing some tangible lessons about happiness for real people in their day-to-day lives. These ideas (and many others) are discussed in depth in my book on Happiness: A Quick Immersion, co-authored with my colleague at Notre Dame, Amitava Dutt. (There is also a Spanish language edition, Felicidad. Una inmersión rápida.)

What Is Happiness?

Psychologists distinguish different kinds or levels of happiness. One popular categorization suggests three levels: The first involves the balance between our transient emotions, both positive (such as joy) or negative (e.g., anxiety); the second refers to our cognitive self-judgments about our life in a general, long-term sense; and the third focuses on "flourishing" and finding meaning in life. The first is thus about emotions, the second about rational self-reflection, and the third about the fulfillment of human potential.

The first level refers to one's current emotional state. If we had data on current emotions for a person over time, we could calculate their general happiness by aggregating such data. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman argues that this approach provides an "objective" happiness measure since the procedure would yield the same scores for any other person reporting the same balance of positive/negative emotions.

Take, for example, the Experience Sampling Method for applying this idea, which collects information on people's feelings in real-time as they go about their lives. One can imagine doing this easily enough with their cellphone. To the extent which this model captures at least part of what we think of as happiness, considering its logic may help us understand where happiness comes from, and thus how to enjoy more of it.

The second conception of happiness—as a cognitive evaluation of one's life—differs in important ways. First, it objects to the idea that happiness is the mere mathematical sum of good and bad experiences, weighed by how good or bad they are. Second, it draws our attention to happiness not as a series of moments, but as something that is a general orientation to life that is relatively stable (almost) as if it were part of one's personality.

Finally, it more readily allows one to define happiness for oneself—rather than reducing it to someone else's judgment that happiness is about seeking pleasure and avoiding (emotional) pain. Thus, this second level of happiness involves more than feelings; it also depends on cognitive judgments about what a person considers to be important for a happy life.

As a simple example differentiating the first and second levels, consider a fan's reaction to a baseball game. Our imaginary person supports Team One. That team is ahead by one run for most of the game but ultimately loses because Team Two scores several runs in the ninth inning.

Whether the game makes one happy or not would likely depend on which kind of happiness we choose. Using experience sampling, i.e., summing positive and negative emotions at the end of every inning, would likely suggest that watching the game was overall a positive experience. But if we judge based on asking the individual if the game made them happy, the answer might well be a definite no.

If we are only interested in emotions, we thus would make a different happiness assessment than if we were interested in whether one enjoyed the whole game. The same logic applies to life: The sum of our transient emotional states accumulated over the years may yield a different result than if we ask individuals to evaluate the overall, general state of their lives.

That said, relying on our judgments rather than our feelings may add other problems when we rely on such data in happiness research. Judgments may depend on one's culture and one's environment—that is, how happy people say they are might be polluted by social desirability bias, such that in some countries it might be unseemly to admit to being especially happy, while in others the opposite could occur, such that one feels they should be happy and thus says they are.

An even deeper problem, stressed by Amartya Sen (another Nobel laureate), is that people can adapt to a negative environment (illiteracy, violence, poverty, political repression) such that their aspiration for a better life—perhaps even their ability to clearly conceive of what a better life would be—may be adversely affected. Someone trapped in a terrible life might thus report surprisingly high levels of overall life satisfaction (because, again, their life circumstances themselves limit their ability to aspire to a better life, and they might judge their own life as good because it is better than people even worse off than oneself). In these instances, we might be wise to consider the first level of happiness rather than the second.

There are two implications for our day-to-day lives: (a) We might be wise to consider how (or if) our overall level of happiness—or what we say it is, even to ourselves—might be affected by cultural expectations about happy we are supposed to be, and (b) the way we evaluate the general quality of our lives could be unconsciously affected by our aspirations, which, whether too high or too low, we can adjust.

The third level of happiness is less easy to define. I will avoid that trap and instead provide just a few illustrations of this way of thinking about happiness. It can refer to the Aristotelian notion of eudemonia—a good life, a flourishing life, informed by virtue.

Martin Seligman and others stress the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life, which are highly valued but prone to escaping our nets designed for measuring emotional states or cognitive evaluations. We may, for example, invest our lives in activities that do not provide a great deal of positive emotions at a given moment, but which nonetheless contribute to a broader conception of happiness that includes the extent to which we enjoy the things that make life worth living.

The third kind of happiness can also refer to a life that maximizes what Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls "flow," i.e., the mental state in which we are fully and positively engrossed in some pleasurable activity (e.g., meditation, dancing, reading, listening to music, chess) such that our sense of self—of being self-consciously a person to whom things happen—disappears. This is, of course, similar to the idea of enlightenment in much Eastern philosophy, which is achieved when one learns to be free of oneself.

This takes us to an important conclusion: Philosophy and spirituality (or conventional religious devotion) tend to inform, in different ways, the third level of happiness. For that reason, it is worth recalling Plato's dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. Taken literally, this seems rather too much, but as a general rule of everyday wisdom, it encourages us to question ourselves, which is the start of any path toward happiness.