What is happiness?

For all our efforts, we still don’t have a clear idea of what happiness is, or how it’s best attained.

Dogs seem to be really good at it, tho.
Image via Pixabay.

“Happiness” is used as a shorthand for a constellation of emotional and mental states. At its simplest, it refers to feelings of contentment or joy. The most expansive use of the word touches upon concepts such as subjective well-being, life satisfaction, and affluence.

Some common trends do seem to arise around the subject, and researchers have been putting great effort into understanding them. I feel that the point of life is to enjoy ourselves as much as we can, to be happy, and to help others be as well, so let’s take a look at what we know about happiness and how we may best lure it into our lives.

First off, what is it, actually?

People are complex creatures with unique views on life — only bold statements here on ZME Science — and happiness is a very subjective experience. In that light, we may never know what happiness is, only what it means to a certain individual in a certain situation.

Happiness isn’t an emotion like fear, excitement, or anger, which are short-lived reactions to outside events. It’s also not just an internal state, as happiness is in large part derived from external factors. It flows from the interplay of internal (endogenic) and external (exogenic) factors and can be seen as being an overall appreciation or contentedness with one’s current experiences or life as a whole.

The roots and function of happiness are likely similar for everyone, but what exactly will cause it — and how we experience it — no doubt varies from person to person.

The juices in our brains

Image via Piqsels.

“Existence of significant differences in temperament and happiness of infants is an indicator of biological influences,” explains a paper (Dfarhud, Malmir, Khanahmadi; 2014) published in the Iranian Journal of Public Health.

“Therefore […] it can be said that biological and health factors are critical in underlying happiness and its role in happiness is undeniable,” the authors conclude.

Happiness is complicated, and it’s definitely shaped by more than just biology. But the same way the hardware in your laptop dictates what video games you can play, biology has a great impact on our ability to feel happy. The study above cites previous literature which “indicated an average effectiveness of [genetic factors] of about 35-50% on happiness,” although we’ve yet to pinpoint certain genes that rule happiness. Apart from genetics, the study further distinguishes four sub-groups of biological factors that can be involved in creating feelings of happiness: brain and neurotransmitters, endocrinology and hormones, physical health, morphology and physical attractiveness.

Certain areas of our brains (such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and limbic system) and types of neurotransmitters (for example dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins) modulate emotions and are directly involved in our experience of happiness. This is especially true for the structures and compounds involved in the reward pathways, which generate pleasure, a feeling that’s closely associated with happiness.

According to the paper, “increasing in metabolism of the limbic system leads to depression in individuals,” while levels of dopamine and serotonin mediate our overall mood. Positive moods are associated with increases in dopamine levels in the brain (although not necessarily caused by them), the paper explains, and some of the changes in cognition associated with positive mood are driven by increases in dopamine levels. Serotonin, which is associated with satisfaction, happiness, and optimism obviously has a part to play as well, as does norepinephrine; some modern antidepressants (serotonin reuptake inhibitors and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) artificially raise levels of these neurotransmitters.

Whichever way you cut it, our brains and bodies are the linchpins in our ability to feel happy or unhappy. I think we all have an intuitive understanding of how health, physical attractiveness, and morphology (i.e. the form and structure of your body) factor into our happiness, so we won’t go too much into them. Finally, hormones and the endocrine system underpin our health and help regulate our moods and emotions.

Culturally-correct happiness

Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world drawn with 2017 data.
Image credits World Values Survey.

“When people learn about the psychology of happiness, and also especially of efforts to make people happy — interventions to help improve well-being — one of the skepticisms that people have is that everybody defines happiness in their own way,” William Tov, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Lee Kong Chian Fellow at the Singapore Management University explained for the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

“You can’t have one definition of happiness. I think that’s an assumption that needs to be tested.”

Biology gives us a shared framework for happiness. The next layer that shapes our understanding of this state, however, is a bit more divergent: culture. Different cultural groups can have different concepts of what makes one happy, and these concepts shape our personal access to it.

If biology is the hardware in the laptop of happiness, culture would correspond to the software and apps available for download — it forms the context and avenues through which it can be achieved.

Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tsai et al., 2006, took a look at how culture and happiness interact. The theory they explored is that our ideal affect — the way we want or are ‘supposed’ to feel — is different from our actual affect, and that culture influences the former much more than the latter. Over two studies in which they controlled for actual affect, the team found European Americans (EA) and Asian Americans (AA) value positive, high-arousal feelings (i.e. excitement) more than Hong Kong Chinese (CH) do. At the same time, AA and CH participants put more value on low-arousal positive feelings (i.e. states of calm) than EA participants.

This already shows how our background can influence our ideal affect (which works as a cultural roadmap towards happiness) both in the context of a single community and between different groups. The study also found that for all participants, regardless of their cultural affiliation, the difference between ideal and actual affects correlates to depression. In other words, when people don’t feel the way the tribe tells them they should feel, they get sad. Which is quite cute. It also highlights the ‘external’ component of happiness.

But, while the weight of tradition and social norms can spoil our fun, culture also goes a long way to show how people conceive of happiness, and how that view changed over time.

“In every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck,” explained Darrin McMahon, the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth University in his 2006 book Happiness: A History.

Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means ‘luck’ or ‘chance’, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, ‘good fortune’ or ‘happiness’. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both ‘happiness’ and ‘chance'”.

It’s quite a fascinating read. For the ancient Greeks, McMahon explains, happiness was synonymous with virtue; Romans, on the other hand, considered those who were prosperous and favored by the gods as being happy. The Christian view of happiness was similar but involved only closeness to God, not wealth. Buddhism sees it as closely related to the concept of piti — meaning deep tranquility or rapture — the mental discipline of separating attachment and desire from happiness.

One of the most interesting shifts in the zeitgeist that McMahon points out is that while humans have always strived to be happy, it was considered a desirable ‘maybe’ and not a requirement for life up until two hundred years or so ago; today, achieving happiness is almost seen as an obligation. I can’t help but wonder whether this shift actually makes happiness more unattainable as we’re ‘supposed’ to be happy today, furthering the distance between our ideal and actual affect.

Before we wrap up on the cultural chapter, let’s take a look at the academic thinking around happiness. At the simplest, most bare-bone level, psychologists lump it in two overarching ‘types’ (both of which, you won’t be surprised to hear, we inherited from Greek philosophers):

Hedonic happiness: an ethical school of thought first embraced by Democritus and Aristippus. In essence, hedonists see happiness (and the ultimate goal of life) as experiencing more pleasure while limiting pain, more positive emotions while limiting negative ones, and drawing as much pleasure from one’s life as possible. The main criticism leveled at hedonists is that this mindset focuses on instant gratification — that it’s short-sighted, selfish, and promotes excess. A hedonist might reply that pleasure is the only true moral good and that humans always act to increase their pleasure and limit pain in all facets of life, no matter what we tell ourselves to sleep better at night.

Eudaimonic happiness: for the ancient Greeks, a ‘daimon’ or demon is a spirit bearing wisdom or inspiration. This school of thought arose with Aristotle and placed itself squarely opposite of hedonism. It holds that true happiness can only be achieved as we try to better ourselves, pursue our life’s purpose, and work towards our potential. Happiness, then, lies in the pursuit of perfection and the fulfillment of our abilities. Critics might point out the sheer dreariness of this process, and that perfection is unattainable. An eudaimonic might retort that hedonistic pleasure is frivolous, hollow, basically a distraction from true happiness, and that pleasure delayed is pleasure increased.

Happiness and the self

The Big Five personality traits.
Image credits Anna Tunikova.

In keeping with the laptop analogy, this would be a programming language. We’re the user, and we want the laptop to produce some happiness. So we take it and tap away like mad trying to get it to do just that. Very few of us are lucky enough to be shown how to code; we each use a different programming language, too, since our personalities are pretty much unique.

So, this is probably the most muddied part of the whole discussion. People are complex, they’re complicated, and they’re constantly changing. Factor in that most of us are very, very bad at understanding and observing ourselves critically, and it becomes almost impossible to talk in absolutes. Like those days when you’re on edge for no reason or those times when you’re hungry but don’t like anything on the menu, what people want often is a mystery. Even to themselves.

But from what we’ve seen so far, we’re happy when our internal chemistry is just right. Fulfilling external expectations also tends to make us happy. A pint of ice-cream or a college degree both hold the promise of bliss and satisfaction. So far, at least, we have some rough guidelines as to what constitutes happiness.

Our self — in the sense of and all those details that make each of us, us, our individual consciousness, personality, world-view, socioeconomic standing — is the secret spice in the pursuit of happiness. Two people may enjoy the same ice-cream equally but draw different levels of happiness from it. Two people may draw the same sense of happiness from the same ice-cream while enjoying it to different extents.

Statistically speaking, certain personality traits seem to go hand-in-hand with happiness. One study (Steel, Schmidt, Schultz, 2008) found that the Big Five personality traits can account for anywhere between 39% to 63% of the variation in well-being and happiness among people. At the same time, a paper by Sun, Kaufman, Smillie in 2016 reported that breaking down each of the Big Five into two separate “aspects”, for example slicing “extraversion” into “assertiveness” and “enthusiasm”, allows for even better prediction of happiness levels when using just one aspect in each pair. In other words, while participants higher on extraversion in both groups reported higher levels of life satisfaction, in the second study only those who scored higher on enthusiasm did the same (higher life satisfaction, more positive emotions, and better relationships). Those high in assertiveness didn’t report significantly different levels of satisfaction than the mean.

Merdin-Uygur et al., 2018, further weighs in with the relationship between self-concept clarity (SCC) and happiness. SCC denotes the “extent to which beliefs about the self are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and stable over time” and in very broad lines it fits what we call being ‘self-confident’.

“High-SCC individuals anticipate and experience more happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with friends and anticipate and experience less happiness than low-SCC individuals when they share a social setting with strangers and this is because of perceived interpersonal distance,” the paper reads.

“Self-concept clarity is positively related to enactment of meaningful identity choices, whereas it is negatively related to identity crises driven by reconsidering and discarding current commitments,” explain Elisabetta Crocetti and Marloes P.A. Van Dijk in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence. “Self-concept clarity is intertwined with healthy identity development.”

I’ve presented these three together without commenting because I think they help provide context to each other and for the wider discussion we’re having. Which brings us to:

Happiness and myself

Up to now, I’ve written to you as professional-me, the science journalist; now I’d want to join the discussion as just me (so don’t quote me from here on out).

In his 1956 book Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer proposed that music can instill an emotional response in humans by toying with our expectations. His view is a further development of the belief-desire-intention model, which holds that emotions arise from our desires (and a desire can lead to an expectation). Under this model, negative emotions are the result of the inability to satisfy some desire; positive emotions are produced by us successfully getting what we want. Happiness, if you follow that logic, means getting what you want.

If happiness hinges on getting what you want, then it would obviously be the case that personality traits which help you achieve your goals would lead to happiness. But we didn’t see greater life satisfaction (which is a rough indicator for happiness) with the assertive (i.e. the achievers’) group: we saw it in the enthusiasts’ group. In the same study, high compassion was a strong indicator for positive relationships, industriousness tied in with accomplishment, and intellect with personal growth.

Does that invalidate the whole line of thought? I don’t think so; I think it’s simply a matter of how you attack the issue. Statistics look at trends and produce broad truths. Happiness involves individuals and is deeply subjective.

I agree with the premise that certain personality traits are indicative of greater life satisfaction. In broad lines, I even agree with the idea that those personality traits are statistically more conducive to happiness. But for the whole picture, you have to consider the ‘type’ of happiness an individual wants and how well they’re able to derive it from the traits they possess. An absolute hedonist will probably get little happiness from good grades (being industrious in school) because that’s not what makes them tick — but they’ll likely be very happy cooking a 10-course meal (being industrious in the kitchen) and then eating to their heart’s content.

The first step towards being happy is sitting down and deciding what that looks like for you — this gives you the ‘what you want’ part in ‘getting what you want’. Then you do your best to get there. Don’t worry if you don’t have the best tools at your disposal, as personality can be and is shaped by behavior. Culture will try to sway you, and you decide to what extent you let it. Biology is harder to resist, but there are researchers working on that.

In my eyes, happiness is that state you’re in when everything is just right. There are no predators around, dinner is taken care of, the kids aren’t doing anything too stupid, and nobody caught the coronavirus. That’s it. No dreams of being CEO. It sounds simple on paper, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of me to get there, so I’ll get some eudaimonic happiness. And I definitely plan on enjoying some hedonistic happiness on my way, too.

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