The Good Life and the Quest for Happiness
Since the dawn of ancient civilization, humans have grappled with pinning down a clear and all encompassing definition of happiness (see, for example, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapter 4). Although there is no consensus on the definition of ‘wellbeing’ (Snyder and Lopez, 2007), there are several synonyms used throughout the literature to describe it, such as happiness, self actualization, contentment, adjustment, economic prosperity, quality of Iife and wellbeing. But what exactly is happiness ?
What is happiness to you?
If you could take a pill to be happy 24/7, 365 days a year, would you take it?
Happiness as a human pursuit is ingrained in our actions for as long as we can remember and positive psychology has taken this concept into the realm of scientific research in hopes of gaining a better understanding of global well-being and meaningful living.
Whether on a global or individual level the pursuit of happiness is one which is gaining traction and scientific recognition.
A Definition of Happiness
There are many definitions of happiness which can be cited here however in general, happiness is regarded as the positive emotions we have in regards to the pleasurable activities we take part in through our daily lives.
In scientific literature, happiness is referred to as hedonia (Ryan & Deci, 2001), the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions. Pleasure, comfort, gratitude, hope, and inspiration are examples of positive emotions which increase our happiness and move us to flourish.
In a more broad understanding, human well-being is made up of both Hedonic and Eudaimonic principles, the literature on which is vast and describes our personal meaning and purpose in life (Ryan et al, 2001).
Research on happiness over the years has found that there are some contributing correlational factors which affect our happiness. These include (Ryan, 2001):
1) Personality Type
2) Positive Emotions versus Negative Emotions
3)Attitude towards Physical Health
4) Social Class and Wealth
5) Attachment and Relatedness
6) Goals and Self-efficacy
7) Time and Place
There is also recent research by Assistant Professor of Swansee University Katherine Nelson-Coffey which has proven that performing acts of kindness can have powerful effects on our subjective well-being and overall happiness.
Happiness Starts With You: A Study Showing How Acts of Kindness Make us Happier
Feeling stressed after a long day of work? Treat yourself to a bubble bath. Feeling blue? Treat yourself to a decadent dessert. Feeling frustrated after an argument with a friend? Skip your workout and have an extra scoop of ice cream.
The message is clear: If you want to feel happy, you should focus on your own wishes and desires. Yet this is not the advice that many people grew up hearing. Indeed, most of the world’s religions (and grandmothers everywhere) have long suggested that people should focus on others first and themselves second.
Psychologists refer to such behaviour as prosocial behavior and many recent studies have shown that when people have a prosocial focus, doing kind acts for others, their own happiness increases.
But how does prosocial behaviour compare to treating yourself in terms of your happiness? And does treating yourself really make you feel happy?
In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, Katherine Nelson-Coffey and her colleagues presented their research answering these questions.
Participants were divided into four groups and given new instructions each week for four weeks.
One group was instructed to perform random acts of kindness for themselves (such as going shopping or enjoying a favorite hobby); the second group was instructed to perform acts of kindness for others (such as visiting an elderly relative or helping someone carry groceries); the third group was instructed to perform acts of kindness to improve the world (such as recycling or donating to charity); the fourth group was instructed to keep track of their daily activities. Each week, the participants reported their activities from the previous week, as well as their experience of positive and negative emotions.
At the beginning, the end, and again two weeks after the four-week period, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their psychological flourishing. As a measure of overall happiness- the questionnaire included questions asking about psychological, social, and emotional well-being.
The results of the study were striking. Only participants who engaged in prosocial behavior demonstrated improvements in psychological flourishing.
Participants who practiced prosocial behavior also demonstrated increases in positive emotions from one week to the next. In turn, these increases in feelings such as happiness, joy, and enjoyment predicted increases in psychological flourishing at the end of the study. In other words, positive emotions appeared to have been a critical ingredient linking prosocial behavior to increases in flourishing.
But what about the people who treated themselves?
They did not show the same increases in positive emotions or psychological flourishing as those who engaged in acts of kindness. In fact, people who treated themselves did not differ in positive emotions, negative emotions, or psychological flourishing over the course of the study compared to those who merely kept track of their daily activities.
This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behaviour and show others kindness through our actions.
In world economic circles, Richard Easterlin investigated the relationship between money and well-being, the Easterlin paradox ‘money does not buy happiness’ (Mohun, 2012) sparked a new wave of thinking of wealth and well-being.
In 1972, Bhutan pursued a policy of happiness versus a focus on economic growth tracked via their gross domestic product (GDPP). Subsequently, this little nation has been among the happiest amongst nations with far superior wealth (Kelly, 2012).
The Global Pursuit of Happiness
More global organizations and nations are becoming aware and supportive of the importance of happiness in today’s world. This has lead to The United Nations inviting nations to take part in a happiness survey, resulting in the ‘World Happiness Report’, a basis from which to steer public policy. Learn about the World Happiness Report for 2016.
The United Nations also established World Happiness Day, 20th of March, which was the result of efforts of the Bhutan Kingdom and their Gross National Happiness initiative (Helliwell, Layard & Sachs, 2013).
Organizations such as New Economic Foundation are playing an influential role of an economic think tank which focuses on steering economic policy and development for the betterment of human well-being.
Ruut Veenhoven is a world authority on the scientific study of happiness and was one of the sources of inspiration for United Nations adopting happiness measures (Ki-Moon, n.d). Veenhoven is a founding member of the World Database of Happiness, which is a comprehensive scientific repository of happiness measures world -wide.
The objective of this organization is to provide a coordinated collection of data, with common interpretation according to scientifically validated happiness theory, model, and research.
Measures of Happiness
At this point, you might be wondering: Is it possible to measure happiness? Many psychologists have devoted their careers to answering this question and in short, the answer is yes.
Happiness can be measured by these three factors: positive emotions, the absence of negative emotions, and life satisfaction (Ryan et al, 2001). It is a uniquely subjective experience, which means that nobody is better at reporting on someone’s happiness than the individuals themselves. For this reason scales, self-report measures and questionnaires are the most common formats for measuring happiness.
Do you want to measure your own level of Happiness?
Happiness Comes from Within: Train your Brain for Happiness
At birth, our genetics provide us with a happiness set point that accounts for about 40% of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter, and safety makes up 10%. Then we have 50% that in entirely up to us.
By training our brain through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and more resilient way; we can effectively train our brains for happiness.
New discoveries in the field of positive psychology show that physical health, psychological well-being and physiological functioning are all improved by how we learn to “feel good”. (Fredrickson B. L. 2000)