The question of how to be happy, and how to live a good life has been kicking around for aeons. Back to when the Ancient Greeks were shooting the breeze in Athens, debating what type of happiness was best, there are written records of people discussing happiness and the ‘good life’.
Even earlier than that, Confucius and Buddha were exploring their thoughts and teaching their ideas on these subjects, so it seems reasonable to assume that ever since homo sapiens has been thinking and talking these subjects have been up for discussion. More recently, mainstream psychology has embraced the idea of ‘Positive’ Psychology, investigating the science of happiness and what makes life worth living – a change of viewpoint from a previous focus in psychology which often looked how to ‘fix’ us when things aren’t going well.
What do we mean by happiness?
Everyone has their own idea of happiness, and one of the interesting things I’ve found as I talk to people about it is how much the idea of happiness varies from person to person. Say “happiness” to some people and it makes them think of a transitory emotion, the feeling of excitement on Christmas day, a good night out with friends, or the warm contentment of feeling of the sun on their face. Others see it as something longer-lasting – the feeling of being content with their lives that they are meaningful and rich. In psychological terms, these two types of happiness are often referred to as Hedonia and Eudaemonia respectively, but a more accessible way to think about it may be to think about ‘pleasure’ and ‘purpose’.
Pleasure and purpose
The pleasure aspect of happiness comes from enjoying the moment, whereas the longer-term feeling of purpose and meaning in our lives is important to a sense of feeling ‘happy’ with our lives overall. Rather than arguing about which is best, it’s better to see it as a balance. We need to feel a sense of overall direction and meaning, but we also need to stop and smell the roses along the way.
If we think of happiness in these terms, this also helps to incorporate cultural differences in ideas of happiness. In the U.S. happiness tends to be seen as something associated with a state of high arousal – excitement, elation, jumping with joy. Amongst Hong Kong Chinese however, happiness is associated with calmness, peace, relaxation. There’s also a difference across ages – think of the noisy joy of a toddler who lives entirely in the moment, compared to the quiet joy of the grandparent who is watching.
A question of balance
An understanding of these two different aspects of happiness helps us to understand where sometimes we go wrong. If we prioritize short term pleasure at the expense of longer-term direction and meaning, we run the risk of using quick fixes to hide the fact that we feel a lack of purpose in our lives which ultimately leaves us feeling empty when the short-term fix wears off. But equally, spending our lives focussing on long term goals and achievement can mean that we miss the moments along the way that give us joy – we need a balance of both types of happiness.
The first myth of happiness –
“This simple life hack will make you happy”
There is no simple answer to the question of how to be happy. The reality is that there’s a mix of things that we need for optimal functioning, involving pleasure and purpose, which can vary from person to person, across different cultures and across the lifespan. However, despite these differences, there are core themes that arise when we investigate what makes people happy, so the more we learn about what makes other people happy, the more we can apply this knowledge to our own situation when appropriate – the goal of positive psychology.
The second myth of Happiness –
“I will be happy when…”
Another common preconception is that we will be happier when something we desire happens. We get a new car, a raise at work, a new job, win the lottery. Research shows that although this will increase our happiness for a short time, we quickly get used to new things and our happiness levels return to normal (psychologists call this ‘hedonic adaptation).
This doesn’t mean to say that external circumstances don’t impact our happiness levels – particularly if something bad happens, we encounter illness, we get divorced or lose a spouse we will feel unhappy for a while. But the good news is that in this case adaptation works in our favour and our happiness levels will improve as we get used to our new situation, and we are more likely to be resilient and cope better if our life is oriented around the things that bring us happiness in the good times, such as close relationships to friends and being in nature.
The third myth of Happiness –
“You are either born happy or you are not”.
There is some truth to the fact that some people have a happier disposition than others – twin studies show identical twins have more similar happiness levels than those of fraternal twins. But beyond genetics and circumstances, there’s still room to manoeuvre – our happiness levels will move up and down according to what’s going on around us and how we react to that, but we do have some ability to influence the way we react to what’s going on, which in turn influences our feelings. (Again there’s a caveat here – the good news is that we can influence our happiness levels to some extent, but that should not be taken to mean that people should just ‘think positively’ and all will be well – it’s not that simple, and in particular, people suffering from depression or other mental illness that affects their moods should not be made to feel it’s somehow their fault and they can just ‘snap out of ’ if they try hard enough.)
The fourth myth of Happiness –
“But I know what makes me happy”
Although we do have some idea about what makes us happy, there are also times when we are notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel. For example, in a study looking at social interaction with strangers on public transport on a regular commute, people predicted they would be happiest to read/stare out the window rather than talk to fellow passengers. Yet when their happiness levels were tested immediately after the commute, the reverse was true – talking to strangers does make us happier, despite our initial misgivings. The study also showed that the people who were talked to also felt happier after the exchange.
Likewise, another study on interacting with nature showed that when given a choice over walking across a university campus via underground tunnels, or outdoors, participants overpredicted their enjoyment of being in the tunnels, and underpredicted the benefit of walking in the open air, with exposure to trees and natural scenes – again, they underestimated the happiness benefit of being in nature.
How to be happy?
As mentioned above, positive psychology has a wealth of research into what makes us happy. It’s impossible to cover it all here, and often my blog posts cover one small area of things that are good for us in more detail, but here’s my starter at explaining some of the important themes for what makes us happy.
As humans, we evolved as social animals living in a natural world. Connecting to others is hugely important to our mental wellbeing, whether we are extroverts who like to be surrounded by people or the time, introverts who need quality time with close friends alternated with time alone, or somewhere between those two extremes. As mentioned in the study about commuting, connection doesn’t just have to be with close friends – small everyday connections with others are good for our mental wellbeing too.
We also benefit from being connected to nature and feelings of spiritual or religious connection to the wider world. Contact with the natural world, spending time in nature, gardening, growing houseplants or spending time with animals and pets makes us feel happier.
Looking after our bodies
When thinking about psychology, it’s easy to think about what’s going on cognitively and to forget the importance of looking after ourselves physically. Exercise, good nutrition, and sleep are all vital for our mental wellbeing as well as our physical wellbeing – the mind and body are closely connected and what affects one will impact the other.
Looking after our minds
In the same way, as our bodies need to be active, our minds do too. Learning new things, talking to new people, going to new places is good for us cognitively. Having meaning and direction in our life is important for us too. Lots of people talk about the importance of setting ‘goals’ and although that has value, I sometimes struggle with the word ‘goal’. It implies that we need to know where we are going before we set out, but sometimes the best journeys are the ones where we don’t know where we are going – we just set out to explore. So, if you like setting goals, great, but take time to be curious and allow yourself time to explore and ponder too.
Appreciating what we have
In happiness myth 2 we talked about ‘hedonic adaptation’ – the fact that we get used to good things and stop appreciating their benefit. But the upside is that we can try to counteract this tendency by taking time to appreciate what we have. Gratitude journaling, savouring, prayers of thanks (if we are religious), being mindful and paying attention to the moment will all help us appreciate what is around us and will increase our happiness levels. In addition, the more we pay attention to the good things in our life, the more we notice them, so this has an ongoing effect to help us look on the bright side, even when times are tough.
The question of “what makes us happy” is an interesting one, but not one with a quick answer. But there are common underlying themes, and the more we learn, the more we can choose to influence our own behaviour and actions, which can affect our circumstances and the way we feel. It’s also fun to experiment on ourselves – by trying different things out, we can see what works for us. Gratitude journaling might be my thing, running marathons might be yours – there’s plenty of scope for individual differences. The good thing about positive psychology is that by taking a science-based approach to understanding this question, we can start to unravel the myths from the truths about what will make us happier.
The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology whose main research interest is happiness. The How of Happiness is written for the general reader and goes into this subject in more detail, including covering many different happiness activities that have been shown to increase happiness in psychology research. If you want to learn more and try out some happiness activities yourself, this is a great place to start.
Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles here
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’
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