How Much Do You Really Know About Happiness?

February 17, 2021

by Pam Boney


It seems like everyone is focused on trying to find ways to be happy. It is even written in the United States Declaration of Independence that people have a right to the pursuit of happiness. Looking for happiness is ingrained deeply in our culture as an essential goal, but do people actually know what they are looking for or how to find it?

What is happiness?

Most people believe that happiness doesn’t need a formal definition because they know it when they see it. However, “happiness” is discussed so frequently that it has lost a great deal of cohesive meaning across time and cultures. Is it a fleeting emotion like a moment of pure joy? Is it a more stable mood, having more positive than negative emotions, or an overall view of whether your life has a purpose? Everyone seems to want to be happy, but if we don’t know what happiness means, we will never understand what it means to make ourselves happier.

According to prominent research psychologist Sonja Lybormirsky, happiness is "the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."

This definition shows that happiness is more than just feeling good. It includes elements of positive emotions but also extends to more general feelings of life satisfaction and meaning. Knowing that happiness is more than just positive emotions should come as a relief if you thought that happiness was all about feeling joy all the time. It isn’t possible to feel only positive emotions, and if you did, your life would miss many experiences that add depth and meaning.


What makes you happy?

A person’s happiness is determined by three main factors: a genetic set point, circumstances, and intentional activities. Research across a large sample of people has shown that, on average, 50% of the variation in happiness is due to a genetic set point, and roughly 10% of the variation in happiness is due to life circumstances. Since 40% of how different people’s happiness levels vary isn’t explained by either, the difference creates space for a variance to be explained by intentional activities. This breakdown in the variance does not mean that for any specific individual, a 50/10/40 ratio explains what makes them happy; simply that the variation in happiness in a large population tends to be explained by these three factors.

The genetic set point cannot be changed, so it will influence happiness throughout a person’s life. Although the set point has not been neatly matched to specific genes, research based on the similarity in well-being between identical and fraternal twins has provided clear evidence that a substantial percentage of well-being is associated with genetic variation. It is similar to a predisposition for high blood pressure or heart disease in that you can’t change your genetic risk, but you can change other things in your life that substantially improve your health. The happiness set point will always affect the baseline happiness level, but it is far from the sole determinant.

Circumstances are also relatively difficult or potentially impossible to change. You may not be able to influence a loved one’s illness, your ability to find a better job, or the area in which you live. People often believe they cannot be happy until their circumstances change. A typical thought pattern is “once I get X (insert anything from a promotion, to marriage, to a specific election result), then I'll be happy.” Knowing how circumstances don’t explain much variation in happiness should dispel this myth. If you are waiting for your circumstances to change and make you happy, you are wasting your time waiting for something that you can’t control and doesn’t have as much influence as you think. Even past this specific belief, people are usually bad at predicting what will make them happy.

The one determinant of happiness that people can feasibly change is intentional activity. Intentional activity includes the vast array of things people think and do throughout their daily lives. Researchers have studied intentional activity and found that behaviors (e.g., exercise), cognitions (e.g., thinking about something more positively), and volitional activities (e.g., striving for personal goals) can influence happiness.

You can be happier

Although two of the determinants of happiness are either difficult or impossible to change, you can use intentional activity to increase your happiness. This means that you don’t have to wait for happiness to happen to you or go searching for happiness. Trying to “find” happiness in something outside of yourself won’t work; happiness comes from inside you. Looking within to find happiness doesn’t mean becoming happier is easy. If it were easy, then everyone would be happy. Increasing happiness long term requires consistent effort to alter your state of mind. You can begin by focusing on the source of your unhappiness, utilizing your strengths, or altering your lifestyle. Changing your intentional activity in any of these domains is work but well worth the effort.

5 simple exercises

A plethora of research in positive psychology has generated specific exercises people can do to be happier. Everyone is different, so the activities that work for you may not be the same as those that work for people around you. Most of the activities may start out feeling a bit awkward, but you should still give them a real chance. To receive the maximum benefit, you should select the kinds of activities that fit your values, needs, interests, and lifestyle. If you would like to increase your experience of happiness, you can begin by reviewing the 5 example activities below. This list is far from comprehensive, but choosing the one that fits you best can be a good way for you to begin.

  1. Three good things: Each day for a week, choose a time to write down three things that went well and why they went well. They could be big things, or as simple as “A coworker complimented my blog today. I’ve been working hard to become a better writer, and it is paying off.”
  2. Commit to your goals: Choose an activity-based goal that you will enjoy completing and is authentic to who you are, rather than something with an external reward. Break it down into subgoals so that you can achieve them a bit at a time. The happiness from this exercise should come from pursuing your goals instead of being dependent on achieving them.
  3. Awe walk: Find a big, open place to walk that you don’t go to often (e.g., hiking trail) and turn off your cell phone. Embrace the experience of your surroundings. Feel your breath, listen to the sounds of yourself walking, and shift your awareness to be open to the things around you.
  4. Physical activity: Taking care of your body leads to many benefits, including increased well-being. Choose any kind of activity that gets you to move more, and stick to it. It could be increasing your current exercise, adding a walk, lifting weights, swimming, or joining a sports team.
  5. Random acts of kindness: Choose one day to perform five acts of kindness all in the same day. It could be as simple as paying for the person in the drive-through line behind you. After you do it, jot down what you did and how it made you feel.

Is happiness the right goal?

Happiness is often a goal in its own right. You won’t find many people who say they DON’T want to be happy. Beyond that desire, happiness is linked to other positive life outcomes. You might interpret this to mean that successful people tend to be happier, but that is also evidence that happiness can lead to success. Research shows that happier people experience benefits at work, higher incomes, better physical health, and more fulfilling relationships. If you didn’t already want to be happy, now you might! However, should happiness be the ultimate goal of your life?

Researchers in positive psychology would say no. Early research focused on life satisfaction as the ultimate outcome of positive psychology, but the theory has since been updated to include more components than positive emotions and a positive evaluation of your life. Martin Seligman’s well-being theory describes 5 elements of well-being:

  1. Positive emotions - including happiness and life satisfaction
  2. Engagement - being so completely absorbed in a task that it feels like time stops and nothing else seems to matter. This is called flow, and it occurs when the challenges of the task are equal to your skills. You may have felt as though you lost yourself while playing a sport, playing music, writing, creating art, or even working. When you finish, you feel as though you’ve just “woken up” and realized that the rest of the world is still there.
  3. Relationships - are fundamental to the human experience. Humans are social creatures, and this has an evolutionary basis. Prominent biologists have theorized that being social is a form of adaptation that allows species to thrive and that the group, instead of the individual, is the primary unit of selection. The drive for positive relationships is fundamental to who we are.
  4. Meaning - serving something larger than yourself. People can feel driven to contribute to a cause, their work, their community, religion, or anything else they believe has an impact.
  5. Accomplishment - winning or mastery for its own sake. Sometimes achievements are motivated by positive emotions or meaning, but some are winning just to win. One example is people who are motivated to make more money to make money instead of using money in the pursuit of other goals.

Notice how only the first element reflects happiness, and the other four elements are distinct components of flourishing. For example, engagement and meaning tend to be the opposite of positive emotions. People who are completely engaged and in flow report feeling nothing at all during flow, but feel very positive about the experience in retrospect. In addition, doing meaningful things typically requires effort and persistence, which can be accompanied by negative emotions like anxiety. This model of well-being illustrates that although happiness is an important goal, focusing on happiness to the exclusion of the other parts of well-being can lead to a shallow life without meaning. The combination of all five components, referred to as flourishing, is a better standard to strive for.

Are you flourishing? If you don’t know the answer, then the first step is to find out where you are right now! If you aren’t satisfied with how your life is now, then you should have been relieved to find out that you have control over where your life ends up. You can begin to increase your happiness with relatively simple exercises. You also know now that you shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time and let yourself experience the negative emotions necessary to lead a more fulfilling, flourishing life.