When you were a child, what did you think about ‘happiness?’ You probably heard that it was important, even virtuous:

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” – proclaimed as inalienable human rights in the United States Declaration of Independence

How did you think you could be ‘happy?’
Would ‘happiness’ be your reward for living according to some guidelines or achieving a certain goal? Is ‘happiness’ something you would get? Something you’d earn?

What did you think ‘happiness’ meant?
Is it a feeling? A perspective? Is it life-sized or momentary? Is it the same thing as ‘bliss,’ or ‘joy?’

What is a ‘life well-lived?’  How ‘happy’ is such a life?

You’re here now because these questions still compel you.

Maybe it’s playful curiosity that brings you here. Perhaps you’re responding to an urgent need. Maybe you’re here because you have all the things you should need for a ‘happy’ life, but you still feel as if something is missing.

From XKCD

First, a Few Common Myths About Happiness

Topping the list of myths is this:
We hear ‘Happiness’ as a word used to describe positive emotional states. But we also hear it used to describe a life-sized sense of well-being. Both ‘happiness’ in life and ‘happiness’ about life. However, these are different concepts, and conflating them has deteriorated the usefulness of the word ‘Happiness.’ Later will be a breakdown between these and the other confusing shades of ‘happiness.’ For now, let’s process through some other common myths.

“Being happy is easy. It’s all about your state of mind.”

Perspective has an important meta-role in one’s ‘happiness.’ (Teaser: it’s a key one of the 4 Elements of well-being) It’s true that its role can be decisive. And, it isn’t necessarily easy. Later pages in this section will detail the many related skills one can practice to hone one’s state of mind for optimal well-being.

Even though we may sometimes overcomplicate aspects of ‘happiness,’ it’s far from being as simple as in the Lego movie.

“Happiness is just feeling good, for as much of life as possible” or “Happiness is about the small things in life.”

Who doesn’t like to feel good? And, pleasure is fleeting.

Can we savor experiences and use pleasure in an optimal way to contribute to satisfaction in life? Yes!
Can pleasure distract us from more keystone elements of well-being? Also yes!

Even though the small things and feeling good can play a beautiful role, some of the best-lived lives are full of unpleasant experiences.

Check out this fun comic from The Oatmeal: “How to Be Perfectly Unhappy

“Money will/won’t make you happy.”

The world comes at us screaming with ideas about money. Sometimes loud and sometimes subtle, we see these myths in advertisements, tv shows, and how our co-workers dress.

So say this out loud…say it every day if you need to:
It isn’t that simple. Money can help, and money isn’t everything.

There is an entire section on this site covering Money and how it relates to our well-being. Go check it out if this topic interests you.

“There is a secret to ‘happiness’ that works for everyone.”

What’s true for me is true for everyone, right? We all struggle to accept this. Across many aspects of life—religion and spirituality, relationships, and even choosing what to eat for dinner—we wrestle with this internal/external dilemma.

Each of us is both incredibly similar and incredibly different from one another. This is true of ‘happiness,’ too. What works for one person may not work for another. What is fun for me may not be fun for you. And what is meaningful for you may not be meaningful for me.

That being said, well-being research does its best to hone in on general commonalities across people that lead to a better life. Research shows that even though what’s meaningful for you is different from what’s meaningful for me, having our respective meaningful experiences will most definitely make us both ‘happier.’

“I can’t change my level of Happiness.”

How much of a role does genetics play? This question is found across every subject in psychology. Genetics does play a huge role in our lives. Our genes make a significant contribution to who we are and how we feel.

And, the research is always changing. In the last couple of decades, psychologists have proposed a range of numbers, from “40% of our happiness is within our control1 to, more recently, “genetic factors contribute about 30-40%, and the rest is up to us and our environment.”2 What conflicting messages indeed!

The truth is that everything is at play. It’s best to avoid thinking about your well-being deterministically. Sure, you have certain genes and predispositions. But a lot is up to us and how we live our lives. Some of our genes even express themselves differently depending on the environmental factors at play. (See epigenetics)

So, keep your head up and your eyes wide. You CAN be ‘happier,’ and live more fully than you are living now. And the pages ahead are going to share a multitude of tips on how.

If you’d like, before we dig in you can test your general knowledge of human well-being with this quick quiz. It will test you on happiness myths and common findings from Positive Psychology relating to ‘happiness.’

Measure Your Well-Being

“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Before going any further, there is a crucial early step in your journey to well-being. And to get the most out of it you’ll want to repeat it moving forward.

At least once a week, and ideally 3 times per week, do this exercise and you will see measurable results. Do it along with reading through the rest of the ‘Happiness’ section, and whenever you can.

Measuring your ‘happiness’ will accomplish 2 powerful things:

  1. You will have data on your own experience of well-being, empowering you to assess your methods and progress more effectively.
  2. You will bolster an “Approach Goal” framing, which is a framing that puts your focus on positive outcomes and motives, rather than negative, avoidance-based motives (which are less effective).3

55-Minute Quiz

Get a comprehensive, personalized assessment of your growth areas and strengths, covering 65 factors.***Members Only***

You have a few options, depending on your time. The quick, 1-minute assessment lets you check in on your subjective well-being. And the longer assessments will measure your well-being with more specificity, including how it is affected by factors found throughout the site.

For a full experience of self-assessment, consider getting a membership to access the Assessment Center, where you can independently measure 50+ factors and 225+ subfactors of well-being.

Revisit one of these assessments several times per week. As you do so, write down your scores on a calendar. Do your best to be consistent.
As you continue through the happiness section, and onward through life, you can use this data to gauge how you’re doing.

Okay, now that we have some tracking in place, let’s explore the nitty-gritty and set a solid foundation.

‘Happiness’ is a Broken Concept

Compare the quotes below…

“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” – Dale Carnegie

“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness” – Lao Tzu

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” – Mohandas Gandhi

“If you want to be happy, be.” – Leo Tolstoy

“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” – The Dalai Lama

“Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes.” – Charles Dickens

Despite the iconic people and the profundity of their statements, there doesn’t seem to be cohesion over what ‘happiness’ actually is…

“No mockery in the world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato.” – Charlotte Bronte, The Sunday Times, UK

Comic by Polyp

So let’s break down what it is we’re talking about here. What are we after in this section about ‘happiness?’ And why do we keep seeing this word in quotes?

“I actually detest the word ‘happiness,’ which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. The first step in positive psychology is to dissolve the monism of ‘happiness’ into more workable terms. Much more hangs on doing this well than a mere exercise in semantics.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish

There are about as many meanings to the word ‘Happiness’ as there are to the word ‘Love.’

This and the following pages are going to break down ‘happiness’ in a practical way, so you can live your life better. And the first step is clarifying the subject and its terms.

So let’s rebuild our definition of ‘happiness.’

The versatility of this word may be one of its strengths. But wouldn’t it better serve us to be more specific? Yes.

Conflating a good mood with a deep sense of meaning confuses us in our pursuit of a well-lived life. When I declare the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable human right, or I decide ‘I most of all want my child to be happy,” do I really know what that means? Could I be sweeping the details under the rug?

On top of complicating our process as individuals, one can see how the word emerges as a poorly-targeted ideology at a societal level:

“The decision to build a circus rather than a library based on how much additional happiness will be produced counts those capable of cheerful mood more heavily than those less capable. A theory that counts increases in engagement and meaning along with increases in positive emotion is morally liberating as well as more democratic for public policy.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish

In other words, because of our poor use of the word ‘happiness,’ we as a society over-value cheerfulness and undervalue the deeper aspects of well-being, like engagement, perspective, and meaning.

So, let’s lay some ground rules.
Throughout this section, when you see “happiness”—in quotes—it is meant in the colloquial sense. ‘Happiness’ as we hear it day-to-day is a highly subjective term that flexes in every direction. It is a catch-all for well-being, success, a sense of meaning, satisfaction with life, a sought-after virtue, a positive feeling…and on and on.

The next page in this section will offer more detail and explanation for the below distinctions. And you can find a full list of important terms and how we use them on the Glossary page. For now, here is our clarification of our use of these terms moving forward:

‘Happiness’
with quotes refers to the colloquial usage: a generalized catch-all for any combination of these, and hence the title of this section. It is overall well-being, a helpful word that will be used synonymously.

Happiness
without quotes refers to positive emotions (positive affect). This “pleasant and contented mental state” follows the etymology of the word more closely, which is rooted in luck and good fortune. This limited origin is one reason for its confusion with the wider concept of well-being, colloquially.

Joy
is the state, feeling, and/or sense of well-being stemming from meaning, purpose, and perspective. Also a subjective concept, this word will refer to the deeper aspects of well-being.

We so often get caught up doing things we think will improve our lives that do just the opposite. And even when we think hard about it, putting considerable effort into improving our well-being, we often miss the mark. We aim to be ‘happy,’ but when ‘happiness’ is such a flimsy, nebulous concept, where is our target, anyways?

The next page will explore more about the crucial distinction above. Later, especially as we learn about the 4 Elements of Well-Being, ‘happiness’ will be dissected even further. Hopefully the concept is already beginning to feel less conflated!

Videos

Many psychologists understand that ‘happiness’ is a broken word. Here are some other angles on the issue:

The Definition of Happiness – Ryan David
In this brief lecture, the speaker highlights the important conflation of ‘pleasurable experiences’ with ‘meaningful gratifications.’

What Is Happiness?
A handful of psychologists, professors, and journalists give their take on ‘happiness’ in this short video.

What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness – Robert Waldinger
In this TED talk, the 4th director of a 75-year study on ‘happiness’ reveals some of the key take-aways. Topping the list is the power that relationships have on living a long, healthy life.

What Is A Good Life? – Crash Course Philosophy
Taking a philosophical lens, this video from the always-insightful folks at Crash Course approaches ‘happiness’ thoughtfully. Again ‘happiness,’ colloquially, refers to overall well-being, or a well-lived life. So what is that?

The New Era of Positive Psychology – Martin Seligman
Seligman’s TED talk gives an overview and context for Positive Psychology. Parallel with the topics found on this site, he offers a helpful overview of the landscape of well-being science and its many subjects.

Heed the “Pursuit of Happiness” Itself

Here you are. The fact that you’re reading these words means that you already value your own well-being and you’re willing to work on it. That’s no small thing.

Research suggests that working on becoming ‘happier’ can provide a range of benefits to one’s life.4 5
But it’s far from being that simple. A 2011 study, for example, found that people who were placing a high value on happiness were more likely to be lonely.6 And loneliness is deeply interwoven with depression.

The Pursuit Paradox

We can sometimes think of ‘happiness’ as a sort of finish line: “Once I get there, once I am ‘happy,’ I’ve made it. That’s when I’ll reap the benefits of my ‘happy’ life.”

Comic by Awkward Yeti

The pursuit of ‘happiness’ is not a straight and simple path to having it, and contains a paradox.

Here is the caveat: it’s important not to chase ‘happiness.’ Sure, making happiness-focused choices can improve one’s well-being. But when we ‘pursue happiness,’ we become more likely to compare how we are currently feeling with how we would LIKE to feel. And because of our unique propensity as humans to usually want more than what we assess having, this can be a self-defeating cycle.7 Even in the ‘happiest’ circumstances, making things about being happy is likely to leave us feeling disappointed.8

Let’s put this in other words:

We generally want to feel happier than we do currently, and can therefore become unhappy about being unhappy when we ‘pursue happiness.’

There is a quote that captures this self-limiting aspect elegantly:

“Happiness is as a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Well, fortunately, it isn’t only luck and patience that brings ‘happiness.’ The key to this balancing act is in 3 basic steps.

  1. Define ‘happiness’ and develop your understanding of what that really means. That is essentially what we’re doing here, in the following several pages.
  2. Personalize well-being to you specifically. Reflecting on common human patterns of well-being, prioritize which apply to you most importantly. Later pages like the Bliss Map, the 4 Elements (and personalizing them with the Choice Diary) are great examples of this.
    **Note: You can do a lot of personalization using our Assessment Center.**
  3. Incorporate aspects into your life. This is where we see a significant alternative to ‘pursuit.’ Rather than constantly assessing and seeking one’s own well-being, prioritize the activities and actions you know should work, and let the ‘happiness’ find you there.

In short:

Instead of ‘pursuing happiness,’ understand and value its elements, which will indirectly bring you optimal well-being.

As an example, consider how we foster the goal of good sleep in life. If we’re constantly looking out for the moment we can fall asleep, always trying to get it, we’re unlikely to sleep well. Rather, we can—respective to the steps above—understand what factors contribute to good sleep generally, adjust to what our specific bodily needs are, then incorporate behaviors like eating a light dinner, working out, etc, increasing the odds of sleeping well.

The solution to the pursuit paradox arises in our need to value those elements that indirectly lead to happiness.

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness … Aiming thus at something else, they find happines by the way.” – John Stuart Mill

Think of your ‘happiness’ as a companion flame that is always with you:

  • Sometimes, your ‘happiness’ looks fuzzy and undefined. It may be difficult to tell where it begins and ends, and what it even is.
  • Sometimes, it’s big and strong. That feels great!
  • Sometimes it dwindles to barely a flicker.
  • Over time, it will have a fairly stable, general disposition. Maybe this is its color or general shape.

In order to live well, we want to keep this companion in view, seeing its edges clearly. We want to craft a toolkit suited to stoking the flame, making it burn brighter. We want to foster fuel sources that feed this flame well and frequently. Over time, your ‘happiness’ flame might even take new characteristic shapes and colors, and you’ll look at it thinking “I’m satisfied with my life.”

This is going to take work. And that’s great! It may be the most rewarding work you’ll ever do. It’s the stuff of life.

“Positive psychology makes people happier. Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapist, giving positive psychology exercises to tenth graders in a classroom, parenting little kids with positive psychology, teaching drill sergeants how to teach about post-traumatic growth, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all MAKE PEOPLE HAPPIER. The people who work in positive psychology are the people with the highest well-being I have ever known.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could, some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What Lies Ahead

It’s an exciting time to be alive and fostering ‘happiness.’ In the last few decades, humanity’s most powerful tool, the scientific method, has inquired into human well-being with depth and breadth. On the following pages in this section, we will distill some of the most important modern research on human well-being into actionable tools and models that you can equip to become a ‘happier’ person. Some results will come immediately, and some will grow over years of practice.

Along the way, you’ll be presented with practices and exercises. As you learn by doing, you will find that your own well-being consists largely of a group of skills that can be improved. You’ll see ‘happiness’ as a handful of several key elements. Additionally, you’ll find helpful collections of curated links, videos, and more from around the web on the subject of ‘happiness.’
You can find ALL of the Practices and Exercises—as well as Resources organized by category—on their own respective pages, too.

At the bottom of every page, you’ll find a blue map for all of the pages in the ‘happiness’ section. As you read, feel free to click around and visit subjects at your leisure. And if you’re up for it, you can read the progression of pages in order, by following the ‘Next Up’ button at the bottom of each page to the next intended page.

Citations

  1. Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Press.
  2. Nes, R.B., Røysamb, E. Happiness in Behaviour Genetics: An Update on Heritability and Changeability. J Happiness Stud 18, 1533–1552 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-016-9781-6
  3. Gable S. L. (2006). Approach and avoidance social motives and goals. Journal of personality, 74(1), 175–222. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00373.x
  4. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803
  5. Lopes, M. P., da Palma, P. J., Garcia, B. C., & Gomes, C. (2016). Training for happiness: the impacts of different positive exercises on hedonism and eudaemonia. SpringerPlus, 5(1), 744. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40064-016-2407-y
  6. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L. and Savino, N.S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11, 807-815
  7. Schooler, J.W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2001). The pursuit and assessment of happiness may be self-defeating.
  8. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022010