What We Know About Happiness

What is happiness?
The definitions can vary:
  • “A state of well-being and contentment. A pleasurable or satisfying experience.” –Merriam-Webster
  • “A happy person is someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent (though not absent) negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger” –Lyubomirsky et al., 2005
  • “Philosophy translates from the Greek concept of Eudaimonia, and refers to the good life, or flourishing, as opposed to an emotion.” –Wikipedia
Wait a second.
Only a few definitions, and they already seem to be talking about all sorts of different things. What?!
It’s true. We have a dire need for more words to explain the many faces of ‘happiness’. Throughout these pages on happiness, we use the term in a relaxed way, colloquially, rather hoping that the context and framing in which we speak about it provides delineation and insight.
And, here are some distinctions that everyone would do well to know:

Happiness Vs. Joy

Let’s face it, enjoying a bite from an apple is quite different from seeing your child’s first steps. We need words to better differentiate ‘happiness’ that denotes pleasure, engagement, or placidity from the experience of meaning, purpose, and harmony. This is so important that we’ve written a page about “Happiness” Vs. “Joy”.
Therefore, throughout this section of the site, you will hear the overall subject of happiness and joy referred to simply as ‘happiness’. For example, “Our quest for happiness” really means “Our quest for happiness, joy, and everything in between.”

Generally speaking, you will see a differentiation on this site between Happiness (such as in Ephemeral Pleasures and Flow) and Joy (pertaining to choice, meaning, and purpose).

Some people can look at their lives, measure how it looks, and report that they are happy, even if they are miserable day to day.
Other people can experience highs and a sense of well-being all the time, but when asked about their lives report that they are unhappy. Emotional well-being versus life satisfaction is an important new topic within positive psychology. Learn about the 4 ‘types’ of happiness here.
Our hope is to elucidate these differences for your empowerment. We want to know more about our own lives, including the different ways we can be ‘happy.’
After reading through these pages, you will be equipped with tools to better all forms of ‘happiness.’ Our sincere hope is that you will become happier and more joyful, both in experience and upon evaluation.

A few of the most important findings

The list of fun ‘facts’ about happiness from research in positive psychology is long. While informative, many of the points about happiness that research can distill are situational, subjective, and correlative but non-causal.
For example, tall people, statistically, report higher levels of happiness on average. Similarly, murder rates go up when ice cream sales go up. Though the two are correlated, they aren’t causal, and what can they really teach us about heat?

In general, the key things that every individual should know, as backed by research are:

  • Happiness, that is ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’, is and amalgamation of well-being AND meaning/purpose in life.
  • Everybody has a happiness ‘setpoint’. That is, they have a genetic predisposition to a certain level of happiness. The set point has a degree of flexibility, and can shift through things like habit.
  • With hard work and commitment, about 40% of our happiness level is within our power to change (6)
  • Generally speaking, happy people do not have higher incomes or higher intellect than most.
  • People are happiest at 50+ years. This and other myths about happiness may come as a surprise. (7)
  • Happiness is not the absence of sadness. In fact, repressing sadness can go hand-in-hand with repressing happiness. Happy people let themselves be sad when it makes sense. (8)
These could be the most profound research results on happiness. It shows us what we’re working with and gives us our power in the situation.
Along with these points, it is useful to think of things on a cultural level. This article shares some helpful lessons from the 2017 world happiness report.
Now that you’re clued in to some research findings about happiness, check out the other pages from the Table of Contents.
You can also dig in deep with your knowledge of happiness by reading books. Visit our book list to see all the best books on happiness.
1. Schimmack U, Oishi S, Furr RM, Funder DC. Personality and life satisfaction: a facet-level analysis.
2. Eichhorn J. Happiness for believers? Contextualizing the effects of religiosity on life-satisfaction
3. Schwandt H. Unmet aspirations as an explanation for the age U-shape in human well being.
4. Hosoda M, Stone-Romero EF, Coats G. The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: a meta-analysis of experimental studies.
5. Krueger AB, Mueller AI. Time use, emotional well-being, and unemployment: evidence from longitudinal data.
6. Lyubomirsky, S. The How of Happiness
7. https://medium.economist.com/why-people-get-happier-as-they-get-older-b5e412e471ed
8. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-musings/201611/3-reasons-let-yourself-feel-your-emotions