Happiness: An Introduction
What comes to mind when you think about happiness?
Happiness can mean different things for all of us. Researchers often take both emotional and cognitive components of happiness into account: It consists of frequent instances of positive affect, infrequent instances of negative affect, and a high level of life satisfaction (Eid & Larsen, 2008). Of course, what makes each person feel content with their lives can vary. A study conducted by Delle Fave and colleagues in 2011 illustrates this. Participants who were asked for their personal definitions of happiness referred to various aspects of life, including family, relations, health, standard of living, spirituality, and leisure time (Delle Fave et al., 2011). Evidently, there is something inherently subjective about happiness.
Since this is the case, is there a point in trying to increase happiness levels? Some believe that chasing happiness is a pointless endeavour. As philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you.” Paradoxically, it is possible for the pursuit of happiness to lead to lower of levels of positive affect (Ford & Mauss, 2014):
- If the pursuit of happiness causes us to set high expectations for how happy we should feel, we may end up feeling dissatisfied and discouraged with our current circumstances and perceived happiness levels.
- We may be mistaken about what would make us happy. In fact, it is normal for humans to be inaccurate in predicting how something would make us feel (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005, as cited in Ford & Mauss, 2014).
- Viewing happiness as our goal may result in conscious monitoring of our happiness levels. This may interrupt current positive experiences, which can be detrimental.
However, the pursuit of happiness isn’t necessarily counterproductive. The key is to first treat ourselves with acceptance, rather than holding high standards for happiness or believing that negative emotions are unacceptable. Accepting one’s emotions is associated with better well-being (Campbell-Sills et al., 2006; Shallcross et al., 2010). When you take a nonjudgmental stance toward your emotions, you may well be able to reap the benefits of activities that have been found to increase well-being. Instead of trying to attain happiness, which is ultimately an abstract concept, making changes in your habits may prove more effective (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008).
In happiness research, happiness is often described as hedonistic or eudaimonic (Huta & Waterman, 2013). The hedonistic view of well-being focuses on pleasure, while eudaimonia is concerned with the fulfilment of potential and the development of virtues (Huta & Waterman, 2013). Proponents of the hedonistic treadmill theory, which posits that people tend to adapt to a relatively stable level of happiness after positive and negative life changes, may contend that hedonistic pleasure alone is likely lead to sustainable happiness (Brickman & Campbell, 1971). For example, material possessions are unlikely to increase our happiness levels for long: After the purchase of big-ticket items, which usually lead to significant improvements in material standard of living, people often quickly desire more material possessions (Roper-Starch Organization, 1979, 1995, as cited in Headey, 2008). In addition, once a basic standard of living is attained, there is no clear association between happiness and wealth (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008).
If we want sustainable happiness, we should be looking at actions that increase our happiness levels on average over a long period of time. Does this mean that pleasure is not a valuable source of happiness? Not necessarily. According to Seligman’s authentic happiness theory, there are three pathways to well-being: pleasure, engagement, and meaning (Seligman, 2002). Even though empirical studies have found engagement and meaning to have stronger associations with happiness, a life filled with all three is associated with the highest levels of life satisfaction (Peterson et al., 2005; Vella-Brodrick et al., 2009).
So, what can we do to increase our happiness levels? Evidence has been found for the effectiveness of various habits. In the next articles, we will explore some of these habits, as well as find out more about how life goals, social comparison, and interpersonal relationships can affect us.
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Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D.H., Brown, T.A., & Hofmann, S.G. (2006). Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(9), 1251–1263.
Delle Fave, A., Brdar, I., Freire, T., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Wissing, M. P. (2011). The eudaimonic and hedonic components of happiness: Qualitative and quantitative findings. Social Indicators Research, 100(2), 185-207.
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Shallcross, A.J., Troy, A.S., Boland, M., & Mauss, I.B. (2010). Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48 (9), 921–929.
Vella-Brodrick, D. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2009). Three ways to be happy: Pleasure, engagement, and meaning: Findings from Australian and US samples. Social Indicators Research, 90, 165–179.
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131–134.