Everyone longs for happiness, but few consider what it means. In their constant collection of accolades and trophies intended to bring joy, they lose sight of the big picture.
Happiness morphs into an abstract idea, pushing it further and further out of reach.
To truly achieve happiness, we must understand what it is.
What is Happiness?
Dr. Richard Wilk, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, has a unique take.
He says psychologists often try to identify methods to measure happiness, but they don’t take the time to actually talk with people.
“No one asks if there’s something called happiness and what it means,” he says, adding that there is no universal definition of the word.
“Some cultures would scoff at the idea of internal happiness, focusing instead on harmony, a measure of their relationships with others,” he says, showcasing the varying concept of happiness across cultures.
Lachlan Brown, a Behavioral Psychologist and the Founder of Hack Spirit, a platform dedicated to personal development, thinks of happiness as a complex interplay of external and internal factors.
“Externally, societal expectations and material possessions do play a role – they can provide temporary satisfaction and a sense of belonging,” he says. However, Brown says true happiness comes from within: “It’s about mindset, self-awareness, and emotional resilience.”
With all the different viewpoints, it’s impossible to derive one easy definition of happiness. People think of the concept in terms of ideas, emotions, internal states, lifestyles, and attainment.
Happiness as an Emotion
The easiest way to think of happiness is as a fleeting emotion. We’re happy when we get good news and sad when we get bad news. Our happiness levels constantly fluctuate based on what is happening in our lives.
Happiness as an Idea
The most abstract definition of happiness places it as a conceptual idea – something ethereal and always just out of reach.
People who think of happiness as an idea constantly strive for it but never achieve it because they don’t truly know what they’re searching for.
Happiness as a State of Being
Some think of happiness as an overall state of being. It’s a baseline for your life.
When happiness is a state, good news brings joy while bad news brings devastation, but neither changes the big picture. Happy people accept that life holds tragedy and make space for it.
Happiness as a Lifestyle
People who think of happiness as a lifestyle embrace “choosing happiness.” When happiness is a lifestyle, you must consciously build your life around your idea of happiness.
That often means avoiding anything that might cause negative emotions, limiting the range of human experience.
Happiness as the Goal
Some consider happiness an end goal. They have a road map to their lives filled with steps they must climb to fulfill the ultimate purpose: a happy life.
The steps could include anything from obtaining wealth to having a family.
Which Idea of Happiness is Right?
The varying ideas about happiness beg the question: which one is right?
Even experts disagree, but they do find some common ground.
Brown and Dr. Wilk both disagree with the idea of happiness as a steady state. Dr. Wilk thinks that idea hinders people, while Brown explains that happiness is a fluctuating experience.
Kirstie Wright, Cognitive Behavioral Therapist with Creative Minds, rules out happiness as the end goal.
“There’s a large body of research that suggests striving to be happy all the time can actually make us feel worse,” she says, explaining that it’s impossible to feel happy constantly.
Dr. Ashely Smith, Clinical Psychologist and Cofounder of Peak Mind: The Center for Psychological Strength, says constantly chasing pleasure from outside sources leads to the hedonistic treadmill and warns that only 10% of happiness comes from external events.
“That boost quickly wears off as we return to baseline, leaving us ready to chase the next happiness hit,” she explains.
Multiple Types of Happiness
Happiness is a complex topic, so more than one thing can be true simultaneously.
Dr. Hilary Stokes, the Co-founder of Authenticity Associates, differentiates between emotional happiness and the idea of happiness that people typically strive for by defining two distinct types: feel-good (or external) happiness and internal happiness.
“Feel-good happiness results from feelings of pleasure and is generally found in external circumstances,” she explains, but it’s not the secret to true happiness. It’s the internal happiness that counts, which comes from aligning with your strengths and values.
“Although feel-good happiness is a universal part of experiencing happiness, lasting happiness comes from connecting with your core values and what truly matters in life,” she says.
But it’s more than just internal versus external. “It’s not a simple one-dimensional scale,” reveals Dr. Wilk, adding that our consumeristic culture spins it that way to get people to buy this “one thing” they need for happiness.
Despite the complexity, we can identify key components of happiness and use those to guide us towards a fulfilling life. The many definitions of happiness help us understand the true answers to the ultimate question, “What is happiness?”
Dr. Daniel Galzier, a Clinical Psychologist and Co-founder of the health technology platform US Therapy Rooms explains that happiness is multifaceted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grasp it. “It’s complex but comprehensible,” he says.
Though there’s no simple definition, we can combine the essential attributes from all the layers of happiness to better understand what it takes to lead a happy life.
Here are eight components to happiness that, when taken together, form a complete understanding of what happiness is.
Wright says contentment plays a vital role in happiness. “It appears it’s more living a life according to your values and spending it with people you care about that leads to contentment and a life well lived,” she explains.
Contentment offers us an overall satisfaction with our lives that’s different from the fleeting feelings of extreme joy we experience when good things happen to us.
Many mental health specialists say your perception and reactions are crucial to overall happiness.
As Lauren Napolitano, PsyD. explains, “All of us will face stress and challenges and loss. It’s how you perceive and react to these challenges that determines your happiness.”
Jonathan Alpert, Psychotherapist and Author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, says everyone encounters adverse events, but maintaining a positive outlook promotes happiness.
“Understand they don’t define you,” he says, speaking of the adverse episodes and harmful self-criticism. “Do your best to find the silver lining and counter negative thoughts with positive ones.”
Part of your perception is your mindset. What you believe influences how you see the world. Those with a growth mindset who believe anything is possible tend to live more fulfilling lives than those with fixed mindsets who view everything from the lens of impossibility.
Dr. Wilk says engagement is crucial to happiness. “Engagement in the world is what’s lacking,” he says, adding, “There’s so much cool stuff in the world, and we want to explore it, uncover it, learn it.”
Alpert also includes engagement as a component of happiness.
“Experience life!” he exclaims.
“Value experiences because they’re much more likely to lead to happiness than possessions ever could.” He advises those seeking bliss to go out and experience life’s full bounty, from taking trips to meeting people and trying new foods to learning new things.
Development allows us to learn and grow, a process that’s essential to overall satisfaction.
Dr. Wilk says happiness isn’t about bliss; it’s about growth. The idea of happiness as an end goal leads to emptiness, but true happiness can be found in constantly challenging yourself.
“It’s not worth the effort to define happiness,” he says, adding that the search will always leave you unsatisfied. “People should look for growth, meaning, development, and purpose instead,” he says.
Ironically, when you stop worrying about happiness and focus on growth and development, you’ll find what you truly seek.
“Learning to meet life’s challenges is a great source of happiness,” Dr. Wilk explains.
Your feelings about yourself make a massive difference in your satisfaction with life.
Dr. Galzier says focusing on how you talk to yourself and care for yourself is paramount to happiness. “Simple practices like keeping a gratitude journal or doing small acts of self-kindness each day can help.”
He stresses patience. “True happiness is a lifelong endeavor with ups and downs,” he says, but reveals that the internal foundation of self-love can help us weather those inevitable external storms.
“We have the power to interrupt unhealthy patterns and create new neural pathways with insight, compassion, and time,” he says.
People thrive when they belong to communities.
Dr. Stokes says people with healthy support networks are better at staying positive while coping with stress and facing life’s challenges.
“A landmark TIME magazine poll showed 76% of participants reported friends and family as their major sources of happiness, and 63% sought out friends and family to deal with stress,” she reported, emphasizing connection’s vital role in happiness.
Humanity’s ultimate goal is to find meaning, both in the great beyond and in their personal lives.
The quest for meaning becomes paramount when you have all the other components of a happy life.
“Life with purpose is considered a fundamental right of passage into the land of lasting happiness and personal fulfillment,” declares Dr. Stokes.
She points to a study from the Netherlands highlighting how crucial doing something you’re passionate about is to leading a meaningful life. “The study was conducted with 25,000 people over the course of 25 years as a lifespan review,” she says. “This single factor surpassed all other lifestyle factors – even diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption.”
The conclusion is clear. “Discover your strengths and passions and engage in them every day,” says Dr. Stokes, adding that this practice is critical to a long, healthy life.
A Genetic Component
Is happiness biological?
It’s impossible to fully answer “what is happiness” without considering the genetic factors contributing to well-being.
Dr. Nancy Irwin says a portion of personality is biologically based. Although the statistics vary, studies find that genetics account for 35-50% of who we are – including our predisposition to happiness. However, she stresses that though genetics have a supporting role, our environment and behavior have more significant impacts.
“Introversion and extroversion are hard-wired, but certainly can be influenced by environment,” she says.
“Hopefully, folks reading this will take this as good news that they can always choose to be happier and find ways to support that,” she adds.
The Quest for Happiness
The variety in ideas about what happiness is led to a wide range of resources, tips, and services all designed to help people achieve it – but because it’s so abstract, they rarely deliver what they promised.
People embark on never-ending quests to obtain an intangible ideal and never achieve what they truly want.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As the nuanced responses answering “What is happiness” show, it’s far more than a fleeting feeling or single accomplishment, but that doesn’t mean it’s unachievable.
As Dr. Stokes explains, “Happiness results from a culmination of each moment, not a one-time change. There is not one strategy that leads to happiness; it results from dedication to a holistic -or mind, body, and spirit, approach.”
Your quest for happiness shouldn’t be about joy. It should be about living a life full of meaning, growth, and adventure and sharing it with the people you love.
When you stop looking for happiness and start looking for development, you’ll find happiness.