What is Happiness?
We all want to be happy, but what that means and our expectations can be so different for each of us. According to Wikipedia, happiness is…
‘A mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being.’
Research shows that happiness does not mean experiencing one joyful event after another, and achieving happiness typically involves experiencing difficult times.
According to a Princeton University study, there are two distinct types of happiness:
- Everyday contentment– which is described as being ‘the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger and affection that makes one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.’
- Your life assessment– how satisfied you feel about the general direction of your life.
Why Does Happiness Matter?
It is something we all strive for, but does it even matter? Research tells us the answer is a resounding yes.
Happiness matters because it has an impact on so many different things in our lives.
For example, studies show that happier people volunteer more and are more thoughtful and attentive to others’ needs. Happy people have also been found to be less anxious, less stressed and sleep better. Happiness can have an impact on our life expectancy, with studies finding happier people are less likely to develop Coronary heart disease. Our happiness also has an impact on our work, with studies showing that happier employees are more productive in the workplace.
What makes us happy?
There are a lot of factors that can impact our happiness. Here are three that many people think are important:
The days of people thinking more money will lead to happiness seems to be over, and more and more companies are striving to give people a variety of rewards instead of just financial incentives. In fact, many companies are hiring ‘Chief Happiness Officers’, a role that focuses on the happiness levels of the workforce.
Money does have an impact on happiness, but only up to a certain point. A Princeton University study looked at the relationship between salary and happiness and found that money is important to your happiness, but once your household income reaches $75,000 (around £60,000) a ‘happiness plateau’ kicks in, meaning if your income goes past that level it is unlikely to have a significant impact on your happiness levels.
Genetic make up
In 2016, for the first time in history, researchers isolated the parts of the human genome that could explain the differences in how humans experience happiness. The large-scale international study found three genetic variants for happiness, two of which can account for differences in symptoms of depression, and eleven that could account for varying degrees of neuroticism. Subjective wellbeing, depression and neuroticism were found to be influenced by the same set of genes expressed in the central nervous system, adrenal glands and pancreatic system.
While this is an incredible discovery, the researchers have stated that the three variants account for only a small fraction of the differences between people. Professor Meike Bartels explains, “This study is both a milestone and a new beginning: A milestone because we are now certain that there is a genetic aspect to happiness and a new beginning because the three variants that we know are involved account for only a small fraction of the differences between human beings. We expect that many variants will play a part.”
Most people assume major life events such as marriage or unemployment have a huge impact on their happiness. However, over the last few decades, researchers have suggested this isn’t the case. Getting married or divorced, winning the lottery or losing a fortune, getting a new job or being fired — none of these events tend to impact the level of subjective well-being (how people feel and think about their lives) for more than a few months, mainly because people adapt quickly to any life changes they experience.
10 Actionable Tips on How to Feel Happier Today
Everyone is unique, so different things will be important to each of us. However evidence suggests there are things we can all do to boost our wellbeing and happiness levels.
Below is a summary of ten tips from Action for Happiness, along with some suggestions on how you can take action today and implement each of these:
- Do good to feel good: Whether it is for a stranger or a loved one, doing something to help someone else will help you feel happier. Studies show that helping others increases our life satisfaction, provides a sense of meaning, increases feelings of competence, improves our mood, and reduces stress levels. Acts of kindness can also help to take our minds off our own troubles.
Examples of what you can do today: Offer someone your seat on public transport, let someone go in front of you in the supermarket queue, ask a local charity if they are looking for volunteers, make a donation to a charity, give someone a compliment.
- Have offline social interactions and friendships: Our relationships are so important to our wellbeing. People with strong social relationships are happier, healthier and tend to live longer.
Examples of what you can do today: call a friend to see how they are, write a letter to a friend, attend a local community group meeting or activity.
- A healthy body = a healthy mind: Numerous studies have shown that exercise helps boost our mood. Exercise increases endorphins and other feel good chemicals in our brains and it reduces the amount of cortisol and adrenaline – hormones that can increase stress levels – in the body.
Examples of what you can do today: walk to or from work (or get off a couple of stops early so you can walk part of the way if you live very far away!), go outside for a walk during your lunch break, go out dancing with friends, go to a yoga or pilates class.
- Be in the moment: Mindfulness has been getting a lot of attention recently, and perhaps with good reason: A number of studies are showing that mindfulness helps our mental well-being, our relationships and our performance at work.
Not sure what mindfulness is? According to Wikipedia, ‘Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment.’
Examples of what you can do today: download a mindfulness app and try it out, watch and join in with a mindfulness video on YouTube.
- Learn something new: The sense of achievement we get when we have learnt something new helps to boost our confidence in ourselves.
Examples of what you can do today: Sign up to a course on Udemy (some you have to pay for, some are free), try and cook something new for dinner, try a new sport with a friend, sign up to a language class, borrow a book from the library on something you know very little about.
- Plan for the future: Having things to look forward to is important for our happiness. Setting goals that are realistic but ambitious gives us something to work towards in the present day, plus a sense of achievement when we reach those goals in the future.
Examples of what you can do today: create a vision board to help you decide what you want from your life, set a specific, realistic goal to work towards.
- Learn to be resilient: When life throws you a curveball, how you respond is so important. There are a lot of things in life that we cannot control, but we can control how we respond to these things. It is not easy to remain positive in the face of adversity, but it is possible to learn to be more resilient.
Examples of what you can do today: go to bed early to make sure you have a good night’s sleep (dealing with stress is more difficult if you have not had enough sleep), start a journal to record things you are grateful for, go outside and enjoy one thing in nature- a tree, a pond, some birds (it will help you see how great the world is, and also to see outside of your own situation / life).
- Focus on the good things: We naturally think about and focus on the negative things that happen to us, so it is important for our happiness and wellbeing to train our brain on the importance of the good things that happen in our day.
In the video below, Barbara Fredrickson talks about ‘the positivity ratio’ following research she carried out with Marcial Losada, where they found that we should strive for a ratio of 3:1. Barbara explains, “We need at least three heart-felt positive emotions to open us up and lift us up for every heartwrenching negative emotion we need to endure”
- Be kind to yourself:
Often people are hard on themselves in a way they wouldn’t be to others. Or they spend most of their time looking after others and don’t spend any time on their own needs. It is important to be happy with who we are and give ourselves the time, attention and love we give others.
Examples of what you can do today: spend some time doing what you love, whether it’s reading, creative writing, watching a film, drawing, or something else, treat yourself to something you’ve been wanting for a while, have a relaxing bath.
- Live a meaningful life: People who have a purpose in life tend to be happier, and experience less stress and anxiety.
Examples of what you can do today: create a vision board to see what is important to you in life, make a commitment to yourself to focus your time and energy on your purpose.
We have looked at what happiness is, why it matters, and some things we can do to be happier. Your happiness matters, so taking the time to find out what increases it is important. I hope the suggestions offered in this article has given you some ideas of practical things you can do to feel happier and you feel inspired to give some of them a try.
I have listed some further resources below, in case you want to explore this area further:
Action for Happiness: A non-profit movement of people committed to building a happier society by making positive changes in their personal lives, homes, workplaces and communities
Museum of Happiness: a nonprofit organisation using a series of interactive exhibitions, workshops and events to help people learn science based techniques that they can implement into their everyday lives.
Mind: A UK-based charity providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.
Together: A UK-based charity working alongside people to improve mental health & wellbeing.
Inspire: A charity and social enterprise based in Northern Ireland focusing on promoting wellbeing for all through mental health, intellectual/learning disability and professional wellbeing services locally, across the island of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Smiling Mind App: a free guided meditation app created by a non-profit
The Moments Journal: A guided journal created by Good News Shared to help people feel more positive by remembering and appreciating the good things from their day.
Please share any resources you find useful in the comments below.