What Do we Know About Happiness?

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Many of us would say that what we most want in life is to be happy. But what does this mean? If we work extra hard to achieve goals, but that restricts our family or leisure time, the increased demands on us can compromise our happiness. So pursuing happiness is not as simple or straightforward as it might seem.

One of the biggest recent shifts in the psychology field has been to focus more on positive emotions. This has largely been driven by the emergence of positive psychology, a science of well-being. These are some of the ways that positive psychology has enhanced our understanding of happiness.

Happiness is more than just being in a good mood, or experiencing positive affect. It also relates to our level of engagement in life roles, the quality of our relationships, our sense of personal meaning and our sense of achievement. There can be trade-offs between these areas. For example, pursuing meaningful goals might add to stresses that detract from our current enjoyment of relationships, at least temporarily. Working mothers, students studying for exams, politicians, entrepreneurs and many others will be familiar with the juggling of priorities and roles and the trade-offs between them. Kate Ellis recently announcing that she was quitting politics to be more available for her family is an example of trade-offs in things that affect our happiness.

What most influences our level of happiness? The evidence suggests that about 50% of our usual level of happiness is related to our genes. We can be born lucky. Perhaps surprisingly, only about 10% of our happiness levels, at least in the medium to longer term, relate to external events such as gaining or missing out on a promotion at work, or buying a new car. We tend to revert to our more usual happiness levels within a relatively short time frame. We overestimate the ongoing impact of such things as winning the lottery or getting married.

Photograph: Mark Daynes

This leaves about 40% of our happiness levels to the ongoing influence of our habits in terms of what we think and what we do. This means that there are things that we can do to elevate our level of happiness in the longer term, if we choose to invest the effort. Strategies that make a lasting difference include developing more optimistic thinking patterns. We can also more regularly engage in mood boosters, such as physical exercise, yoga or meditation, hobbies, or quality time with friends and family. We can also benefit from activities that involve novelty or new learning. Along with physical exercise, such activities bolster neuroplasticity, the development of new brain cells and connections between them.

What difference does it make if we bolster our happiness levels? Those who are happier gain more than just a better mood. They also tend to think better, being more open, flexible and able to focus. They tend to have better physical health, being less susceptible to illnesses, recovering better and even living longer. They are typically more satisfied in their relationships, are more effective leaders, and are more collaborative at work. Being happier also bolsters achievement.

There are some interesting ratios that come up in happiness research. It relates to the proportion of positive to negative emotions or communications we experience. To be not merely feeling OK, but to be flourishing, we typically might experience at least three positive emotional experiences to one negative. That also helps us be more resilient to setbacks. Flourishing couples typically interact with about five positive comments or gestures to one negative. Flourishing work teams tend to have about six positive communications to one negative. Relationships that are marked by one positive to one negative interaction are typically on the skids.

As Aristotle summed it up in the fourth century BC, happiness is at once the best, the noblest and the pleasantest of things. Thanks to modern research we have an even deeper appreciation of what this might mean. There’s no quick fix for improving your happiness. Fortunately, there are predictable ways of being able to bolster our happiness in the longer term.


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