What is happiness?
How to know what makes you happy and thrive in life? In this blog post I will try to answer that question for you. First though we must understand what happiness means.
Happiness is in essence a pretty vague concept that people became increasingly interested in during this modern era. I do not think that the search to reduce suffering and to increase happiness is anything new though. Aristotle already thought about the concept of happiness. He described happiness by two concepts:
- Hedonism: Searching after pleasure. Pleasure is something you can experience in a sensory way like drinking a delicious cold beer or you can experience it cerebrally like reading an amazing blog post. If you combine the two, you get a “banger” combination.
- Eudonism: It is subjective experience of happiness. If you do not allow yourself to feel happy, you cannot except to become happy.
Current psychology also adds social connection to the mixture. Who knew that having social bonds and feeling appreciated could add to your happiness? A little secret. My mom knew it all along.
In research, they will talk about subjective well-being (SWB). Why? Very simple. SWB is something they can very easily measure through questionnaires. Like we said before, happiness is a subjective experience. This means you can just ask people if they feel happy to get your research results to study the concept of happiness.
You now know more about the specific meaning of happiness. Let us have a look at some factors that could influence your SWB.
What influences your happiness
Personality and happiness:
When I was looking into research about happiness, there were two personality types that they always mention. These types were “Extroversion” and “Neuroticism”. Before we dive deep into the explanation of these personalities, you must understand the concept of a personality. A personality is the combination of a person’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotional patterns. Personalities seem to be very stable over time and mostly genetically based. In some sense, this means you can blame your mom or dad for your bad mood. (But not really.)
I like to see the concept of extroversion and introversion as an exchange of energy. Extroverts will typically get their energy out of social connection. Typically, the extroverted person likes to be talkative and go to social gatherings and other events with a lot of people. They will find it more difficult though to live alone with their feelings and to look inwards. Their expressions of gratitude is usually expressed outwards.
This is one of the big five personality traits. Individuals who score high on the scale of neuroticism are more likely to experience negative feelings like anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, and depressed mood. Mostly, it is because they do not respond very well to stressors. There is something different happening when their brain processes a situation. Ordinary situations will feel and look like a threat to them. Minor frustrations will feel like massive hurdles they do not know how to overcome. Persons who score high on this index have more chance to develop mental disorders like anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders.
But how do they influence happiness?
There are three possible ways that help us explain why these personalities could correlate with more or less happiness. Let us explain this through the eyes of a neurotic person. Probably because I can strongly relate to that kind of person.
Reasons why there is a correlation
- Personality types correlate with unique baseline levels of happiness. Neurotic people will typically have lower baseline levels to start with. On the other hand, they will also be more likely to experience negative events like divorce or a job loss because of their neurotic tendencies.
- They have different levels of emotional reactivity. A neurotic person will make a mountain out of a molehill. He will dramatize negative events and he will react less euphoric to good events.
- There are differences in how they process information out of the environment. Neurotic people will be more receptive to negativity and anxiety because that kind of information feels in line with their own personality. Simply said, the more negative you think, the more receptive you will be for negativity.
These personality differences combined with the theory of above could explain why some of us find it harder to search after happiness. This does not mean that it is impossible for you to find happiness.
Other character traits
There are also other character traits that have a correlation with happiness like:
- Agreeableness and conscientiousness. Please be free to click on the links if you want to know more about these personality traits.
- Self-esteem and dispositional optimism. (The tendency to expect positive things to happen rather than negative things in the future.)
- Having a sense of control and trust in the future.
This a limited list. There are probably more ways people can extract happiness out of their life by the mindset they live by. True happiness is probably an illusion but you can start to become aware in which areas you have been holding yourself back. We cannot change your personality but in some sense you can impact your emotional reactivity. Remember that phrase of Victor Frankl?
Culture and happiness:
The findings on the influence of culture and social life on happiness suggest that living conditions in the modern world are very sufficient to reach happiness. Small income differences or being subject to a minority group will probably make not so much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Most of the happiness will, for a big part, lie in your own hands. Even though we should not forget that a very substantial part of your happiness is defined genetically. Do not beat yourself down if happiness does not come so easy to you. It could be a part of your personality that cannot be justified by behavior or skills. It is a part of you that needs to be accepted. Paradoxically, that acceptance itself will probably lead to satisfaction and potentially, SWB.
Evolution and happiness
Evolution may tell us that we are in fact not really designed for happiness. I know what you are thinking right now. What a waste of my time to read this article if happiness is just a lie created by the capitalistic industry. The curious idea that we are not designed for unhappiness either. There was no genius designer behind our creation. Everything we stand for is a mere consequence of the balance between maintaining individual welfare and maximizing its reproductive success. This will lead to behavior that is formed by natural selection.
Happiness and unhappiness are not ends, they are means.
Why does natural selection do this to us?
We are not designed to be constantly happy because of a couple of evolutionary reasons. Going into much details would be out of scope for this blog post. The main ideas are that selection is too slow, which means we are probably not adapted yet to the fast-paced lives we have to live in this modern world. Another idea is that we all have imperfections. Our body is not perfect. We also have to make trade-offs. You cannot have heavy, strong bones, and at the same time be very fast. You cannot have it all!
The last reason is that selection cannot do everything. Some traits that we have will be mostly for reproductive reasons but would not make us happy. For example, the constant inner battle of a woman to stay attractive. Some traits will feel very negative while they have clear biological reasons to exist. Averse emotions motivate us to do things that advance the interests of our genes, like our anxiety for death or oblivion.
The modern day conflicts
All of our tasks are regulated by affective states (emotions). We can look at our emotions as an inner result of how things are shaped around us in the pursuit of our goals. They will help us to give a goal up if we feel unhappy about it or they will help us to stick through with a goal if we get contentment out of it.
However, here is the problem of modern age! Our brain regulation systems were never designed to cope with efforts so long in duration, with goals that are so large, and that show so many alternatives when given up on them. In the past, it was easy to stop foraging when there was no fruit anymore. Now, it is way more difficult to quit a career after 5 years or end a marriage of 10 years.
Because our goals are most of the times an all-or-nothing idea, we tend to be chronically unhappy if we cannot give up on them. Maybe long term goals should only be a reflection of our ideal self but not as an end goal on itself.
Goal-setting and happiness
We know that our happiness is for a big part defined by our affective states that arise to situations that happen in relationship to the pursuit of personal goals. But how can we choose good goals? I have made a personal framework based on the cited articles below that will help you to choose a goal that can ease your search for happiness. I call it the 4 A’s of goal setting.
The goal should fit to the current societal standards you are living in. Going completely against the societal standards is probably going to leave you even more alienated from your current situation.
Your chosen goal should be completely autonomous. You should not be led by anyone else. This is your chance to shine in life. Of course, that does not mean you cannot be influenced by others but the ultimate decision should always rest with you.
Define your goal by a higher need or purpose. It needs to be something substantial, preferably something in which you also include other people (as ends, never as means).
The ultimate test for a well-defined goal is to ask if the result will satisfy you and help you to reach more satisfaction in life. A goal should both be cognitively and emotionally satisfying. In other words, choose something that matches your competences, personality, and intelligence level.
Take home messages
What you should remember from this blog post:
- Pursuit of happiness
Direct pursuit of happiness is going to lead to frustration and paradoxically, unhappiness. Happiness is not a reachable end goal. It is the result of the positive effect that a person is experiencing when he is making progress towards his or her end goals.
- Goal setting
Choose your goals wisely and use preferably the 4 A’s model to choose your goals.
- Modern dilemma
We are not designed as humans to think very long term. You should be willing to shift your perspective when needed. You should be able to give something up when it does not give you the proper emotional return. Nobody keeps investing in a sinking ship.
- Design issues
We are neither designed to be happy nor unhappy. Both affective states are essential to move us out of an unpleasant state or to continue what we are doing.
- Personality and happiness
Extroversion has a positive effect on SWB. On the contrary, neuroticism has the opposite effect. Remember that 35% of your happiness is genetically determined. There is no reason to feel guilty about the fact that your baseline happiness levels are lower. However, 40% is still determined by your goals, beliefs, and habits. The all-or-nothing story does not hold truth here.
- Emotional reactivity
How you react to events will have a great impact on your daily happiness.
- Effect of culture on happiness
Culture in wealthy countries has little impact on your happiness. Also, little differences in income would not matter as much as you think. Money really would not make you happy if you already live a wealthy life.
I want to end with this quote that paraphrases this entire blog post in two sentences.
Happiness is not something we have to strive or search for. Happiness should come as a natural result if we live a life in line with our goals and the goals and values of the ones we love.