What is Happiness: Happiness Definition & Explanation
We know happiness when we feel it. But what exactly is happiness and where does it come from? Here we explore what happiness is to uncover the most effective ways to experience it in our lives.
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What is happiness?
Happiness includes both momentary positive emotions and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life. Sometimes these parts are split up in to hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (more like thriving or flourishing), but most of the time when people say "happiness", they are talking about the combination of both.
In my book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I define happiness as a skill that has to be built, but I also note that it is influenced by your surroundings. For example, if I build my skills to think positive, be mindful, and cultivate resilience, I am likely to be happier than if I didn't build these skills. But if I just lost my job and am trying to put food on the table, I might not be as happy as someone who doesn't have to deal with this stress. This is how happiness comes from both inside us and everything around us.
We'll focus here on the parts of happiness that we have control over. That is, our ability to build "happiness skills" and, to some extent, our ability to influence our surroundings.
What does happiness feel like?
Why money doesn't equal happiness:
How to build happiness
Anytime we want to increase happiness we must build a particular set of skills-skills like mindfulness, positive thinking, resilience, and so forth. Building these “happiness skills” is the key to thinking, feeling, and acting in ways that make you happy.
So what are the right steps to take for building happiness? Well, it depends on what personal challenges you face, what situations you’re in, and what’s happening in the world around you. That’s why we need to look inward, to gain clarity on our personal challenges, as well as outward, to gain clarity on the social or cultural challenges we are all dealing in the moderns world.
As a start, you can take our well-being survey to identify the specific skills you personally would benefit from most—for example, maybe we struggle with self-compassion, resilience, or living our purpose. When we focus on building the skills we personally struggle with, we can more quickly, easily, and effectively boost our happiness.
Next, we benefit from making a plan, mapping out exactly how we plan to build these happiness skills and improve our lives.
Examples of what you can do to be happier
There are so many ways to increase happiness—you can build skills that help you manage your emotions, do skill-building activities, and even engage in behaviors that increase happiness.
A few examples of ways to increase happiness include:
Exercises to increase happiness:
Why gratitude is a crucial part of happiness:
Negative emotions can make happiness difficult
Negative emotions are not only bad for our happiness, they can prevent us from effectively pursuing and achieving our happiness plan and related goals. By learning some stress-reducing strategies, your body and mind will be more equipped to handle the challenges that will inevitably arise. And by learning how to deal with negative emotions, you can more easily move past the challenges.
Develop your positivity reflex
Happiness is not an enduring state. Because we all experience emotional ups and downs, happiness is not something that can be had in every single moment. But we can strive to be content, grateful, and enjoy aspects of happiness without emotions like excitement and joy. We can do this by developing our positivity reflex. If you can be even a little bit more positive, the bad times don't look so bleak.
Happiness in the technology age
Some people say that modern technologies—TV, the Internet, and smartphones—are to blame for our unhappiness. There is some truth to this—modern technology is indeed having negative impacts on aspects of our happiness. But this nihilistic attitude does nothing to help us to fix our happiness. What we really want to know is how to maintain our happiness in spite of our phones.
Luckily, technology is just a thing. It can be bad for our happiness—for example, when smartphone notifications distract us from paying attention to the people we care about, when late-night surfing keeps us from getting restful sleep, or when artificial intelligence automates our jobs.
But, technology can also be good for our happiness—for example, when we text a friend to get support, when websites enable us to discover things that bring us joy, or when apps help us build happiness skills more easily. So technology, itself, is not inherently bad nor inherently good for our happiness.
Technology is only bad for our happiness when it interferes with our happiness skills—remember, building happiness skills is the key to happiness. And not all technologies interfere with our happiness skills—we don’t worry about our lawnmower, toaster, or teapot hurting our happiness, right? We only worry about certain modern technologies: our smartphones, the Internet, and social media.
While it’s true that these technologies can create unhealthy beliefs, an unbalanced lifestyle, or diminished social relationships, they also can provide support, inspiration, and opportunities for social connection. So we don’t need to break up with our phones; we need to outsmart our smartphones.
4 things most people get wrong about happiness
1. One size does not fit all.
Most happiness-boosting products are "one-size-fits-all". They say: if you do this one thing—mindfulness, gratitude, or whatever—you will be happier. But the truth is that it’s actually super important that you discover and choose happiness-boosting activities that work for you. It is only when you find the activities that you like, and therefore are willing to do, that happiness will start to come more easily.
2. Self-focus is not the best route to happiness.
Some happiness-boosting products take you in the complete wrong direction without even realizing it. How? By asking you to reflect on your experiences too much—for example by having you track your emotions, experiences, or thoughts daily. It turns out that the more we think about how we feel and why we feel that way, the less enjoyable our experiences can become (Nolen-Hoeksema and Morrow 1991).
At best, tracking our experiences interrupts our ability to be present in the moment, fragmenting our attention, and dampening positive emotions. For those of us who might be a bit more neurotic, tracking experiences could even send us into a full-on downward spiral: Why am I not happy? It must be because there is something wrong with me. I’ll never be happy…and so on.
3. Spending more time alone is not good for happiness.
Another big problem with happiness-boosting products is that they might lead you to spend more time alone, “working on your happiness”. If you’re spending more time alone, your happiness-building efforts are taking you away from your social life. Because connecting with others is likely one of the best ways to increase happiness, using these products may potentially harm your happiness in the long-run rather than help it.
4. Happiness comes not from within us, but from the space between us.
Many of the causes of our unhappiness are outside of us—in our workplace, our community, and our culture. Simply delivering advice for how to help yourself isn't 100%. Particularly given that current happiness-boosting products have you focus almost exclusively on yourself (rather than others), you may not see as much change in your happiness as you would like.
Why focus on the happiness of others:
Why health and happiness are intertwined
I learned about the crucial relationship between health and happiness the hard way. I didn't take enough care of my health and as a result I got mold illness, parasites, and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. It stole a year of my life.
This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say happiness comes from inside us and well as our surroundings. Mold illness is debilitating. And when I was sick, I couldn't focus on my happiness at all—I could only focus on getting well. But looking back now, I realize that if I had improved my gut health and limited exposure to toxins and I may have been able to stop my surroundings (the mold) from having such a negative effect on both my health and happiness. See, it's all intertwined.
Final thoughts on happiness
Happiness is what we all seek in life. So lets turn end by listening to the experts and see what they have to say about happiness.
What makes for a good life?
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.