If you Google the phrase “how to be happy,” you’ll be met with about 207 million answers.
There’s the recent study that examined how much money a person needs to make to lead the happiest and most satisfied life possible ($95,000/year for overall satisfaction, and $60-75,000 for day-to-day happiness). There’s a quiz on how to be happier at work, infinite mommy blogs detailing how to find personal happiness as a mom, wellness publications offering unconventional ways to boost happiness, religious content exploring what happiness looks like as a Christian … you get the point. Everyone has something to say about what it means to be happy. As a result, happiness feels almost like a myth.
With so many people seeking happiness like the holy grail, a question arises. What is happiness? Is there a singular answer to that question?
History of Happiness
Let’s start with a little history lesson about the secular, Western concept of happiness, and how it evolved.
The root of the word happiness, “hap,” comes from Old Norse and Old English and translates as “luck” or “chance.” In contemporary German, the word “gluck” simultaneously means both “luck” and “happiness.” In this way, the ancient origins of happiness as a state of being lay completely outside the control of humans — only fate could bestow happiness.
By the classical philosophical era, particularly in the time of Aristotle circa 350 BC, the idea had changed. Aristotle and his contemporaries believed that happiness could be cultivated, as Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History, suggests in Greater Good Magazine: that is, happiness is “not as an emotional state but as an outcome of moral comportment.” Or, as Aristotle said, “Happiness is a life lived according to virtue.”
Out of this tradition of classical thought was born the concept of eudaimonia — the cultivation of happiness through having a purpose in life through continued personal challenge and growth. On the other hand, hedonic happiness focused more on feeling pleasure and positive emotions. Aristotle acknowledged that both these branches of well-being could bring a sense of happiness, but the pursuit of eudaimonia, something beyond just pleasure, dominated.
This tradition stood until the age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, around the time Thomas Jefferson famously wrote something you may already be familiar with: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yes, happiness became a right, something we’re all entitled to strive for, not through the course of a “well-lived life,” like in Aristotle’s time, but by seeking something beyond ourselves. Happiness became a pursuit.
Fast-forward to today and we have the mistaken idea that happiness is indeed our “natural state.” Often to our detriment, we’re told to “put on a happy face” at all costs. Capitalism offers us countless products on our quest to attain that permanent state of bliss — anti-aging creams, the most flavorful coffee, the hippest pair jeans — and yet we inevitably come up empty. We learn, even as children, that “bad” emotions should be shunned.
Lost is the idea that happiness is something that takes a certain amount of work, that can be accompanied by struggle and painful emotions. We’ve forgotten the knowledge that accumulating quick bursts of pleasure alone can’t flip the switch on eternal bliss. Luckily, modern science is shifting our perspective to something a little more balanced, which leads me to my next point…
Scientists today have been collating the various traditions of happiness into what they have termed “subjective well-being (SWB),” the current definitive answer to the question, “What is happiness?”
SWB takes into account those old ideas of pleasure (hedonia) and meaning (eudaimonia) along with some of the concepts of positive psychology, including positive emotion, engagement in life, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment, and boils happiness down to three markers: experiencing positive emotions, low levels of negative moods, and high life satisfaction. So there you have it.
Most intriguingly, research has found an even more specific formula to what brings most people happiness. Per Tosin Thompson’s SWB research for NewStatesman, 50 percent of our well-being is determined by our genes, 10 percent by our circumstances in life, and a full 40 percent is determined by what we choose to do in our daily lives. Spending that time practicing gratitude, giving to others, making meaningful connections with friends and partners, and taking time to enjoy what’s pleasurable — watching the sunset, exploring nature, learning to knit — will all tip the scales toward happiness.
Happiness vs. Other Emotions
Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s hard to talk about happiness without also addressing unhappiness. You’ve heard the phrase (or song), “Don’t worry, be happy.” As if wishing our fears, anxiety, depression, pain, disappointment, anger, or grief away are that simple, or even, quite frankly, a good idea. You’ll notice, however, SWB calls for “low” levels of negative affect, not “zero” negative feelings ever. It’s about balance.
The truth is that negative emotions don’t stand in opposition to happiness. In fact, the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness, it’s apathy, the lack of any feeling at all.
“[Happiness] is inclusive of our moods, whether they be happy, sad, frustrated, or other emotional states,” therapist Janet Zinn tells Talkspace. “Happiness is about acceptance, though not resignation, of ourselves, and our life, while looking to see how we can grow and learn.”
Finding YOUR Happiness
So what does all this mean for your happiness?
“Happiness really is an inside job,” Los Angeles-based therapist Sarah Schewitz adds. “You can change the way you think, you can change the way you feel, and be happier.”
Well, as SWB implies, really, that’s kind of up to you and how you spend your 40 percent, even in the most dire circumstances or when dealing with a mental health issue — you can at least increase your feelings of well-being (maybe by giving therapy a try( even if it’s a fractional amount.