What is Happiness?

Although it sounds like the proverbial question only answerable by the wizened guru peacefully sitting on top of the world’s highest mountain peak – there is mounting science that this state of mind is achievable and that the happy state of being has health-promoting powers.


And yes, science has identified characteristics and parameters of happiness. Before outlining what those are, it is helpful for you to take a moment, ask yourself: “what makes me happy?” Write down everything that immediately comes to mind – and it can indeed be anything -- from watching a butterfly wending its way to alight upon a flower, to a hobby, to eating your favorite comfort food, to being with a BFF and laughing over silly YouTube videos, to a billion little and large things.


“In general, happiness is understood as the positive emotions we have in regards to the pleasurable activities we take part in through our daily lives,” writes psychology professor Katherine Nelson-Coffey, PhD, for PositivePsychology.com. “Pleasure, comfort, gratitude, hope, and inspiration are examples of positive emotions that increase our happiness and move us to flourish.”


According to one research team that explored the science of well-being as it relates to happiness, the term well-being encompasses “two distinct philosophies.” One is eudaimonism, which describes well-being as more than just a state of happiness, well-being also consists of “actualization of [one’s] human potential…fulfilling or realizing one’s true nature.”


The second is hedonism, where well-being is fortified through achieving happiness through pleasurable activities.


Researchers in 2001 identified seven factors that contribute to a state of happiness. They are:

1) Personality type

2) Positive emotions versus negative emotions

3) Attitude towards physical health

4) Social class and wealth

5) Attachment and relatedness

6) Goals and self-efficacy

7) Time and place


Although “social class and wealth” are listed above as being an interrelated factor comprising overall happiness – the truth is as the adage declares: money can’t buy its owner happiness. But one published social experiment shows that buying for others can cause a lightness within and a grin. In this study, the researchers wanted to test the theory that how people spend their money is as important as how much they make. The participants were given some cash and told to either spend it on themselves, or spend it on others. Participants who spent the windfall on others reported feeling happier at the end of the day than those who spent the money on themselves.


An earlier study of approximately 1,000 individuals surveyed daily (analysis of about 450,000 responses) found that while emotional well-being rises with income – there is no further progress in happiness beyond an annual income of $75,000. They write, “We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness.”


Physical Benefits of Happiness

There are several physiological areas that are supported by happiness.


Protects cardiovascular function:  One study showed linked happiness with lowered blood pressure. Participants, middle-aged men and women, rated their happiness over 30 times in one day and then again three years later. The results indicate that greater happiness is associated with lower salivary cortisol both on working and nonworking days, reduced fibrinogen stress responses, and lower ambulatory heart rate in men. A three-year follow-up test confirmed the initial conclusion, with an additional finding that happiness was inversely related to ambulatory systolic blood pressure.


Another study tested associations between heart rate variability (HRV), depressed mood and positive affect in individuals with coronary heart disease. They found positive affect was linked to better HRV, and also a reason why: “Enhanced parasympathetic cardiac control may be a process through which positive affect protects against cardiovascular disease.”


Boosts immune function: A happy person tends to have a stronger immune system than an unhappy one. In one study, researchers found that among 350 adults who volunteered to become exposed to the common cold virus, those who scored the highest in positive emotions were significantly less likely to develop the cold. Some of these researchers carried out another study whose goal was to find out why happier people are more resistant to sickness; they gave 81 participants the hepatitis B vaccine, and those who rated high in the same nine positive emotion measurements were twice as likely to have a high antibody response.


Reduces stress: In the study where participants rated their happiness more than 30 times in a day, the team also uncovered associations between happiness and stress. Those participants who were happiest produced 23% lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than the least happy participants, as well as 12 times reduced levels of another indicator of stress, of a blood-clotting protein that increases after stress.


Reduces incidence of aches: Participants in one study  rated their recent experience of positive emotions, then five weeks later how much they had experienced discomforts such as muscle strain, dizziness, and heartburn since the study began. Participants who had highest levels of positive emotion at the start of the study had become healthier by study’s end, while the most unhappy participants had some health declines.


In a three-month study, researchers investigated the link between chronic pain level and happiness/positive outlook in women with arthritis and found those who had higher ratings of happiness were less likely to feel pain as intensely as those who weren’t as happy.


Promotes Healthy Longevity: Researchers looked at the correlation between state of happiness and incidence of stroke in a six-year prospective cohort study of 2,478 older individuals, by analyzing scores on the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). The found that increasing scores were significantly associated with stroke indicence, and that positive affect score demonstrated a strong inverse association with stroke incidence. In other words, the more depressed, the higher the risk of stroke.


In another study of older individuals, researchers analyzed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. Positive affect (PA, or happiness) was assessed by aggregating momentary assessments over a single day in 3,853 individuals aged 52 to 79 who were followed up for an average of five years. Those in the lowest third of PA had a mortality rate of 7.3%, compared with 3.6% in the high-PA group, and 4.6% in the middle PA group. Yet another similar data analysis – 28 years (1965-1993, with 6,856 individuals), concluded that Subjective Well-Being and its components positive feelings, global life satisfaction, domain life satisfaction, and positive affect, “significantly predict longevity in the general population.”



Did you know that learning something new brings about a glorious sensation of happiness? We bet you probably felt these little moments while reading this article. And that makes us happy (because as a study mentioned above concluded, giving sparks happiness in the giver.)


Most of us know that 2020 will be marked in history as a Very Bad Year, and 2021 may not automatically be much better. There is a saying – “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” So too is happiness. An early 1970s TV show theme song, “Come on, get happy!” still has the right idea.

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