What is Happiness, Anyway?

Column: Aspire Unplugged, by Cheryl Patterson

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’”– Alfred Lord Tennyson

The concept of happiness can seem abstract and unrealistic to many people – like some unsustainable heightened state of euphoria – and to others it’s a distant goal on the ‘to do’ list to be achieved one day. However, it doesn’t have to be either of these extremes.

Simply put, happiness is a general state of well being, resulting from care in specific areas.

Dr. Martin Seligman, director of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, defines happiness as resulting from three key areas:

  • positive emotion and pleasure
  • engagement
  • meaning

Seligman elaborates on the how as, “experiencing and savouring pleasures, losing the self in engaging activities, and participating in meaningful activities.” He adds, “Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three [parts], with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning.”

However, our basic needs have to be met to support the areas mentioned by Seligman.

For instance, I know that if I don’t get enough sleep…well…not feeling so positive or engaged. It’s hard to function mentally, emotionally and physically, let alone feel happy, if we’re exhausted.

In contrast, if I’m well rested, eating foods that support good energy levels (and productivity), feel connected with loved ones and things meaningful to me, I feel happy.

Basically, our happiness is affected by the efforts we make to achieve a reasonable balance in areas that support good emotional, mental and physical health.

In her research on sustainable happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California found that “intentional behaviors”—actions people engage in regularly—have a significant influence over happiness levels, as follows:

  • Behavioral – such as exercising regularly or trying to be kind to others
  • Volitional – such as striving for important personal goals or devoting effort to meaningful causes
  • Cognitive – such as reframing situations in a more positive light or pausing to count your blessings

Lyubomirsky’s research also shows that benefits of a positive state of mind include greater satisfaction in marriages and friendships, resulting in a stronger support system. And happy people also have greater work outcomes, with a higher level of creativity, productivity and income. They are also more likely to have greater self-control, coping abilities, healthier immune system and longer life.

Being proactive in lifting negative moods and creating meaning in your life is essential.


Be optimistic in your thinking and actions. Express gratitude – look at what you have and appreciate your life and loved ones. Practice forgiveness, cope with challenges in constructive ways, and alter your beliefs to be able to look at things in a more positive light. Actions such as these create more meaningful experiences.

Maintain social affiliations. Nurture supportive relationships and participate in social activities, such as volunteer work or fitness programs. Studies show that people are happier when surrounded by others.

Have faith. Research supports the link between faith and well-being. Practicing a religion or having spiritual beliefs keeps you centered by increasing your focus in a positive direction.

Pursue meaningful goals. Striving toward important achievements and attempting to reach your potential—from daily tasks to life goals—is most effective when suited to your interests and values.

Engage in active leisure, such as fitness or hobbies. This is a great way to increase positive moods and is a strong predictor of overall happiness, according to research.

Be Happy. There is a strong correlation between direct expressions and experienced happiness. Direct attempts at feeling happier include simple expressive behaviors, such as smiling or acting happy. Behaviors associated with particular emotions, intensifies that emotion, according to Lyubomirsky.

Happiness doesn’t have to be something you chase for some distant day. It’s something you have control over now. Or as Lyubomirsky puts it, “People aren’t genetically destined to experience a predetermined amount of happiness; volitional behaviors do matter; and finding happiness may be as simple as finding the right strategy.”

Recent Posts:

Social Support: We Fare Better Together
How to Cope With Self-doubt
How to Ease Your Anxiety

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Columnist and Freelance Writer – Your 'go to' for emotional well-being… When we feel better, we do better.