Positive psychology is an emerging science that investigates the qualities, attitudes, and practices that enable people to thrive and be happy.
Psychology used to be mostly concerned with unhappiness, treating the wounded, the traumatized, or the pathological. But now there is an emerging science called positive psychology that focuses on how ordinary people can cultivate positive life qualities and be happy. Of course, to study happiness scientifically, we need to know exactly what happiness is and how we can measure it.
I’m reminded here of St. Augustine’s famous insight about time. He knows what it is when no one asks him, but as soon as he has to explain it to another, he does not know. Similarly for happiness—we know whether or not we’re happy, even if we don't know exactly how to define it.
So, if I were to ask you whether or not you’re happy and why, your answer might mention a variety of factors, such as how satisfied you are with your career or your relationships, whether you frequently have pleasurable experiences, and your general mood or outlook on life—whether you tend to be cheerful or grumpy, a pessimist or an optimist. Do one or other of these factors determine happiness, or is it some combination of life satisfaction, enjoyable experiences, mood and outlook?
Let’s consider each factor one by one. Consider life satisfaction. Could you imagine a person who is satisfied with life but still unhappy? Think of someone who has focused too much on advancing their career and making money. Perhaps one day this person will realize that, while they’ve been busy accomplishing their goals, they never stopped to smell the roses or nurture relationships, and now their success feels hollow. So, they’re satisfied but not happy. Of course, you might reject the premise that this person is truly satisfied with life. Maybe they once thought they were, but then their values changed and that feeling of satisfaction evaporated.
Consider, then, enjoying many pleasures in life. Is this sufficient for happiness? It may be sufficient (though I doubt it), but it’s certainly not necessary. Imagine a person who suffers many hardships and few pleasures in life, but they maintain a positive outlook throughout it all and are always cheerful. It would be hard to deny this person was happy, despite the harsh conditions of their life.
So, that leaves us with mood and outlook—being cheerful versus grumpy. Happiness cannot just be a matter of being in a good mood, though. Moods are shifting and ephemeral, whereas happiness is more constant and stable. Of course, happiness can shift and change too. I'm sure there have been times in your life when you've been happy and times when you've not. Maybe happiness, then, is more of a dispositional state—like having a tendency to be in a good mood more of the time, or a tendency to have a positive outlook.
If that’s what happiness is, then it’s overrated. The always cheerful or overly positive can be annoying, and they often have a tenuous grip on reality, if you ask me. I’d rather know the unhappy truth than be blissfully ignorant; most of the time, anyway.
There is a different notion of happiness that I haven’t mentioned so far, and that’s what Aristotle called eudaimonia, meaning flourishing or well-being. Aristotle believed that human flourishing was tied to practicing "the virtues” in our everyday lives. And he might have been on to something because research in positive psychology suggests that much of our happiness depends on our daily habits and activities. People are happier when they cultivate meaningful connections with others and gratitude within themselves.
To learn more about the science of happiness, tune into this week’s show with guest Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley.