The Science of Happiness

17 March 2016


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.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Comments (6)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, March 18, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Perhaps we're a bit unhappy

Perhaps we're a bit unhappy at present. Alice was happy when she learned there would be pudding every other day, but unhappy when it was explained to her that today is never any other day. You might as well ask if we are going, gone, or still here. Where is there if we are always here? Luther took cheerfulness as a sign of grace, and devised a system in which the world was divided between enthusiasm and dissatisfaction, between godly mania and devilish depression, and, implicitly, between the saintly rich and profane poor. Science has no bearing until the grammar of dynamic difference is better understood. You can't bring humanity under instrumental reason by measuring hormones in the brain because we cannot understand what change really is in those terms.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Happiness is "different

Happiness is "different things to different people". I have found it to be so in most of my travels, relationships, friendships and associations. I did not know that there was a budding science of happiness, but, I suppose it would have to have arisen, sooner or later, inasmuch as people are realizing that the THINGS they pursue, and yes, PEOPLE too, are not bringing them the sorts of happy feelings they expected. Happiness is not a patently either/or proposition. I, for one, have been happier with my life when I had less money and fewer possessions, yet looked forward to each day as a new series of adventures. I was not then, nor am I now, an eternally cheerful, perenially hopeless optimist. Some people, places and circumstances bring out the moody "grumper" in me. Those who have those same reactions yet strive to mask and ignore them often develop serious physical and/or mental illnesses. Those of us who have some sort of unshakable belief are probably healthier overall, but this does not guarantee that we are good for the herd. Or that we are automatically among the happy.
I have long read several noted thinkers of our time, including the Horsemen (Dawkins; Dennett; and Harris---RIP Chris Hitchens). Dawkins latest memoirs are a pleasure: An Appetite for Wonder and Brief Candle in the Dark. He writes with the easy comfort of someone who knows who he is and is grateful, even happy, with how and when he got there. May we presume that Richard Dawkins is a happy human being? I could opine as much, but those who care to reach their own conclusion(s) would need to investigate for themselves. Success would seem to be a factor here-and some kind of unshakable belief. Perhaps even before those, however, there needs to be PURPOSE. I wonder if Mr. Dawkins knows about a science of happiness? I don't know him, but I'd almost bet on it. He certainly seems to have had some fun in his seventy-plus years. And that is very likely a part of the happiness equation as well.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The god delusion is not

The god delusion is not supplanted effectively by rational purpose because time thwarts both. And though time often brings unhappiness, it also even more often so dispels the myth of transcendence in serendipity that we can hardly fail to recognize an abundance in it that no god or rational purpose could ever pretend to ordain or anticipate. Time is what abundance is. There is no other happiness so real as recognition of that abundance.

Guest's picture


Sunday, May 22, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I have been following your

I have been following your blog for some time now tabung pemadam and have found it quite informative and also interesting and you have very nice way of expressing the article.The author clearly describe all the parts of the article with good language and information.Looking forward to another article.

Guest's picture


Friday, July 8, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Happiness are of different

Happiness are of different types and we should learn how to stay happy, live happy and make other happy. Therefore we should learn some basic facts and psychological facts about happiness and this above article is the best ever choice to learn facts about happiness. Moreover people are unable to share their happiness now days, as a result they are feeling conservative and unexpressed; we should share our happiness to make it double and while following the above article we are able to learn facts and science and happiness.

Hannahbear27's picture


Saturday, September 17, 2016 -- 5:00 PM


                           Happiness is subjective. Humans will never be happy as long as we exist, we'll only be content. We are, and will always be in the search for more, no matter how "un-materialistic" we think of ourselves to be. We are in the age of technology and knowledge,and those two combined create an explosive pair. The amount of technology and knowledge we have at our fingertips is mind blowing, and its acting as catalyst for change in our brains. That change is consistently telling us we want more. The more we desire, the less "happy" we are. It's like humans are biologically programmed to just be content.