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What is happiness, anyway?

Updated: May 3, 2022

I am often struck by how many pressures there are in modern life. We need the envy-inducing career, the beautiful family, the until-the-end friendships, the Insta-worthy interiors, the dream body, the fashionable hobbies, and don’t forget relationship goals and a wardrobe worthy of an influencer and a green diet… But wait, there’s more! We now also need to sign up to the impossible quest of always being happy, all of the time! Get your smile on, people, and think positive!

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a psychology researcher and life coach with a particular interest in psychological wellbeing. So I want people to be happy! But do I want them to feel pressured to do so? To feel that it’s yet another item on their ever-increasing to-do list? To have unrealistic expectations about how often they ‘should’ feel happy? To feel ashamed when they aren’t happy, so that they hide it behind platitudes or thwarted attempts at positive thinking? To question why they aren’t always happy even though they have lots of good things in their lives?

No, I don’t. Being happy all the time is impossible. Life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. We aren’t designed to be happy all of the time. And, while the pressure to work on ourselves and make ourselves happier is a big trend, and can have genuinely positive outcomes, how many of us even really know what it means? What is happiness, anyway?

Understanding positive emotions and experiences

Happiness is a concept that is used within positive psychology to denote positive feelings and emotions, but it belongs to a whole family of terms relating to the ‘good life’ that include pleasure, life satisfaction, wellbeing, quality of life, positive affect, and so on and so forth. These terms tend to be included in broader models or theories of wellbeing, which typically focus either on how you feel right now in the moment, or how you feel in general in your life.

The pursuit of happiness is nothing new. Researchers and thinkers have been fascinated by the topic for centuries. If you look into the origins of research and writing into happiness, you will probably come across the traditional distinction between hedonism and eudaimonia. Hedonism is essentially the pursuit of pleasure and happiness; we might automatically think about shopping trips, spa days and partying. It’s fun and gratification in the moment. Eudaimonia focuses on self-actualisation: working towards realising our potential and becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be. It is a long-term process of self-development. Theoretical purists may look down on hedonism but in reality, there is room for both approaches in the ‘good life’: continual striving to live in accordance with our values and to fulfil our own purpose in life, while also enjoying momentary pleasures and experiences.

In line with these ideas, psychological wellbeing is now understood to include both happiness and pleasure as well as satisfaction, fulfilment, and making a contribution. While there are many different models of psychological wellbeing within the psychology literature, one of my favourites is Seligman’s (2011) PERMA model whereby in order to experience optimal wellbeing (or flourishing as he calls it) we want to include each of the following in our lives:

  • Positive emotions: these include but are not limited to happiness, pleasure, enjoyment, love, gratitude, interest, hope, pride

  • Engagement: being completely in the moment especially when doing an activity you really enjoy. You may know this as being in the zone, or experiencing flow – when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing

  • Relationships: positive social connections with others which includes partners, close family and friends, but also colleagues, peers, mentors, and positive interactions with strangers (e.g. chatting to someone else in the queue at the bus stop)

  • Meaning: having a sense of purpose and meaning in life, perhaps through career, studying, politics, activism, creative pursuits, volunteering and/or spiritual activity

  • Achievement: working towards and achieving goals particularly when they are in line with your values

You may find that involvement in a particular activity fulfils many of these elements. For example, there is a good chance that you may experience enjoyment, engagement, meaning and achievement through your involvement in dance. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there! Have a think for yourself whether or not you are getting enough of each of the PERMA elements. Is there room for more of them? What kinds of actions can you take to incorporate more of PERMA into your life?

Another conceptualisation of wellbeing which I find helpful is one summarised by Dodge and colleagues (2012) whereby wellbeing is the balance point between the psychological, physical and social resources we have, and the sorts of challenges we face. Do we have sufficient resources to meet the challenges in our lives? Fundamentally, this conceptualisation suggests that wellbeing is a dynamic concept rather than a static you-have-it-or-you-don’t one. Perhaps counterintuitively it also suggests that we don’t want to be happy all of the time: without challenges in our lives we stagnate; we stop growing and developing. Times of challenge may be difficult but can lead to positive change. Is that true of you? Have there been instances in your life where you can look back and reflect on how you grew from a difficult experience? I’m not suggesting that you now actively go out and look for difficulties or challenges, but just accept that they are a part of life and, eventually, you may feel able to reflect on how they have resulted in some positive outcome – for instance in developing resilience, being grateful for what you have now, or learning coping skills.

Beyond happiness

In the context of these two models (and there are others along similar lines), we can understand that the idea of happiness is actually only one part of the picture: for example, does striving to achieve something always make us feel happy in the moment? Perhaps not, but we may derive great satisfaction from the effort of working hard to achieve our goals. Also, psychological wellbeing doesn’t just happen to us: we have to make it happen!

I suggest that you stop wondering how happy you are, or if you are happy often enough, and start asking yourself these questions instead: are you engaged in various activities in life? Do you have things in your life that interest you? Do you feel you are part of a community? Do you have a sense of purpose or meaning? Do you have opportunities to experience feelings of achievement and accomplishment? These are the things to focus on and work on. And I will be very happy to help you those, my friends 😊


Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish – A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Dodge, R., Daly, A. P., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. D. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235.

Intrigued by wellbeing and happiness? Have a look at the Cultivating Optimism to Enhance Wellbeing course.

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