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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