Updated February 11, 2019
Have you ever really thought about what happiness means to you? Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude. But to understand the causes and effects of happiness and how to boost it, researchers first need to define it.
What is happiness?
UC Berkeley’s positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” The definition captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life—and suggests how these emotions and sense of meaning reinforce one another.
Studies have found that happiness actually improves other aspects of our lives.
- Happiness is good for our health: Happy people are less likely to get sick, and they live longer.
- Happiness is good for our relationships: Happy people are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages, and they have more friends.
- Happy people are more generous.
- Happy people cope better with stress and trauma.
- Happy people are more creative and are better able to see the big picture.
Lyubomirsky has concluded that roughly 50 percent of happiness is determined by our genes and 10 percent by our life circumstance, but 40 percent depends on our daily activities. Here are some specific, science-based activities UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recommends for cultivating happiness:
- Awe Narrative: Recall and describe a time when you experienced awe.
- Best Possible Self: Imagine your life going as well as it possibly could, then write about this best possible future.
- Best Possible Self for Relationships: Imagine your relationship going as well as it possibly could.
- Mental Subtraction of Positive Events: Visualize what your life would be like without the good things you have.
- Meaningful Photos: Photograph, then write about, things that are meaningful to you.
- Gift of Time: Invest in your relationships by spending quality time with people you care about.
- Time Capsule: Create a collection of positive experiences to surprise your future self.
Should you consider a broader definition of happiness?
A broader definition of happiness can help you find meaning in life and improve your overall happiness and well-being. Consider the notion that happiness is not just about the nice feeling you get when your needs are met, or when you receive something pleasant from someone else. Rather, it’s also about what you can give to others, and how giving gives you a purpose and a connection to your community.
To psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, giving helps you reaffirm your very humanity. It makes you forget yourself, and give yourself to the person in front of you.
Luckily, you don’t have to change your entire routine to switch the focus from your own thoughts and needs to someone else’s.
There are a few simple things you can do to start giving more:
Listen. See every conversation as a chance to connect with a person. So, instead of just waiting for your turn to speak, pay attention to every word the other person is saying. Notice the tone of his voice, his body language. And don’t forget to ask questions.
Build things for others. Can you knit, make origami figures, or draw? Make something and give it away. Never expect anything in return.
Volunteer. Take five minutes to think of what’s important for you. What are your values? Is there a cause you’d like to champion? Do you have time or skills to give away to that cause?
Be kind. Make it a purpose to be kind to others every single day. Believe it or not, little acts of kindness have a contagious effect. Compliment someone. Notice if she did something with her hair. Help him with his groceries. Offer to do some extra work to help out a colleague.
Become a mentor. We all started somewhere. We’ve all been lost, confused, and tired. However, you have answers and insights that can help out someone starting out his journey.
By giving, you’re creating connections with those around you. Life stops being just about seeking satisfaction and it takes on a deeper layer of commitment. Life is no longer all about you. It’s about creating a positive effect on other people’s lives.
When you engage in actions that transcend your own search for satisfaction, you make your life meaningful and perhaps you’ve found your purpose. You become part of a community. You assert your humanity. Moreover, you can be happier and more fulfilled.
Call to Action: What 2-3 things will you do to cultivate happiness?