Happiness is something people have tried to define many times but have never really pinned it down. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put forward hedonism which claims people want to increase pleasure and to decrease pain. Pleasure can be either physical or mental in nature. The Stoics believed that cultivating virtues was sufficient for happiness like wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. This has the advantage of treating happiness as a lasting, complex, and profound phenomenon. The Desire Satisfaction Theory says happiness consists of getting what you want; whatever that happens to be. Then there is Life Satisfaction Theory which says a happy person has a positive impression of their life in general, even though they might not be happy about every single aspect of it. This "gut feel" for life is often used in surveys although it can be affected by the weather for example. Some of these ideas may resonate more or less with you which ultimately means happiness is a subjective experience unique to everyone.
It becomes clear when thinking about happiness that there are two types. One is that some things make us feel happy in the moment like walking our dogs, having dinner with friends, or hanging out with our children. They are fleeting pleasures. The second type is more ingrained and can result from past achievements, our secure position, or maybe simply our perspective on life. The second type can affect our mood and optimism no matter the situation we find ourselves.
The feeling of happiness can be attributed to brain chemicals. Dopamine, for instance, is responsible for reward and pleasure, and the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin creates intimacy and trust. These and other chemicals control our motivations by controlling how we feel. So, are people simply born happy, or is it their environment, or does it come from their life decisions? A 2018 study of 1516 Norwegian twins suggests that around 30 per cent of the variance in people’s life satisfaction is inherited. Much of this seems to be related to personality traits, such as neuroticism, which can leave people more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Life satisfaction, then, is a complex tapestry shaped by our genes, our health, our economic prospects, our relationships and the culture around us. Positive psychology has identified many techniques to raise our happiness from its current baseline. These methods cannot work miracles. Things like poverty or trauma are obviously going to affect your well-being. Our happiness is, however, much more under our control than we think.
Money: Richer people tend to be more satisfied than poorer people. Looking at countries that grew in wealth over time shows that people's bassline happiness does not increase at all as their prosperity increases. It is relative wealth that counts. It is thought that Scandinavian countries do well in the annual World Happiness Report since they have quite equal societies due to hefty taxes on their rich citizens. It has to be said that you will increase your life satisfaction if you can increase your income to the point you are comfortable. Thereafter, gains in happiness are small. Then rather than overvaluing things such as money, status, or material possessions, pursuing goals that result in more free time or enjoyable experiences may have a higher happiness reward. Having money behind you will give you more security and control over your life which will increase relaxed and happy feelings.
Friends: For many the most important contribution to happiness is our social connections. Friendly interactions with others can make a huge contribution to our mental and physical health. A lack of social connection can harm our health as much as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Consider deepening your existing relationships by spending quality time with people you care about and explore ways to make new friends. Having just a few very close and trusted friends will have a greater impact on your overall happiness than having many casual acquaintances. Distance yourself from people who pull you down and surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you. Happier people increase the happiness of people around them.
Purpose: We all need a sense of direction. That is to have a purpose. Without this we may well be wasting our precious time which is very unsatisfying. A purpose does not need to be profound. It is just something you care deeply about, set goals and strive for. Finding purpose in our work is ideal. Explore your interests and passions. You might do something altruistic or work on injustices or look for new things you might want to learn more about. You should see your life as having goals, direction, and meaning.
Exercise: Exercise is good for both your body and mind. It has been described as the best pill you can take. Physical activity is linked to a range of physical and psychological benefits including improved mood, more energy, reduced stress and depression, improved health and mental ability, better sleep, more self-confidence and being more relaxed. These are all things that will increase your happiness.
Sleep: Research has consistently linked lower sleep to lower happiness. Get a regular sleep pattern and make it sufficient to ward off tiredness. Generally, this is in the 7-to-9-hour range.
Self-compassion: Take a self-compassion break. Ever beat yourself up and get self-critical in stressful situations? Then try talking to yourself as if you were trying to help a friend in that situation. Be constructive and positive about it.
Appreciation: Appreciation of what you do have will create feelings of happiness. Appreciate the positives of the moment you are in, the taste of your morning coffee or how nice a warm shower feels. Living in the moment is at the heart of mindfulness. Things that can help with your awareness are meditation while focussing on your breathing; focussing on one thing at a time; spending time in nature. Also, you can try making a list of things you are grateful for.
Be nice: Do nice things for other people. Neuroscience research shows that when we do nice things for others, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward. Make the effort to talk to strangers. Say thanks to people.
Your time: Devote time to yourself. Walk along the streets or through the woods, relax on the cafe terrace, read the newspaper, listen to music with headphones. The main thing is to be alone with yourself for a while.
Mastery: Develop strengths. Knowing your strengths, talents, using them, developing them. This is one of the surest ways of personal and professional growth. The positive effects of such development will be long-term.
Smile: The muscles of the face are activated, sending a signal to the brain to produce endorphins (hormones of happiness). The more you smile, the happier you feel!
There are clearly several things we can do to elevate our happiness both in the moment and for the long term. For Epicurus, he said there were three ingredients to happiness: friends, freedom, and an analyzed life. Specifically, he recommended spending time eating with friends, earning enough money to give freedom and control over your life, and to spend time alone when you can reflect on your life. Some of the above suggestions may work better for you than others. Once we get some aspects of happiness working then others become much easier. Is it, the happier you are the more productive you are at work, or is it, the more productive you are at work the happier you are? Positive outcomes and happiness feed each other. Happiness helps with confidence, optimism and likeability. These characteristics increase your chances of being successful and in turn, being successful increases happiness, health and life expectancy.
Happiness is one of many emotions, all of which have evolved to serve a purpose. To not be experiencing happiness at any given time is no failure. To pursue happiness as a goal in itself is not good because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed. Happiness in life is a worthy aspiration but it’s not realistic or healthy to expect a constant stream of positive emotions. Think about what happiness really means to you and then work on things that will help you become happier.
If you work on your core long term happiness it may support you when times are bad. On the last day of Epicurus' life, knowing he was going to die, he wrote a letter claiming he was in pleasure despite the physical pain he was in. He said "I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions."