The Psychology of Happiness

The Psychology of Happiness

Dr Shelley Hyman

Have you ever thought about what makes you happy? Considered why the things that used to make you happy might not anymore? Or maybe you have wondered why the things that make you happy aren’t the same things that make your friends and family happy?

The psychology behind happiness has an immense amount of research backing it – but for some reason happiness is still seen as more suited to self-help books than to actual research. Since the 1900’s psychologists have been investigating the questions that we are still asking today. What is happiness? How do we measure it? What controls how happy (or not) we are?

Happiness is the state of mind or feeling which is characterised by satisfaction, joy, love, pleasure and contentment (according to positive psychology). However, whether happiness is subjective or similar across individuals has not yet been agreed upon by psychologists.

How do we measure happiness?

Measuring happiness objectively has proven to be significantly more difficult than expected, with no satisfactory measures being developed (Argyle, 2001). Thus, subjective well-being (SWB) is the measure used by psychologists – measured using self-report scales, and split into components such as positive affect, satisfaction, and negative affect. Self-report scales are susceptible to response bias (where people respond in a way that they think is ‘correct’ or ‘socially desirable’), but it’s the best measure we have access to.

What controls how happy we are?

In 1967, it was proposed that a happy person is a ‘young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, extroverted, optimistic, worry-free, religious, married person with high self-esteem, job morale, modest aspirations, of either sex and of a wide range of intelligence’ (Wilson, 1967). However, since then it has been established that it’s actually quite a bit more complex than that, and that ‘well-being’ means something different to everyone. Some important factors are explored below:

1. Social Relationships: Argyle concluded that this was ‘perhaps the greatest single cause of happiness’. Being surrounded by people we love and actively engaging in those friendships not only increases our mood but also gives us opportunities to talk about things that might be affecting us negatively.

2. Religion: Religion has found to have positive effects – however, this is significantly due to the sense of meaning and purpose provided by religion, and the social support provided by the church community, and not necessarily attributed specifically to believing in God. These positive effects are likely to be obtained through other experiences such as spirituality, or working within a community for the greater good, for example.

3. Age: An interesting study (Mogilner, Kamvar & Aaker, 2011) measured happiness by examining 12 million online blogs that included the phrase ‘I feel’, and looked more closely at the 70,000 that ended with ‘happy’. They looked at the other words that co-occurred with ‘happy’ in the blog posts and examined whether there were any trends with the age of the blogger. Co-occurring words were identified as either being associated with feelings of peacefulness (relaxed, relieved, calm and peaceful) or feelings of excitement (excited, ecstatic, giddy and elated). This study found that older people associated happiness with peacefulness while younger people associated happiness with excitement, suggesting that the meaning of happiness shifts over the lifespan. This shift was attributed to a redirection of focus from the future (for younger people) to the present (for older people), which in turn shifts the dynamic of what happiness means to these individuals.

4. Success: While many different types of success have been shown to positively influence people’s happiness, research by Lyobomirsky and King (2005) investigated the effect of happiness on success. Turns out that happiness and success have a bi-directional relationship, with positive affect potentially being the cause of many desirable characteristics and successes linked with happiness. This means that not only does being happy help with confidence, optimism, likeability and self-efficacy, these characteristics in turn increase your chances of being successful! And in turn, being successful increases happiness.

5. Not actively looking for happiness: While this may seem counterintuitive, Mauss et al. (2011) proposes that negative consequences of pursuing happiness may indeed exist. Specifically, they suggest that while personal positive feelings are usually used to describe happiness in Western contexts, this might actually damage connections with others and result in higher levels of loneliness. Putting one’s want to be happy above other goals makes sense because happier people have been found to have more friends, have more success in their work life and live longer and healthier lives. But decreasing connections with those who love you in order to focus on those personal gains is definitely not the answer.

6. Mental Health: Sometimes being happy is not within our control, and there is nothing that we can do to make ourselves feel better. When we experience anxiety or depression, for example, we often no longer have the ability to pull ourselves out of that negative headspace. In this situation, it is always beneficial to reach out to someone you trust, and talk about how you might be able to gain control over your well-being again. This process looks different for everyone, and may involve a psychologist, medication or mindfulness. You may even benefit from just identifying problem areas within your life and working on them, with the support of others. It is important to not only be aware of the positive things in your life, but also of the role you play in creating and maintaining those positive things.

In summary, while there is a wealth of research which claims to identify what does and what does not contribute to our happiness, it is ultimately a subjective experience that is unique to everyone. However, it can be concluded that interpersonal relationships and social connections are exceedingly important in facilitating happiness (for most people).



Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.