How many times have you heard the word ‘happiness’?
Have you ever wondered what ‘happiness’ is?
Is it an abstract concept? Is it just another ‘feeling’? Or is it something more than that?
How can someone be happy? Is ‘happiness’ a perk just for the ‘lucky’ ones?
20th of March marks the International Day of Happiness!
Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated this day as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. The resolution for the adoption of the International Day of Happiness was initiated by Bhutan, a country which recognized the value of national happiness over national income since the early 1970s and famously adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
What is Happiness?
Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” in her 2007 book The How of Happiness.
The scientific term for happiness and life satisfaction is subjective well-being. Subjective well-being (SWB) refers to the way people evaluate their lives, in terms of both their global life satisfaction and emotional states–i.e., it is often assessed by measuring life satisfaction and positive affect.
Happiness or SWB results from certain internal and external causes, and in turn it influences the way people behave, as well as their physiological states.
Happiness underlying factors are considerable from two dimensions: endogenic factors (biological, cognitive, personality and ethical sub-factors) and exogenic factors (behavioral, sociocultural, economical, geographical, life events and aesthetics sub-factors).
The Neuroscience behind Happiness
Neuroscience studies have shown that some parts of the brain (e.g. amygdala, hippocampus and limbic system) and neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine, serotonin, endorphin, adrenaline, norepinephrine, oxytocin) play a role in control of happiness. Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Endorphins are the so-called ‘happiness hormones’.
Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behaviour and pleasure-seeking activities. You get a rush of it when you feel proud of yourself, when you eat comfort food, when it’s payday, and when you win. In order to increase your dopamine levels you set a goal and try to achieve it. For example, break down one big goal into several smaller ones, and pause to acknowledge each success. Also, listen to music, find a physical activity that motivates you to exercise regularly, try saving money and learning how to cook food that’s delicious and healthy.
Serotonin is associated with bringing about feelings of confidence and self-esteem. It has been shown to be at higher levels when you feel significant and like you’re part of a group. Conversely, feelings of loneliness and depression are usually associated with low serotonin levels. Exercise, such as riding a bike or running, has been shown to increase serotonin, along with getting some sun, or a well-deserved massage. Another way to up your serotonin is by reflecting on what you have in your life, for example, experiences, people, and things that make you feel grateful, loved, and important. Your brain will produce serotonin regardless of whether a situation is imagined or is recalled as a memory.
Oxytocin is a hormone that controls the uterine spasms and the breastfeeding stimulus. Oxytocin causes a wide spectrum of behavioral and physiological effects such as maternal, sexual and social behaviors. Oxytocin facilitates the relationship with others and is associated with positive social behaviors. There are a few ways you can naturally boost your levels of oxytocin: take part in group activities, make sure to take the time to cuddle your loved ones, get a dog (or another pet).
Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters. They are released during continuous exercise, fear, love, music, chocolates eating, laughter, sex, orgasm etc. Increased levels of endorphins inhibit pain in the body and reduced levels of endorphins inhibit positive feelings.
Engagement in various cultural activities seem to have a positive impact on hormone levels and thus subjective well-being of people. A research was conducted in 2017 to highlight the relation between SWB and engagement in arts, culture and sport. You can access the research paper following the link.
Engaging in activities that boost these hormones is important, but there is not a single quick way to happiness and well-being. And don’t forget that when it comes to the body functions, one should act carefully and not adopt dangerous behaviors.
Happiness and Sustainability
Subjective well-being is an indicator for tracking progress on SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being.
The Happiness Index assesses happiness, wellbeing, and aspects of sustainability and resilience. It is a OECD recognized survey instrument developed by the Happiness Alliance based on Bhutan’s approach to measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH), with an addition of 3 domains (Satisfaction with Life, Work and Tourism).
Happiness and Education
In his 2008 paper ‘Education, Happiness and Wellbeing’ (Social Indicators Research, 87, 347–366), the Canadian political scientist and philosopher Alex C. Michalos underlines that the relation between happiness and education depends on the definition of ‘education’, ‘happiness’ (and ‘influence’) one chooses.
In his paper he mentions:
“[…] Does education influence happiness and if so, how and how much? My answer is: It depends on how one defines and operationalizes ‘education’, ‘influences’ and ‘happiness’.
More precisely, if one defines and operationalizes (1) ‘education’ as highest level of formal education attained including primary, secondary and tertiary education leading to diplomas and degrees, (2) ‘happiness’ as whatever is measured by standardized single-item or multi-item indexes of happiness or life satisfaction, and (3) ‘influences’ as a direct and positive correlation between such measures of education and happiness, then the answers to the basic scientific and philosophic questions are well known. Given these definitions, education has very little influence on happiness.
On the other hand, if one defines (1) ‘education’ more broadly to include formal education as specified above, non-formal education of the sort that might involve learning through course-work not connected to any diplomas or degrees, and informal education of the sort that might involve learning outside of any course-work, from news media, works of art and culture, work-related training and experiences, social interaction and routine as well as extraordinary life experiences, (2) ‘happiness’ as an Aristotelian eudaimonia or general wellbeing involving, in his phrase, ‘‘living well and doing well’’ by enjoying goods of the mind [..], goods of the body [..] and external goods [..] and (3) ‘influences’ as indirect as well as direct associations among the diverse kinds of education and learning and the diverse features of a happy or good life, then the answers to the basic questions are more complicated and for that reason, less well-known. Given these more robust definitions of ‘education’, ‘influences’ and ‘happiness’, education has enormous influence on happiness.”
Professor of Demography and Sustainable Development at the University of Vienna, Austria, Mr. Erich Striessnig has tried to answer the question ‘Too Educated to be Happy?’ through his investigation into the relationship between education and subjective well-being. You can access the paper in this link.
Happiness and Environment
According to the 2013 research paper ‘Happiness is greater in natural environments’ (Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions, 23(5), 992–1000) by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato, “[…] participants are happier at home than at work, and greater happiness is also associated with higher temperatures and lower wind speeds, with sunshine, and with the absence of rain and fog. Physical activities, and activities expected to be common in natural environments (such as running, gardening or birdwatching), also show substantial positive associations with happiness. Participants are happier outdoors than indoors or in a vehicle.”
In the same research, all natural environments, especially marine and coastal margins were found to be the happiest locations. Suburban or rural developed areas proved to be slightly happier as well. An interesting result is that older people are happier in mountainous regions and outdoor places, whereas the impact of marine and coastal margins, woodland and farmland is significantly higher on women’s SWB than men’s.
The World Happiness Report, released annually since 2012, aims to both quantify and analyze well-being around the world. It is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. Typically, the Nordic countries are the top ranked.
The World Happiness Report 2021 focuses on the effects of COVID-19 and how people all over the world have fared. It focuses on the effects of COVID-19 on the structure and quality of people’s lives, and aims to explain why some countries have done so much better than others, describing and evaluating the governments’ actions all over the world.
Besides the report, there are many questionnaires that are widely used by academics and scientific researchers to assess happiness levels across the globe (e.g. the Oxford Happiness Inventory, Argyle and Hill; Subjective Happiness Scale, Lyubomirsky & Lepper).
Do you want to learn more about Happiness?
- The Science of Happiness, by PRX and UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center
- The Science of Happiness https://www.edx.org/course/the-science-of-happiness-3
- The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007)
- Education for Sustainable Happiness and Well-Being, Catherine O’Brien (2016)
- More on: https://positivepsychology.com/best-happiness-books/
- Every Three Seconds: http://everythreeseconds.net/
- The Happy Broadcast @the_happy_broadcast
- The Optimist Daily @optimistdaily
- Happiness Is. @the.offical.happiness.is
“This International Day of Happiness is more than just a fun celebration, it also remind us all that the world is a better place when we connect with and care about the people around us”
— Dr Mark Williamson (March 2015), co-founder and Director of the organization ‘Action for Happiness’
- United Nations. International day of happiness https://www.un.org/en/observances/happiness-day
- Diener, E. (2021). Happiness: the science of subjective well-being. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from http://noba.to/qnw7g32t
- MOOC, The Science of Happiness, Berkeley University of California, https://www.edx.org/course/the-science-of-happiness-3
- Happiness hormones: the neurochemicals of happiness. https://www.happiness.com/magazine/science-psychology/happiness-hormones/
- Dfarhud, D., Malmir, M., & Khanahmadi, M. (2014). Happiness & health: The biological factors- systematic review article. Iranian Journal of Public Health, 43(11), 1468–1477. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26060713
- Happiness and Sustainability: the interconnections. https://www.ourheritageourhappiness.org/uploads/1/2/0/4/120447907/sdgs___happiness.pdf
- Michalos, A.C. Education, Happiness and Wellbeing. Soc Indic Res 87, 347–366 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-007-9144-0
- MacKerron, G., & Mourato, S. (2013). Happiness is greater in natural environments. Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions, 23(5), 992–1000. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.03.010
- One Team Is Redefining How The World Measures Happiness, For The Better. https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/world-happiness-report-dream-teams