What is happiness according to Psychology?

Happiness is one of those concepts that is so important and used as it is difficult to define. This is where a good part of its importance lies: most people assume that the issue of how we can become happy is something important, but at the same time, it takes a lot to reach clear and specific conclusions when talking about it.

In part, because happiness is, as an idea, something very abstract and changeable; probably, even the same individual will tend to define it in very different ways depending on the state of mind they are experiencing at all times.

However, If there is a scientific discipline capable of helping us to understand in the most objective way possible what happiness is, that is Psychology. So, let’s see what this phenomenon consists of according to the research carried out by psychologists over the years.

The first philosophical investigations on happiness

There are several ways of understanding what happiness is, and the first investigations carried out about it emerged from philosophy several centuries ago, especially from the Renaissance, when humanism arises and the well-being of human beings is given importance as something with value in itself.

Since at this time there were practically no tools and technological solutions to try to study emotions and mental processes, the task of these thinkers focused, among other things, on distinguish between different definitions of happiness, so as not to pass from one to another without realizing it and maintain consistency when trying to study this phenomenon. Thus, it was a mainly conceptual task, based on ordering ideas, rather than testing hypotheses with empirical data.

In this way two conceptions of happiness arose: the hedonist and life satisfaction conception. The first, represented especially by utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, pointed out that happiness was above all a matter of prioritizing pleasure over displeasure, so that most of the time pleasant experiences overshadowed those that produce pain or displeasure.

In this logic, several thinkers in favor of this vision also pointed out that beyond trying to “fill the deposit” of pleasurable experiences individually, the desirable thing was to make as many people as possible experience the greatest amount of pleasure possible.

Ultimately, this way of being happy focuses on the need to manage and administer actions and experiences associated with pleasure, and avoid situations that produce unpleasantness.

On the other hand, the conception of life satisfaction emphasizes the idea that human beings are happy or not based on a global assessment of their lives, a process that goes beyond the act of experiencing the present moment and the stimuli that come to us from the environment in which we are. In this way, those who are able to favorably judge their life trajectory, as well as their future prospects based on what they have learned about themselves and their way of interacting with the world, would be happy.

The meaning of the word happiness according to psychology

So far we have seen a series of key ideas emerged from philosophy, but … what does psychology say about happiness? After all, in the second half of the nineteenth century a part of philosophy dedicated to studying behavior and mental processes became independent of its origins based on speculation and began to search for evidence and empirical evidence in general, giving rise to the psychology, and with this transition, certain objects of study of the philosophers began to be redefined in order to be approached scientifically.

From the point of view of psychology, happiness is characterized as a state of mind that is highly emotionally charged, but is also based on ideas and beliefs. In this sense, happiness encompasses both emotions and cognitive elements (that is, thoughts structured in concepts intertwined with each other, often through language). And from this point of view, both the short-term logic of hedonism and that of life satisfaction, inspired by more abstract and long-term mental operations, are taken into account.

Although in psychology there is not a very clear consensus about what being happy consists of, there have been several very interesting findings that bring us closer to a more nuanced and complete vision of happiness. They are as follows.

1. People adapt their ability to be happy to crisis contexts

One of the characteristics of happiness is that When people go through experiences of great discomfort or a very big crisis that affects the quality of life, it adapts making the minimum demands to be happy to form a lower threshold. For example, people tend to assume that they could not be happy if they lost the ability to see with their eyes, but research shows that those with acquired blindness are generally just as happy as the rest of the population.

2. The level of happiness adapts to social references

The way in which we are or are not happy depends largely on the type of people we have as references, and the living conditions that we attribute to them. For example, people with worse living conditions are less happy if in their day-to-day lives they are exposed to many other people who live significantly better than them.

3. Material prosperity does not guarantee happiness

Although the fact of having the ability to have everything that is needed to live comfortably makes us more likely to be happy, does not guarantee happiness. And also, at a certain point, the lifestyle that in most cases is necessary to maintain a high level of wealth seems to counteract the positive impact that these material goods provide in the form of hedonic pleasure.

4. Happiness depends on what we tell ourselves about our lives

In a way, the philosophers of the life satisfaction conception of happiness were right: It is difficult to be happy if we limit ourselves to filling our lives with pleasant moments without further ado. This accumulation-based logic does not have to be coupled with a sense of progress in life, or of achieving something meaningful for oneself or for society.

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Bibliographic references:

  • Bentham, J. (1780). “Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, How to be Measured”. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London: T. Payne and Sons.
  • Mayerfeld, J. (1996). The Moral Asymmetry of Happiness and Suffering. Southern Journal of Philosophy, 34: pp. 317-338.
  • Mulligan, K. (2016). Happiness, Luck and Satisfaction. Argues, 1 (2): pp. 133 – 145.
  • Oishi, S .; Choi, H .; Buttrick, N., et al. (2021). The psychologically rich life questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 81: pp. 257-270.
  • Phillips, J .; Misenheimer, L .; Knobe, J. (2011). The Ordinary Concept of Happiness (and Others Like It). Emotion Review, 71: pp. 929-937.

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