The Science and Benefits of Feeling Happy
Here's a look at what science says about happiness, its health benefits, and what experts suggest for feeling more of those positive vibes.
Most people want to be happy. Adding more smiles to your life can effect so many aspects of your life. Happiness impacts physical, emotional and mental health, according to 2017 research in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.
But what, exactly, does it mean to be “happy”?
“Psychologists tend to define happiness as a person’s subjective well-being. In other words, how people personally judge the quality of their own lives,” explains Heather Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group in Towson, Maryland.
A feeling of contentment and satisfaction with life
There is no one concept of happiness that applies to every individual, says Sherry Benton, the Golden, Colorado-based founder and chief science officer of the online therapy resource TAO Connect. In general, it is a feeling of contentment or satisfaction with life, she says. Biologically, happiness seems to be connected to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the feelings of pleasure.
“Things do not need to be perfect to make us happy, and pursuing perfection in our lives can actually make us less happy. Happiness is more of a skill that we can work on every day by actively choosing thoughts, connections, and beliefs that make us feel good,” Benton says.
It’s important to note that fleeting moments like a promotion, a raise, or a new pair of walking shoes might feel good (or happy) for a few moments or even a few weeks. But, says Benton, “If we focus on pursuing something external, there are no long-term benefits when it comes to our happiness.” She adds, “We can actually hurt our sense of happiness because we will always want more and never be truly content.”
How to measure happiness
Since it’s a feeling or a state of being rather than a condition, you can’t simply take a blood test or get a body scan that will confirm, “You’re X percent happy!”
To kick off your overall understanding of your personal happiness levels, Lyons suggests asking yourself three questions:
- Am I living in alignment with my values?
- Am I prioritizing important relationships, and do I feel as though my relationships are reciprocal and supportive?
- Am I spending time to stop and appreciate my blessings?
“Researchers need an objective definition of happiness for their scientific investigations of happiness. That being said, one of the things that we know from research on happiness is that personal definitions of happiness can actually help determine how happy someone is,” Lyons says. “The simpler someone’s definition of happiness or the less it takes to be happy, the more likely that person is to be happy,” she says.
You can be dissatisfied with small parts of life and still be happy overall, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, distinguished professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness.
“Happiness is correlated throughout the different domains of life,” she says, so if you’re feeling unenthused and uninspired at the job you do five out of seven days per week, chances are those negative sentiments might sneak into your interactions with your family or friends.
(Related: How to Stop Worrying and Have a Happier Life)
Tests to measure happiness
When people are struggling to know how happy they are, Lyubomirsky suggests completing a subjective happiness measure. She believes in the effectiveness of this so much, in fact, that she created her own: The Subjective Happiness Scale. Rate four items on a scale of 1 to 7 and it can give you an estimate of your general joy levels. (Based on her research, the average for working adults was around 5.6.)
There are dozens of other surveys and questionnaires that can also help measure your happiness, including:
- The 1-10 Happiness Scale
- The Happiness Index
- University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness Inventory
- The Happiness Skills Quiz
The benefits of happiness
Lyubomirsky and her team at the Positive Activities and Well-Being Laboratory have discovered or have learned from other researchers in related labs that those who are happier tend to:
- Have higher incomes
- Produce better work on the job
- Have more satisfying and longer marriages
- Have stronger social support, more friends, and richer social interactions
- Live longer lives
- Be more self-confident, creative, and charitable
But seriously, who wouldn’t be happy with all those great things? Keep in mind that these are things that are associated with people who say they are happy, they aren’t necessarily the route to or reason for happiness.
It’s not always clear how all these factors—like supportive friends or work productivity—are related to each other, but it’s often true that feeling good about life makes it easier to make good decisions in life, like exercising more or eating healthy.
For example, young adults who were more grateful throughout their daily life not only reported that they were happier, but also had more nutritious eating habits, according to August 2018 research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
And doing random acts of kindness might even impact immune cells that are involved with lower risk for certain diseases, per an April 2016 study published in Emotion.
What you can do today to feel happier
Just as there’s no one group that can define what happiness is for all humans, there’s no single path to happiness. It varies from person to person, but researchers tend to agree that the following five things can help you feel happier overall:
- Saving time to reflect on what you’re grateful for
- Thinking, talking, or writing positively about yourself
- Being kind to others
- Living according to your values
- Relishing positive experiences and allowing yourself to feel pleasure in those moments
To help with practicing gratitude, Benton recommends keeping a daily gratitude list.
“Write down the things you’re thankful for, no matter how big or small they are. You can actually change the neural connections in your brain to increase the frequency of positive thoughts,” she says.
Lyubomirsky admits that she notices the biggest mood boost when she can connect with others.
“Strengthening connections makes me feel happier, especially social interactions with people who make me feel understood. It’s hard during the pandemic, but phone and video conversations still work if in-person meetings aren’t safe,” she says.
So schedule a Zoom happy hour or email or text a friend or loved one. Even random positive conversations with the person checking out your groceries can boost dopamine levels. If you feel stuck, Lyubomirsky suggests setting a goal per week, say, reaching out to three different people outside of your household.
What you can and can’t control about happiness
“Some of happiness is influenced by genetics and life circumstances,” Lyubomirsky says.
Social injustice, childhood or other trauma, socioeconomic inequality, and emotional distress are real and can be significant barriers to happiness. However, daily acts and ways of thinking may help increase or decrease your happiness.
Ask yourself: Do you tend to ruminate over what goes wrong or express gratitude for what’s going right? Do you connect with those in your circle or tend to isolate? Do you step outside to catch some fresh air or stay indoors most often?
Your external circumstances do play a role, but Lyons says you can noticeably move the needle if you try.
“Psychologists are fortunate enough to have access to lots of research on happiness. One finding that I try to hold onto is that success doesn’t cause happiness. Rather, happiness causes success,” Lyons says.
“When we’re happy we learn more, we’re more oriented towards growth, and our social networks are broader. These are the factors that lead to success. This reminds me to invest in my happiness, rather than spending so much time investing in work,” she explains.
When to ask for help about your happiness
The time and impact on your overall functioning are the two main criteria psychologists use to determine when it’s time to seek help.
If you notice you’ve been feeling sad, down, “off,” or are having difficulty experiencing happiness consistently for two weeks, seek help. Or, if these feelings have made it difficult to attend to your responsibilities at work, school, or home—this might be a sign of a diagnosable concern like depression, Lyons says. Learn more about the difference between a psychologist vs. psychiatrist, and check out how to find mental health therapist even if you can’t leave your home.
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service (1-833-456-4566), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.