The Psychology of Happiness

Contributor: Ann Poorboy

Are you happy? And, if you aren’t happy, do you know how to become happy? For some, happiness is often an elusive or fleeting experience. Some people will go to great lengths to stay in moments of happiness. How many of us have done silly things over and over again, just to hear our children laugh often leaving disappointed when they stop.

Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, asserts the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

There are a lot of published works about the psychology and philosophy of happiness. Most theories about happiness focus on an individual finding satisfaction, contentment, and spiritual freedom as the source of happiness. Still, happiness seems to be more of a subjective experience and one in which several factors can be at play. Unlike anger or fear which have specific physical reactions followed by predictable behaviors, happiness is different. For example, work makes some of us happy – the feeling of contribution, where others find happiness in food – perhaps for memories of home, or just the pleasure of eating, and yet others find contentment in romantic relationships. Happiness is very individual and can even change into different types of happiness. Some think happiness should be sought but never truly explained, like G.K. Chesterton in the quote below.

“Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.”
G.K. Chesterton, English author (1874-1936)

There are some predictable elements in happiness. For example, happiness is usually associated with some kind of gain or attainment. When we achieve or attain something, we feel satisfied and this triggers happiness. The attainment does not have to be material, it could very well be spiritual. As a chronic insomniac, I find happiness in 8 hours of truly restful sleep. So, to define happiness for ourselves, we need to locate what has made us happy in the past. Was it a specific material, spiritual, physical, romantic gain, or was it something else? Are you able to find happiness without gaining something. It’s possible, however, studies indicate that it usually involves a need being fulfilled, regardless of how big or small that need is.

Because it’s so individualized, happiness is difficult to quantify. But there are measurable benefits to a happy mindset over that of a realistic or pessimistic mindset. Psychologists have used several models including bio psychosocial and other models to explain happiness suggesting that happiness is attained when our biological, psychological and sociological needs are met or when there is pleasure, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. These models suggest that sustained happiness involves something deeper than just fleeting pleasures. The sustainability of happiness seems to correlate to the the level or depth of the attainment.

Some people would be happy when their basic needs are fulfilled whereas some others would not be happy even after significant professional accomplishments as they may be expecting some other level or kind of achievement. Or because the hard work they put into the accomplishment was fear based. Happiness also largely depends on our ability to love ourselves as well as our understanding of what it means to be happy.

The contagiousness of happiness is not limited to direct relationships: it can influence the happiness of people by up to 3 degrees of separation from the original individual

When it comes to observing happiness in others, it can be difficult. A seemingly happy person may not be genuinely happy. And a depressed person may be able to convince you they are happy as a defensive mechanism.

The need fulfilment or attainment that triggers happiness could be biological such as bodily pleasures as when we quench our thirst, satisfy physical desires etc. The attainment could be social when we form relationships and feel happy or simply talk to strangers at a large event or remain engaged in social activity, or the attainment could be spiritual when we seek and even find some kind of spiritual liberation. The attainment or need fulfilment could be psychological when our love needs are fulfilled or when we reach our goals or fulfil our ambitions. The biological, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of attainment could provide happiness according to their needs. Thus happiness is intricately tied to our specific needs although these needs could be interrelated as for example the need for status or power could be both social and psychological.

Factors that could lead to happiness:

1. Biological (bodily pleasures, basic needs)

2. Social (status, relationships, social activity and engagement)

3. Psychological (emotional, love, friendship, personal accomplishments)

4. Spiritual (finding meaning and purpose, transpersonal needs)

There could be several reactions to happiness and this could range from smiling to engaging in rigorous physical activity as happiness could mean a sudden surge in energy levels. People who engage in physical activity are more likely to be happy due to improved blood circulation and general good health. However happiness being an extremely subjective emotional state, in order to feel genuinely happy, some achievement in terms of long term goals such as love or conjugal life, wealth, spiritual liberation, or professional achievement could help a person to attain a continued happy state of mind. This is the prolonged state of happiness that has causes similar to any transient state of happiness although the effects could be long lasting.

To achieve a prolonged state of happiness, encourage yourself to be more lively, sporty, fun loving, and optimistic. Remember transient states of happiness are more common so embrace them when they’re here. And, prolonged states of happiness are inevitably interrupted by adverse life events so work on your plan to move past the bad moments and find ways to regain your joy. Also remember that quiet contentment is a form of happiness.


Reflections in Psychology – Part I – by Saberi Roy (2009)

Reflections in Psychology – Part II – by Saberi Roy (2011)

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