Happiness Is…: Breaking Down the Psychology of Happiness

Happiness is…Not long ago, under the Kauai sun, I was perched on a surfboard in the middle of the ocean when I entered what psychologists call “flow.” While my landlocked upbringing has never primed my surfing abilities, the twinkling salt water and undulations beneath me consumed my attention. All of the stressors in my life became muted. Free in the ocean, attempting to catch waves, I felt happy. And that happiness lasted hours afterward. As I headed back towards the coast, I saw children in surf school giving up, refusing to go back out. I couldn’t help but wonder: how could something I find completely blissful breed complete misery for someone else? Was I just one of the lucky ones whose circumstances primed them for all the necessary components to make the experience pleasurable? Was this state of “flow”–a component of happiness–a result of many things I find enjoyable coming together at once, or was it that my definition of happiness was unique and surfing happened to fit that definition? This article we attempt to explain what happiness is? Is happiness biological? Is it physical? Is it psychological? Are there different types of happiness? Can happiness be bought? Is happiness money? Discover all these answers and more!

Happiness Is...
Happiness Is…

Happiness is… an emotion

Although the field of psychology–specifically positive psychology–has agreed that happiness is “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and well-being” (APA 2018), psychologists have yet to agree on the parameters that define happiness. While Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology, was the first to claim “flow” a part of the dual approach in happiness research, researchers in the field of positive psychology are still deciphering a specific equation for what produces happiness amongst all of us. Despite the ambiguity amongst the definition of happiness, various studies in positive psychology have honed ways in which we can promote happiness–everyday tips and exercises that give us a boost of happy.

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While the specific boundaries of happiness are still being determined, happiness is undoubtedly an emotion. But what is an emotion? Although “emotion” and “feeling” seem synonymous, there is a distinction amongst the two.

An emotion is characterized by three things:

  1. the physiological reaction to a stimulus
  2. a behavioral response, and
  3. a feeling.

Because happiness–an emotion–results in a feeling, happiness is a subjective experience that varies amongst individuals. This is why some people are overwhelmed in happiness when a dog greets them with excitement, and others are horrified by the thought of a zealous dog; our feelings are subjective–making our intuitions and reactions to situations variable.

But what does this mean for us? It means that happiness isn’t a fleeting feeling: it is a consequence of our actions and attitudes. And, in good news, if happiness is an emotional state, you can choose to surround and immerse yourself in an environment that promotes that emotion: happiness is a choice.

Happiness is…a result of neural activity

Because the brain underlies everything we do, it comes with no surprise that there are various neural systems that underlie the processing of happiness (and likewise, other emotions).

When we are triggered by a stimulus, for example, the body’s sensory system kicks in, while other times, when we are triggered by episodic memory, neural memory circuits become involved in how we handle happiness. But amongst the sensory nervous system, the autonomic nervous system drives how emotions, like happiness, are felt. As the autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, sensory neurons in the sex organs, bladder, heart, and lungs become activated. This is, for example, why our heart rate races and we breathe a little harder when we see someone we are attracted to; as we try to maintain homeostasis, emotions activating the autonomic nervous system require it to kick into overdrive to bring us back to a “resting” state. While the heart has long been seen as the emotion relay station, modern research has proven that our feelings really are the output of the brain.

The limbic system, within the temporal lobe, has been deemed the “emotional” brain in psychology for decades. As James Papez, in 1937, was the first to note the influence of the hypothalamus, anterior thalamus, cingulate gyrus, and the hippocampus in the regulation of emotions, Paul MacLean added the involvement of the amygdala and orbitofrontal lobe. The limbic system is primarily responsible for carrying out all emotions; while the amygdala specifically is the emotional relay station, receiving input from other brain functions, and outputting responses, the network in which happiness is produced isn’t solely concentrated within the limbic system circuitry.

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Recently, in 2012, Dr. Richard Davidson published The Emotional Life of Your Brain which analyzed positive psychology at a biochemical level. Importantly, his research found that there is a biochemical link between the limbic system and the frontal lobes, indicating that the frontal lobe is involved in emotions in addition to their role in executing higher thinking. After a series of MRI scans and research, Davidson also found that the left frontal lobe (left prefrontal cortex) demonstrates higher activity during happiness than the right frontal lobe, which is more active during sadness. Davidson’s research importantly suggests that we have the ability to reflect how we want to feel by controlling our thoughts and that we can train ourselves to be happier by doing activities that activate our left frontal lobe.

Happiness is… based on genetics

Known as the “hedonic treadmill,” psychologists have discovered that individuals have a way of bouncing back to their happiness “set point,” which is a stable level of happiness.  While the hedonic treadmill is influenced by events happening in your life, it also is set based on personality and genetics.

For many years, psychologists have had trouble linking happiness to a specific gene. Recently, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve researched the serotonin transport gene (5-HTTLPR) which is linked to emotional problems, such as depression, with gene variations. This gene, which is responsible for transporting serotonin, is responsible for reducing stress hormones when facing stressful situations. While the study lacked a direct correlation to happiness, it unearthed a window into how genes can affect life satisfaction. An additional study by Elaine Fox and colleagues has also found that the serotonin gene can influence an individual’s ability to be optimistic. Although neither of these studies has conclusive evidence for the origin of happiness within genetics, both studies have influenced how genes influence satisfaction and the hedonic treadmill.

Happiness is…based on daily activity

As humans are, by nature, social creatures, the interpersonal relationships we form with one another greatly impact our level of happiness. When people form healthy, close relationships with one another, they tend to be happier than those who form meaningless relationships or stay tied to toxic ones. In 2002, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman studied college students who scored in the top 10% of a personal happiness survey. The characteristics most apparent amongst these students were that they had strong interpersonal relationships with friends and families and were committed to spending time with them. By cultivating meaningful relationships, happiness is gained through the social support of others, but also by the support given back. Self-disclosure, a huge factor for relieving stress and depression, makes relationships more meaningful and personal, creating closeness, trust, and, as a result, increased happiness. With the increasing role of social media in our lives, it is hard to deny the judgment and observation of others’ social circles; “quality over quantity” tends to be a good rule of thumb when it comes to writing academic papers, cars, and shoes. In terms of our well being, it tends to continue to be a good rule of thumb for the relationships we involve ourselves in.

Although exercise can be a force in our laziest, darkest, most depressing moments, exercise has an overwhelming capacity to change our mentality. People who are more active are, overall, more satisfied with their lives and happier than their peers. Why? The increased endorphins released during exercise trigger positive emotions. By exercising, it lowers cortisol and adrenaline in the body, reducing stress. By increasing hormones that cause positive emotions and depleting stress-inducing hormones, people who exercise are less depressed and anxious, having more optimism and self-confidence than their peers.

Happiness is…unstable

Psychologists have studied various time frames in which happiness (positive emotions) rise and fall. Both David Watson (2000) and Daniel Kahneman (2004) concluded in their research that positive emotions rise fastest in the early and middle part of the day. Negative emotions, induced by stress, tend to be completely alleviated by the next day, due to the rising positive emotions that occur in the early hours of rising. While unpleasant and depressing events seem to be devastating at the time, this research emphasizes the idea that “we overestimate the duration of our emotions and underestimate our capacity to adapt” (Myers 2010). While “sleeping on it” sometimes seems as a way to cop out of confronting issues and feelings, it could be the best approach to tackle a situation with optimism and a clear mind.

Happiness is…what you want it to be

Types of Happiness

Known as the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman suggests there is more than one type of happiness: there are three.

1. Happiness is… the “Pleasant Life”

According to Seligman, a pleasant life is a frequent engagement in doing things that give you pleasure. This easily can correlate to happiness because it is quick doses of things that make us feel good: watching our favorite show, going to the gym, swimming in the ocean, eating chocolate cake. While all of the things bring surges of happiness, most of us know that these feelings are feeling and therefore don’t provide deeper meaning and overall satisfaction.

2. Happiness is… the “Engaged Life”

More involved than the pleasant life, the engaged life challenges our abilities to develop strength. This type of happiness is strongly dependent on the idea of “flow,” which constantly challenges you in order to immerse you in the activity for full enjoyment. This type of happiness hinges on the idea of a love for learning and a desire to overcome challenges; by constantly being engaged and working through the challenge, people find meaning and end up finding strength and virtue.

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3. Happiness is… the “Meaningful Life”

The meaningful life, to Seligman, is using the strengths and characters and applying them to create difference and change through service, ultimately giving you purpose. This type of happiness is achieved through social services–politically, religiously, etc.: by putting the happiness and goals of others above your own, it creates more life satisfaction by finding meaning through helping the world become a better place.

Happiness is…Money

One of the most controversial parts of happiness in psychology and science is the influence of income on an individual’s happiness. While most of the Western population will say that wealth is a huge reflection of how happy they can be, simply, money doesn’t predict happiness. Wealth can have an influence on happiness: money only hinders an individual’s happiness until it is able to fully provide security and comfort. As money is able to provide healthcare, food, and shelter, thus providing comfort and happiness, happiness beyond basic comfort comes from other influences–such as the social groups that surround you. Interested in the psychology of wealth and happiness? Check out this article!

Happiness is…a choice

The most encouraging part of happiness research is that it backs (one of my personal favorite quotes), “fake it till you make it.” When you’re feeling blue, there is nothing worse than being told to “smile” when you genuinely don’t have it in you. However, the science behind this suggestion shows that smiling creates a chemical reaction in the brain that releases dopamine and serotonin–two hormones essential for feeling happy. While the brain is an incredibly intelligent, fake smiling versus authentic smiling causes the same results: smiling, real or fake, reduces stress and heart rate, and increases immunity. Maybe the Botox “frozen face” stereotype isn’t such a bad thing, after all, since the frozen smile leads to increased dopamine and serotonin release.

Happiness is… what does it look like?

While happiness looks like a beach day in the Caribbean or a home-cooked meal during the holidays, the perception of happiness colors our lives. While unhappy people have cloudy minds that create a cycling feeling of depression and lack of purpose, happiness breeds happiness. In a variety of studies, happy people feel more confident in themselves and their decisions, are healthier and more energized, and feel satisfied with their lives. While viewing the world around them, happy people more readily make decisions, view the world as a safer place, and are more cooperative in group settings (Briñol et al. 2007; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Pressman & Cohen, 2005). While negativity fuels a negative trajectory, positivity breeds an upwards trajectory. As positivity and happiness improve self-image, creativity, and life satisfaction, it also improves relationships with others. Happy people, in contrast to unhappy people, see their actions and obstacles as opportunities to gain, rather than losses. Happy people have the ability to break through their struggle, rather than breakdown. By choosing a happy mindset, people are equipped with the tools to overcome struggles and find the good in things, ultimately creating success. By reflecting on what makes you happy and doing what makes you happy, you ultimately fuel yourself to naturally achieve goals, healthy relationships, and life satisfaction.

Happiness is… to become happier, but how?

While negativity breeds negativity, in these dark moments, it is hard to imagine yourself as happy. By as I have pointed out, research has suggested that our actions and thinking are the only tools needed to switch our mindset to a healthy, positive one. One of the most recognized ways to become happier is to follow Seligman’s PERMA acronym which correlates to higher well being:

  1. Pleasure (delicious foods, soaking in the sun, etc.),
  2. Engagement (aka “flow,” the absorption of an enjoyable and challenging activity),
  3. Relationships (humans are social creatures so focusing on creating healthy relationships is a reliable indicator of happiness),
  4. Meaning (or as Maslow would say, “self-actualization”: a perceived quest for something bigger), and
  5. Accomplishments (having tangible goals: in order to be happy, you have to set realistic goals that you can control and attain.)

You can also keep in mind these suggestions:

  1. Exercise
  2. Keep a journal
  3. Socialize
  4. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
  5. Have more sex
  6. Live close to work
  7. Laugh
  8. Get enough sleep
  9. Reminisce
  10. Find out more here

Looking for more specific ways to increase your happiness, check out easy ways to increase your happiness set point or these 7 tips!


Allison, Kay Cahill. “The Power of Positive Psychology: Finding Happiness in a Cold Ocean Swim.” Harvard Health Blog, 25 Aug. 2016, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-power-of-positive-psychology-finding-happiness-in-a-cold-ocean-swim-201107273197.

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