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Understanding Happiness - How to be Happier

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

Happiness is not confined to a singular definition. The Oxford English Dictionary views it as a state, whereas the Merriam-Webster Dictionary characterizes it as an experience. Meanwhile, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, happiness is defined as an emotion stemming from joy, gladness, satisfaction, and overall well-being

The goal of this article is to help you understand that happiness is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Happiness emerges from the accumulation of pleasant emotions and the subjective appropriateness of the emotions we experience. Put simply, happiness arises when you not only feel good but also when you feel that your emotions align with your sense of rightness. 

Before reading this you may have had difficulties understanding the multifaceted nature of happiness. As a matter of fact, because of the intricacy surrounding the subject of happiness, researchers across diverse fields are placing it under the microscope as an “explicit and central concern” in their studies. It even pushed notable organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Global Wellbeing Initiative to set criteria to ensure the quality of data derived from happiness-related research.

I took the time to investigate such research works that “elevate global perspectives”. These ask what is happiness, what kinds of happiness are there, and what is in store for you when you become happy. I’ll also discuss the surprising downsides and risks of happiness, as well as share some of the top habits that help most people feel happy.

What is Happiness?

Answering this question goes beyond recalling the definitions I have mentioned earlier. Happiness is rudimentary: it is categorized by Dr. Paul Ekman as one of the seven basic emotions alongside sadness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt, and surprise. However, happiness also has its intricate nuances from which a recently new field in psychology emerged: positive psychology

Facts laid out by positive psychologists helped me deduce that happiness, in many instances, is considered synonymous with well-being, weaving together elements of life satisfaction, momentary mood (mostly feelings associated with both adoration and joy), and purpose.

Your well-being is unique – you express happiness through the pursuit of pleasure, avoidance of negative experiences, continuous self-development, and contributions to society. Your encounter of it is dependent on prospective happiness that is rooted in the realization of your future goals which then intertwines with retroactive happiness, derived from your past life experiences.

Despite happiness seemingly encompassing only your perceptions (subjective indicators), it involves objective indicators as well. These objective indicators, such as economic, social, health, and environmental well-being, form the external framework of your life.  

Subjective indicators, on the other hand, are your views and judgments of the aforementioned contexts. Although together they make up holistic happiness, I want to point out that they do not always coincide with each other.

I would like for you to consider the scenario where you and your co-workers share the same workplace but perceive it differently. Your optimistic outlook might turn your condition of life into a Fool’s Paradise, while constant anxiety about positive changes can transform it into a Fool’s Hell. Aligning your living conditions with your perception defines whether your condition of life is a Paradise (good condition, good perception) or a real Hell (bad condition, bad perception).

It is worth noting that these perspectives about happiness are modern: our view of happiness has evolved beyond the simplistic pursuit of joy for its own sake. You, as a contemporary individual, may find yourself seeking happiness through fulfilling your purposes.

You are beginning to not rely solely on maintaining a positive mindset but also on building up positive habits continuously. At present, happiness to you is an organic, individualistic experience that cannot be forced. You are now immersing yourself in the idea that positives alone do not make up true happiness.

What Makes a Person Happy?

Now that you have an understanding of what being happy means, you may be wondering how can you be happy – what is the secret to happiness? The answer: there is no secret. Nevertheless, the things I will be sharing with you now will help you realize which type of happiness you might be lacking or what causes you to feel unhappy or unsatisfied.


Prior to everything else, I want you to understand how happiness manifests. Your happiness results from interactions between the different dimensions we human beings possess. Below are explanations of how different profiles of an individual work in the pursuit of happiness.

Genetic Profile

Your inherited dispositions influence your personality patterns. This results in your happiness baselines (the threshold of your happiness) being slightly similar to the people you share your genetic makeup with but varying evidently from people who do not. In simpler words, certain things make you happier because your parents or siblings also consider those as things that make them happy.

Although growing up you shift from one environment to another (i.e., attending school, moving out), there is still residue of that predisposition. Hence, you may find yourself agreeing more to going to the beach instead of hiking because of the annual trips you used to go to with your family and remembering that those trips made you happy.

Neurochemical Profile

This may not be the first time you have encountered the term “happy hormones” – the neurochemicals involved in creating what you would label happiness. The common chemical substances that are investigated for matters concerning happiness are as follows:

  • Serotonin: sadness is commonly attributed to low levels of serotonin
  • Dopamine: associated with pleasure, motivation, and enthusiasm
  • Oxytocin: also known as the “love hormone” helps in lowering stress
  • Endorphins: act as a pain reliever and an energizer
  • Adrenaline: aids in overcoming challenges and thrill-seeking
  • Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA):  connected to relaxation

Neural Profile

Much like the other basic emotions, happiness is also ruled by your nervous system. Using neuroscience technology, scientists determined that your anterior cingulate cortex is primarily responsible for your happiness. It functions to not only elevate pleasure and inhibit pain, but also help you regulate your emotions.

The hemispheres of the brain also contribute to your happiness: the left hemisphere for approach-related behaviors (inclination towards desirable circumstances) and the right hemisphere for withdrawal-related behaviors (aversion from unpleasant circumstances).

Psychological Profile

Throughout your life, you may have predominantly associated your happiness with your psychological framework—and with good reason. I was also predisposed to keeping this article purely psychological, but as I continued to research happiness, it would be wrong to enclose it to such a perspective alone.

Nonetheless, I would like to explain to you how emotion and reason make you happy. The popular saying, “Think happy thoughts” perfectly explains the psychology of happiness: if thinking about, say, your pet makes you happy, then always try and keep them in your mind.

Phenomenological Profile

How do you express your happiness? If you answered something close to, “I know I am happy when my motivation is high” then you are expressing your happiness using the orientational schema. On the other hand, if you often describe sadness as “feeling empty” then you would most likely voice out your happiness using an ontological metaphor. As for the structural form of implying happiness, it is possible that you often “crave satisfaction” treating it as something you can associate basic concepts to like eating and drinking.

Sociocultural Profile

As you may have observed, we started from the innermost parts of ourselves and now, we have arrived at the outermost layer: society and culture. Your view of happiness is greatly influenced by the values that stem from your culture.

If you are the type of person who spends most of your time online, then you may tend to use internet slang to verbalize your happiness. In short, what surrounds you is your happiness too – not just internal factors but also external elements.

Types of Happiness

Since the approach I took for defining happiness was primarily conceptual, I would like to discuss the types of happiness using anecdotes and hypothetical scenarios. I believe that switching to this tone will help you properly visualize how happiness can manifest in your life.

1. I love watching movies, if you love watching movies too and it makes you feel happy, then you experience hedonic happiness whenever you go see a film at the theater.

2. Sometimes we simply want to sit in solitude to read a book or enjoy our beverage of choice – quiet cafes are always a go-to because people also want to experience contented happiness.

3. There was a time when I had a failing grade. Have you felt that also? The happiness that comes after doing all that hard work is to not fail again. The bliss of seeing that you passed – that is mature happiness.

4. If you are religious, then having your prayers answered will make you feel chaironic happiness. Furthermore, realizing that the world is so much bigger than the self and recognizing that your problems will eventually be solved also brings the same type of happiness. If you are concerned with such issues, you might want to read our guide for faith based counseling online.

5. Growing up as a sickly child, all I wanted to be was to become a healthy adult. Now that I am one and my vigor has since then improved, I feel happiness that is vitalic.

6. Retirees who are satisfied with how they concluded their careers experience evaluative happiness. The more you work towards your aspirations, the more often you feel this kind of happiness.

7. Do you often wonder why we celebrate other people’s success? For example, I feel giddy whenever my favorite artists break their records or if they win awards. I have learned that this happiness is meaningful.

8. Sharing my knowledge and understanding of happiness is also a form of happiness: intellective. I feel ecstatic that I can write this article with the confidence I can help others.

9. Think of the hobbies that you have – you enjoy doing them because they complement the skills that you have and you do not feel pressured to engage in them, right? Through hobbies, you experience what we call absorbed happiness.

10. Eudaimonic happiness is probably a type of happiness you are familiar with. A long-awaited promotion will make you feel happiness in this form. However, quitting a toxic job is also a way to achieve this happiness.

11. Derived from its superficial meaning, harmonic happiness is probably what you think it is: everything in your life, all according to plan. If you recently got into your dream college which is also in your dream city, you are experiencing this.

12. No matter how old this saying gets, it will always remain true: no person is an island – there is relational happiness in being connected. It does not have to be someone, of course. I feel this kind of happiness from my dogs whom I know love me unconditionally. If you are struggling with maintaining relationships or creating intimacy, check our guide for the best couples and relationship therapy services.

13. The last type of happiness is something I cannot share an anecdote of or put out a hypothetical scenario for. Nirvanic happiness is considered the “ultimate goal” which is liberation from life’s suffering. Perhaps faced with the conclusion of our lives, we can determine whether we have been able to achieve this or not.

Benefits of Being Happy

According to the most recent World Happiness Report, the United States is the 15th happiest country in the world. I believe that this could be attributed to the government making national happiness an operational objective. The growth of recognition of happiness being vital and beneficial is steady and, in my observation, perpetual. There will always be a demand for happiness – people will do everything in their power to be happy. In case you are starting to wonder why, allow me to share with you the important reasons.

Firstly, happiness is one of the prime purposes of existence. One could say that having the means (financial stability) matters more to people, but at the end of the day, you cannot deny that the intent behind all those efforts is to just to be happy. Therefore, happiness is our drive to do just about anything

Secondly, happiness is sustainability. If society’s goal is solely economic growth it would not be long until it collapses. A small-scale example would be gift-giving among you and your friends. Suppose that you have all agreed to give expensive gifts to each other, the increment would reach a point wherein all of you would be stressed out and decide to halt the tradition.

From these wide outlooks, we can infer the benefits at an individual level:

  • Happiness improves your cognition (i.e., develop a more positive outlook in life)
  • Happiness facilitates healthy behaviors like exercising
  • Happiness brings out your creativity
  • Happiness helps you solve problems more efficiently
  • Happiness improves your overall health
  • Happiness makes you more resilient in times of hardship
  • Happiness helps create deeper emotional bonds and stronger relationships

Can Happiness Also be a Bad Thing?

Yes, negative happiness exists. It is not as simple as excessive happiness nor purely linked to mental illnesses (i.e., delusions, mania in bipolar disorder, satisfaction from compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorders, highs from substance abuse and addictive disorders). As a matter of fact, happiness itself, without being labeled harmful, is unhealthy at times.

A study presented evidence that rigidly focusing on attaining happiness may result in not being happy at all. Similarly, another research states that you may experience paradoxical effects when you are trying to be happy: holding happiness in high regard oftentimes results in negative emotions and poor well-being.

The consequences of treating happiness as a “never-ending goal” are poor decision-making and undermined well-being. In relation to such, this time-consuming characteristic of happiness is linked to not knowing the proper steps to take to be happy which causes stress and may even lead to depression, especially for those who need happiness the most.

5 Easy Tips to Be Happier

As reported by the General Social Survey (GSS), the COVID-19 pandemic caused a prominent decline in the happiness of Americans. As we all know, maintaining good mental health during that period was nearly impossible, yet it’s crucial to acknowledge that mental health stands as the foremost predictor of happiness. 

1. Learn from your bad feelings and let them fuel the growth of your optimistic self.

2. Tend to your relationships by taking the focus off of yourself.

3. Reflect on your emotions with the intention to live a meaningful life.

4. Always strive for self-development, better-educated people tend to be happier.

5. Health always comes first, avoid or eliminate bad habits.

I hope that you were able to put value to the insights I shared and can cultivate happiness that resonates uniquely with your sense of well-being – after all, the pursuit of happiness is a personalized journey.

For more useful tips beside those mentioned above, I recommend Berkeley University Greater Good Magazine, and surveys such as this done by the Pew Research Center.