Defining happiness in life…
Defining happiness can seem as elusive as achieving it. We want to be happy, and we can say whether we are or not, but can it really be defined, studied and measured? And can we use this learning to become happier?
Psychologists say yes, and that there are good reasons for doing so. Positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” These researchers’ work includes studying strengths, positive emotions, resilience, and happiness. Their argument is that only studying psychological disorders gives us just part of the picture of mental health. We will learn more about well-being by studying our strengths and what makes us happy. The hope is that by better understanding human strengths, we can learn new ways to recover from or prevent disorders, and may even learn to become happier.
So how do these researchers define happiness? Psychologist Ed Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, describes what psychologists call “subjective well-being” as a combination of life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative emotions.
Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, describes happiness as having three parts: pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. Seligman says that all three are important, but that of the three, engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life.
Who is happier?
As social scientists gather more and more data about happiness and well-being, we can see who tends to be happier:
- People with strong ties to families and friends are consistently happier than those without social ties.
- Some personality traits tend to go along with happiness. People who are optimistic, have high self-esteem, and are extroverted are more likely to describe themselves as happy.
- Married people are happier, though scientists aren’t sure whether this is because of the marriage or because happy people are more likely to get married. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the couples are parents or not.
- People who grew up with parents who divorced or in a home with a high level of conflict are less happy than people who grew up in homes with intact marriages.
- In the United States, Republicans are happier than Democrats. Worldwide, conservatives are happier than liberals.
- People who attend worship services regularly are happier than those who don’t.
- The middle-aged and seniors are happier than the young; and this does not seem to be generational, as this is consistent across time in longitudinal studies. Younger people tend to have higher levels of negative emotions such as anxiety and anger.
- People with enough money to make ends meet are happier than people who are poor, but beyond that more money doesn’t make much difference.
- While men and women report similar levels of happiness, in most studies, men now are somewhat more likely to be happy than women. This is a switch in recent decades; women used to be happier than men.
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