What exactly is happiness?

In the past few weeks I have explored the current scientific knowledge about happiness. This is the first in a series of posts to give you a brief update on the things I found.

The science on happiness

Happiness has long been the topic of study in many domains of knowledge: philosophy, physiology, biology, theology, psychology, art, literature, and more. Within this project, the choice for a mainly psychological perspective has been made since psychology is closely related to, and has proven to be useful in relation to the design field. Desmet and Hekkert (2007, p. 64) state that “social sciences, and in particular psychology, offer clear bases for experiential concepts that can structure some of the discussion in the design domain.”

In 1998, the body of research on happiness and subjective well-being (SWB) started to grow rapidly, as Martin Seligman chose ‘Positive Psychology’ as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. In his view, psychology had succeeded in studying and treating mental illnesses, but had neglected the opportunity to study the positive spectrum of human cognition and affect. Where psychology has succeeded in turning people who are feeling bad into feeling average, perhaps positive psychology can succeed in turning people who are feeling average into feeling great.

Positive psychology studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Positive psychologists seek to find and nurture genius and talent, and to make normal life more fulfilling, not simply to treat mental illness (Compton, 2005).

Research is conducted in three main areas (Seligman, 2003).
– The study of positive emotion
– The study of positive traits (e.g. strengths, virtues, abilities)
– The study of positive institutions (e.g. democracy, strong families, free inquiry)
The three pillars are related: positive institutions support positive traits, which in turn support positive emotion.

Definition of Happiness

Happiness is such a broad term that it can be defined in numerous ways. A dictionary would tell us that it is “a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy” (Cambridge, 2009). But what does this state of mind concern? Is it about contentment with our job, social life, or the peanutbutter sandwich we had for lunch today?

Ruut Veenhoven has studied numerous research papers to formulate a definition of happiness that is a bit less ambiguous. He has classified four distinct qualities of life, separating individual from environmental qualities, and potential from actual qualities.
The actual individual result of the qualities of life is the enjoyment of life. This category can be subdivided in four different kinds of enjoyment. One can enjoy life aspects or life as a whole, and an enjoyment can be passing or enduring.
The enduring enjoyment of life as a whole is life satisfaction. This is what Veenhoven defines as happiness (Veenhoven, 2002, pp.6-10).

Veenhoven Tables

Life satisfaction is a central topic of SWB research. Rather than a single specific construct, subjective well-being is an area of scientific interest, including pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, domain satisfaction and life satisfaction. These components can be further broken down into sub-components. For life satisfaction, these are the desire to change one’s life, satisfaction with one’s current life, satisfaction with one’s past, satisfaction with one’s future and the significant others’ view of one’s life (Diener, 1999, p.277).

Happiness Measurement Methods

Although happiness can be defined, it remains a subjective concept, and therefore means different things to different people. For a monk in Tibet happiness may comprise something different than for an average American. The wishes of a person owning a villa, car and plasma television differ from the wishes of a starving child in Ethiopia.
However, the complex concept of happiness can be measured with a surprisingly easy question: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you feeling in general?’ This gives a subjective, but very reliable answer (Veenhoven, 2009).

Benefits of happiness

A growing body of research has shown that happiness has many benefits for people. It boosts physical and mental health, energy levels, immune systems, engagement with social relations and work, and longevity (Lyubomirsky, 2007, p.26). Happiness is likely to benefit one’s families, one’s communities, and society at large (Lyubomirsky et al., 2002).

There has been much discussion whether the relation between happiness and its benefits is correlational or causal. An impressive study of the manuscripts of 180 nuns from Milwaukee revealed a strong causal link between longevity and the amounts of positive feeling expressed in the manuscripts.
As Martin Seligman (2003, p.4) illustrates: “When the amount of positive feeling was quantified by raters who did not know how long the nuns lived, it was discovered that 90 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age eighty-five, versus only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter. Similarly, 54 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age ninety-four, as opposed to 11 percent of the least cheerful quarter.”
What makes this study particularly interesting is the fact that these nuns have lead very similar lives. They all had the same routine, roughly the same diet, did not smoke nor drink, had similar marital histories and belonged to the same economic and social class. Practically all variables have been eliminated, and research has shown this link to be causal.

Research has shown that happiness causes benefits. Interestingly enough, benefits can attribute to someone’s happiness as well, causing an upward spiral of positive emotion. Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) found that “when people feel positive emotion, they are jolted into a different way of thinking and acting. Their thinking becomes creative and broad-minded, and their actions become adventurous and exploratory. This expanded repertoire creates more mastery over challenges, which in turn generates more positive emotion, which further broadens and builds thinking and action, and so on” (Seligman, 2003, pp.210-11).

Upward spiral of positive emotion

– Cambridge, 2009. Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. [Online] Available at: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=35689&dict=CALD [Accessed 15 September 2009].
– Compton, W.C., 2005. An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing.
– Desmet, P. & Hekkert, P., 2007. Framework of Product Experience. International Journal of Design, 1(1), pp.57-66.
– Diener, E., 1999. Subjective Well-Being: Three Decades of Progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), pp.276-302.
– Fredrickson, B. & Joiner, T., 2002. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, (13).
– Lyubomirsky, S., 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: The Penguin Press.
– Lyubomirsky, S., Diener, E. & King, L.A., 2002. Is happiness a good thing? The benefits of long-term positive affect.
– Seligman, M.E.P., 2003. Authentic Happiness. London: Nicolas Brealey Publishing.
– Veenhoven, R., 2002. Het grootste geluk voor het grootste aantal, geluk als richtsnoer voor beleid. Sociale Wetenschappen, (4), pp.1-43.
– Veenhoven, R., 2009. Een leven lang happy. August.


3 responses to “What exactly is happiness?

  1. Interesting stuff! The diagram of Seligman is really appealing. Seems like we can snowball ourselves into hapiness by simply taking that peanutbutter sandwich…

    Reading the post, I really wonder to what extent we are imagining/creating our own hapiness. For this I think of the movie ‘La vita e bella’. It is perhaps more about the story we create ourselves, than merely the events.

    Good luck with growing a nice design out of your solid research….

  2. As for me, I find it amusing that happiness needs to be understood scientifically. I bet you £1000 that a truly happy person could care less what the cause of their happiness was. I know it’s not how I think about or will ever think about this subject – and current levels of scientific ‘knowledge’ are way too low, right now, in any case.

    But it’s great that you’re writing about happiness. I believe the simple act of writing about happiness makes you happy. But I couldn’t prove it scientifically. 😉


    • designinghappiness

      I agree with you that the levels of knowledge are currently still very low. Psychology is only starting to find out about happiness. And as always, psychology has no absolute truths in the way that math has, so in that sense there are a lot of uncertainties. However, I believe that there is some good research out there which can be used for design. But one needs to be careful when selecting his sources.

      I’m not sure whether writing about happiness has made me any happier. However, it has given me a sense of increased awareness. For now, I’m at least very happy working on this project.

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