What Is Happiness and Why Is It Important?

UPDATED: May 17, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 12, 2021
What Is Happiness and Why Is It Important?

“Tell me about your mother.”

Anyone who has been in therapy at any point during the past century has likely heard that request, now a go-to punch line for an entire industry of mental health. Starting with Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s, exploring one’s past for hidden or repressed hurts and psychoses has been the therapeutic model for attaining emotional well-being. Freud’s idea of the “talking cure” remained unchallenged for decades.

But focusing on why people are miserable—and reliving that misery one 45-minute session at a time—in order to get happy became, well, depressing for many in the mental health field. “For every 100 [scholarly] journal articles on sadness, there is just one on happiness,” bemoans Martin Seligman, Ph.D., in his 2002 best-selling book, Authentic Happiness.

That’s why, in 1997, when Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association, he made it his mission to change the focus of the influential organization from diagnosing and treating disorders to cultivating happiness, creating an entirely new field of research and practice called Positive Psychology. He encouraged APA members to change the question at the heart of their work from “Why are we sad?” to “How can we become happy?” Instead of trying to fix people’s weaknesses, Seligman wanted to encourage their strengths. Grant and research money followed his passion.

Though critics contend that Seligman’s approach is not so new and bears much resemblance to the humanistic psychology championed by William James in the late 1800s, Seligman’s work gained momentum. Over the past 20 years or so, he and his colleagues have amassed a formidable portfolio of data on what makes people feel content.

Happily, there’s plenty of good news in their findings: First of all, we’re already pretty happy. Second, we can control how cheery we feel. No matter how often our mothers hugged us when we were young or whether grumpiness is in our genes (and it may be to some extent), we can still make ourselves a lot happier.

And you should. Not just because it feels good to be happy (duh!), but happy people are healthier, live longer and do more good for their families, businesses, communities and ultimately, the world.

So what are you waiting for?  

Happy Together

For researchers to measure increases in happiness, they needed to know how happy we already are. Turns out, humans are a surprisingly upbeat bunch. In 1985, Ed Diener, Ph.D., author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, created five simple questions to assess overall happiness—the Satisfaction with Life Scale—which has since become a universal survey used in most happiness research. The majority of people in economically developed countries fall in the average to above-average score groups, meaning that they are generally satisfied with their lives. “People are in a good mood on average 80 percent of the time,” Diener says.

The Gallup Global Well-Being poll, devised in part by Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and a premier researcher in the study of happiness, had similar findings. Almost all of the 155 nations examined experience above-average levels of positivity. Even among people in very unfortunate circumstances—those who had experienced hunger or homelessness or who had been assaulted or robbed within the past year—the overwhelming majority claimed to enjoy their lives. On the day these “hardship” participants were polled, 62 percent said they “laughed and smiled a lot yesterday,” which was consistent with the results of the non-hardship participants.  

Happy Genes

How can anyone who has recently experienced hunger or homelessness maintain such a sunny disposition? It’s called the “set-point” theory of happiness. We all have a set range of happiness due to our genetics that we naturally return to after events—a job loss or promotion, say—that briefly move the needle in one direction or another. In 1996, a landmark study of 4,000 sets of twins—The Minnesota Twin Family Study—found that identical twins had very similar levels of happiness across their lifetimes, whether they were raised together or apart, suggesting a strong genetic component to emotional well-being.

“An adopted identical twin has as much chance at being similar in temperament to the twin he never met as he does to his adoptive family,” explains Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. The study determined that 44 to 52 percent of our happiness is inherited. Scientists have debated the precise ratio, but almost all research shows that up to 50 percent of a person’s well-being is genetically determined. Common sense suggests the same. “We all know people who seem to have been born Tiggers and others who were born Eeyores,” Rubin says.  

Happy Returns

But if so much of our happiness is predetermined and we’re already pretty jovial, is it worth your time striving for even more? You bet. Check out the following facts:

The happier people are, the healthier they are.

When we’re content, our bodies secrete chemicals including oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which help modulate our immune systems, thereby enhancing our health, says Deepak Chopra, M.D., co-founder and chairman of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing. An aggressive immune system can contribute to autoimmune disorders while a depressed immune system can lead to infections and certain types of cancer, he explains. Positive moods also have been shown to reduce death rates in patients with HIV, renal failure and certain types of cancer. One study found that postsurgical physical recovery among coronary bypass patients was quicker for optimists, as was resumption of normal activities after hospital discharge. People with high self-reported levels of happiness (known in the research world as subjective well-being, or SWB) have been shown to weigh less and have lower blood pressures and incidences of cancer. Though the exact ways in which mood can alter health have not been fully defined, studies have found people with depression or anxiety to be at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. And excessive amounts of the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol—released during negative states such as sadness, fear and anxiety—increase heart rate and blood pressure over time, triggering a host of other health problems.

The healthier you are, the longer you live.

Several studies that follow participants over a significant length of time have concluded that high SWB is closely connected with longevity. “The results leave little doubt that subjective well-being can predict longevity,” Diener wrote in his meta-analysis of dozens of health and happiness studies, published in Applied Psychology.

In addition to longer lives, the greater health of happy folks makes them more fertile.

And happy people’s cheerfulness rubs off on their offspring, in part thanks to genes, but also because happy people engage in happiness behaviors—such as expressing gratitude, showing appreciation and connecting with others—which their kids mimic.

People with high SWB make more money, too.

Why? Happy people are very positive, and positivity has a strong causal link to higher incomes, perhaps because people who see the glass half full tend to see and be more open to opportunities, to be easier to work with and for, and more likely to find creative solutions and less likely to give up. Studies have found that employees with high SWB are also less likely to lose their jobs. So although more money doesn’t necessarily make you happier (see the discussion of salaries below in “Happiness Roadblocks”), more happiness just might make you more money.

Satisfied individuals have more harmonious marriages and are less likely to get divorced.

Oh, and they have more sex, too.

But being happy isn’t just fun for you; it’s good for your community and the world at large.

One study out of Michigan State University found that communities across the U.S. with higher life satisfaction had greater life expectancies, with lower levels of mortality from heart disease, homicide, liver disease, diabetes and cancer.

Kahneman became a happiness expert by way of economics (he won the Nobel Prize for his economic theories and founded the field of behavioral economics) because he noticed that a population’s emotional well-being was closely tied to its economic well-being (makes sense, because folks with high SWB make more money). He also posits in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that happy people make more rational financial decisions that benefit everyone because of their more benevolent attitude toward others. For the same reasons, happier people volunteer more (and helping others, in turn, brings them more happiness) and they engage in more pro-social activities. This domino effect has an astonishing impact on making the world a better place.

Focusing on well-being in the workplace pays off, too.

Flexible work schedules lead to better productivity, a study from the University of Minnesota shows. When employers put the emphasis on results rather than hours spent at the office, productivity increases, say the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) study authors. What’s more, ROWE participants enjoyed an average of almost an hour more sleep at night because they weren’t expected to stay at the office until a certain hour; they had more time to finish their personal to-do lists and get to bed at reasonable times, as well as higher energy levels and better overall health. The lesson: Happy people = better work.

In short, happiness is an evolutionary advantage. “We are such a social species that happy people do well,” says Diener, blasting the notion that the cutthroats are the most successful. “We do need negative emotion, though,” he adds. Being happy all the time could be harmful. If you never feel angry, you may be taken advantage of. If you’re never afraid, you may react inappropriately to danger. If you never feel ashamed or guilty, “you may become a psychopath,” he says.  

Happiness Roadblocks

So although you may not be able to change your baseline range, your goal should be “to try to reach the top of that range as often as possible,” offers Rubin. Seligman has a formula: S + C + V = H. The “S” is a person’s set, inherited range; “C” is the circumstances of a person’s life; and “V” stands for the factors that are under a person’s voluntary control. The three components add up to make “H,” overall happiness.

With a formula in hand, it should be easy to add it all up and be happy, right? Not exactly. The problem has been that we’re not so great at judging what those “V” factors are. “Humans are really bad at knowing what will make them happy,” says Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., author of The Paradox of Choice (in which he argues that the proliferation of choice in modern society is one of the main impediments to personal happiness).

We’re inept at making long-term predictions about what will bring us lasting contentment, according to the best-selling book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D. When I write my book / sell my business / get married / make senior partner, we think, we’ll be ultimately happy. But the way we imagine our futures, Gilbert says, rarely corresponds with reality. He and his Harvard colleagues studied university professors, almost all of whom imagined they’d be professionally satisfied once they reached tenure. Several years after being considered for tenure, however, the teachers who were denied it were just as happy as those who received it.

The idea that money can buy happiness has been roundly debunked, too. Many studies bear out that once basic needs (shelter, nutrition, security, adequate medical care, etc.) are met, financial success does little to make us happier. A famous 1978 study found that lottery winners were no happier than control-group participants. And according to a 2008-2009 survey of 450,000 Americans led by Kahneman, personal well-being did increase as income increased—but only to a point. Once the respondents reached an annual household income of $75,000, well-being scores leveled out, no matter how much more money someone made, even in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco. Americans making $75,000 are just as satisfied as millionaires.

Having kids won’t make you any happier, either, studies show. “Neither will moving to a sunnier climate,” Schwartz warns anyone with California dreams. Even youth, so coveted but so fleeting, does not guarantee a happy state of mind.  

Lasting Happiness

So what can put a smile on our faces? We probably all know what brings us immediate pleasure. Sex. A warm muffin and a hot cup of coffee. A glass of wine and a creamy Camembert. A day at the beach. A Mad Men marathon.

But in-the-moment delights are only part of the happiness equation. Overall life satisfaction, your evaluation or judgment of your life in totality, counts just as much. It’s the difference between being happy in your life and being happy about your life, explains Diener.

“The ‘pleasant’ life may be had by drinking champagne and driving a Porsche, but not the good life,” writes Seligman. The path to true well-being, he believes, lies in cultivating your character strengths (rather than trying to fix your weaknesses). Your “signature strengths,” as Seligman calls them, may include critical thinking, open-mindedness, ingenuity, street smarts, diligence, generosity, leadership, modesty, or 16 other positive traits chosen for their universality and the fact that most cultures value these characteristics for their own sake (as opposed to the beneficial outcomes they may produce). One of Seligman’s signature strengths, for example, is a love of learning (a survey in Authentic Happiness helps you decipher which ones you possess). “By teaching,” he writes, “I have woven it into the fabric of my life. I try to do some of it every day. Simplifying a complex concept for my students or telling my 8-year-old about bidding in bridge ignites a glow inside me. More than that, when I teach well, it invigorates me, and the well-being it brings is authentic because it comes from what I am best at.” When you draw upon your strengths, you can find pleasure in the moment and overall satisfaction.  

Making the Connections

Social connection is key to happiness, all the experts agree. In fact, meta-analyses of happiness studies show that, above all, the quantity and quality of our personal relationships with friends, family and acquaintances determine our spirits. People who have healthy bonds—and enjoy frequent quality time—with family and friends are much likelier to be happy. (Interesting note: One study found that bonds with women are particularly happy-making. The more relationships with females the study participants had, whether they were male or female themselves, the happier they were.) Loneliness, on the other hand, is the strongest predictor of depression.

Humans, like other primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas, have evolved as a social species. Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of Origins of Cooperation and Altruism, claims that when humans interact and cooperate, the parts of our brains responsible for pleasure are stimulated and “happy” hormones—serotonin and oxytocin—are released, making us feel good. Our biology has evolved to enhance sociality, he says, because living in groups protects our species from predation and ensures reproduction. “Extroverts tend to be happier,” says Diener, for this very reason; they’re more adept at forming those all-important relationships. It’s also why married people tend to be happier overall than their single friends. In a survey of 35,000 Americans, the National Opinion Research Center found that 40 percent of married people considered themselves “very happy.” Only 24 percent of the singles felt the same way.

It follows, then, that if you want to be happier, you’ve got to nurture your social relationships. For all the science and psychology behind this idea, the resultant advice can seem naive—even hokey. “Some of the advice can seem overly simplistic or sentimental,” admits Sonja Lyubomirsky, M.D., author of The How of Happiness and a central figure in the Positive Psychology world. “But the reality is, we can become happier through simple strategies.”

So how can you strengthen your relationships to increase your SWB? Make time for your loved ones, she advises. Have a date night every week, express admiration and appreciation, celebrate your friends’ personal triumphs and milestones, take up a hobby where you might meet new people. Although these tactics aren’t novel, they have now been put through the scientific method and shown to make real, significant differences in people’s satisfaction with their lives.

It’s not just connection to friends and family that matters, though. Seligman believes that true and lasting well-being also consists of feeling connected to something greater than you, whether it’s religion or spirituality, a cause that’s important to you or the well-being of your family. This, of course, is the trickier bit. We can’t figure out the “something greater” through the quizzes that populate Seligman’s books and those of his contemporaries. Religious Americans, study after study has shown, are physically healthier, live longer and are somewhat happier than non-religious folk. But if you’re not religious, feeling connected to something bigger can be a struggle. Chopra says, “the easiest way to be happy is to make somebody else happy. Instead of asking ‘What’s in it for me?’ ask yourself ‘How can I help?’” Seligman believes, ultimately, that being good and furthering the cause of humanity and a promising future—whether through the arts, law, teaching, technology, engineering, health services, science, religion or raising children—is a “greater than us” goal. “A life that does this is pregnant with meaning, and if God comes at the end, such a life is sacred,” he concludes.   

Giving Thanks

Gratitude is another strong predictor of contentment. Although having a grateful attitude is a genetic trait to a large degree, it’s also a state of mind that you can work on, Lyubomirsky says. How? By creating a simple gratitude journal in which you write down several things each day that you are thankful for—whether it’s that your computer didn’t shut down at work all day or that your child brought home an “A” on the test she studied so hard for. Oprah Winfrey has exhorted her fans to keep gratitude journals for more than two decades, but now scientists and academics do, too. People who make an effort to feel grateful not only feel better about their lives, studies show, but they are physically healthier, too. “Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotion, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry and irritation,” Lyubomirsky writes.

Saying “thank you” to others is not just polite. “Research shows that people who are consistently grateful tend to be more helpful, more forgiving and less materialistic than people who don’t express as much gratitude,” Lyubomirsky says.  

Looking Up

Optimism is another one of those character traits that can also be a learned state of mind, positive psychologists say. In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman makes the case that even if we were born a glass-half-empty kind of person, we can train ourselves to see the proverbial glass as half full—or at least, less empty than it was before! Consider this chain reaction: Optimists set more goals for themselves, believing, optimistically, that they can attain them. When they come up against obstacles, they are less likely to give in, thinking, this is a temporary setback instead of bemoaning that the odds are against me. Because of their perseverance, they achieve their goals and are encouraged to set more—even more difficult—ones. It’s no surprise, then, that optimists are not only happier, they’re more successful professionally, socially and athletically.

If you’re a natural curmudgeon, look on the bright side: You’ve got lots of room to improve. A Positive Psychology technique to try: Start with small, immediate positive projections. Instead of forcing yourself to say and believe that you are destined for greatness, which you may not truly believe, think, The train is going to be on time today or My sandwich at lunch will be delicious. If you make a conscious effort to do this several times a day, it will become a habit, Lyubomirsky says, and your optimism will build and carry over to the big stuff.

Another trick: Dispute your pessimistic thoughts. If you find yourself thinking, I’ll never get that job or I’m too lazy to finish the project, pretend that someone else—a rival or an inconsiderate person—is saying that about you. What would you say to prove him or her wrong? Argue the reasons you could get the job; explain how your “laziness” is actually fatigue because you haven’t taken a break and that, once you do, you’ll be able to hop back on track. Also helpful: Imagine that someone who loves you heard that unfair criticism of you. What would he or she say? You can be a loving friend to yourself.  

Getting in the Flow

Feeling challenged, too, is a surprisingly important component to satisfaction. “People need to feel like they are growing,” Rubin says. Personal growth can come from being in a new relationship and learning new things about yourself, tackling a new professional task or reading an interesting biography. Challenges present a remedy for the “hedonic treadmill” in which, similar to our happiness set-points, we adapt to (and tire of) our current life situations. But they also allow us plenty of opportunities for “flow,” another proven happiness factor. The idea of flow was coined by another Positive Psychology pioneer, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., to express “complete absorption in what one does.” It’s a natural high, says Lyubomirsky that “does not cause guilt, shame or other damage to the self or the society at large.”

Find ways to get in the flow, whatever that means for you. Taking a walk while listening to Nicki Minaj and contemplating your latest work venture? Writing your blog? Absorbed in the favorite part of your job? Learning a new song to play on the guitar? “It can be anything,” says Lyubomirsky, as long as it’s “not so challenging that it frustrates you, but not too easy that it bores you.” Feeling flow on a regular basis bolsters your self-esteem, confidence, and yes, happiness.  

Working It Out

Speaking of flow, one way to get it is through exercise. “Runner’s high” is a perfect example: Through sustained hard work and cardiovascular exertion, our bodies reward us with a rush of endorphins, neurotransmitters that block pain and produce a feeling of euphoria. (Meditation has also been shown to release endorphins.)

Besides the temporary high that exercise can confer, its long-term effects on happiness are well documented. In one 1999 study, aerobic exercise was shown to be just as effective at treating depression as the antidepressant drug Zoloft. Exercise reduces stress and weight, lowers the risk of many diseases, strengthens bones and muscles, and even protects us against brain degeneration and mental decline in old age. If you’re not already physically active, start slowly and make small goals: Jog for 10 minutes today or take the stairs to the third floor instead of the elevator. If you’re already active, challenge yourself even more: Sign up for a footrace, take up a new sport or add five minutes to each of your workouts. There are many ways to create an exercise routine that doesn’t suck

Acting the Part

We’re trained as humans to believe that we feel the way we do because of what’s happening in our lives. But what if what happened in our lives was due to how we feel? Rubin—whose book details her systematic month-by-month approach to a better life, which uses the advice of ancient philosophers, current happiness researchers and self-help gurus, says that “by pretending to feel happy, or more energetic, or more—whatever, you can actually make yourself be that way.” Feeling tired? Act like you just woke up after a great night’s sleep. Feeling insecure? Pretend that you are the most confident person in the room with nothing to be ashamed of. “Saying ‘You need to change your attitude’ can seem rude and dismissive to someone who’s negative, but altering your perspective and acting the way you want to feel really does work,” Lyubomirsky says.

So, not as happy as you think you could be? Try to have fun. “What did you do for fun when you were a 10-year-old?” Rubin asks. The question is not just theoretical; play is another important component of life satisfaction. Monkey bars, anyone?

This article was published in May 2012 has been updated. Photo by @gor_tanya/Twenty20