What Is Happiness? The Science and the Hype


Let’s begin with definitions (the boring stuff): Happiness is an especially “fuzzy” word. It is used to refer to a whole range of related emotions, such as joy, elation, satisfaction, peace of mind, etc. Two commonly used scientific terms for happiness are Psychological Well-being (PWB) and Subjective Well-being (SWB). In this FAQ we focus on happiness in terms of psychological well-being (a little less fuzzy).


How can we become happier?

Leading Positive Psychologists claim that happiness has three sources, ie that the “Happiness Pie” has three slices:

Slice 1: Our genetic makeup (ie our “inbuilt” sense of happiness, or grumpiness, that runs in the family). We can’t do much about that. Some scientists argue that this is the biggest slice, perhaps 50% or more, but it is scientifically very difficult to prove.

Slice 2: Our environment. If you live in a war zone for example, that may have a big impact on your mood. You may be able to change that. Or not.

Slice 3: Our actions, such as life skills or habits. We can definitely change this slice of the pie. Some of these skills can be practiced immediately (such as active-constructive listening), and may change your mood pretty immediately too. Some take a while (such as regular exercise) but have a profound, long term impact on your wellbeing. We now have evidence that, over the long term, exercise might be at least as effective as anti-depressants (if you are seriously depressed and need to find relief in a hurry you should  of course call a specialist). The exciting thing about the “life skills” slice of the pie is that you can get off your chair and eat it right now. You can read about what the science of happiness tells us about the habits of happy people on this page. Or if your are a visual learner and tired of reading stuff, you can take our free Mini Course.

If the Science of Happiness actually works, how come so many people are depressed?

Some leading reasons:

  1. Ignorance. Nobody taught us about life skills. According to Aristotle, one of the pioneers of happiness, “Education of the mind without education of the heart is not an education at all.” Many of our schools have become FACTories. We have forgotten that education is mainly about teaching skills (not facts), and especially life skills. And we didn’t know about some of these life skills until very recently. The science of happiness is fairly new. You can read about how it began on this page.
  2. The Hype of Happiness. Partly due to an epidemic of depression, we have seen an explosion of interest in happiness. If something becomes a focus of interest, commercialization is not far behind. Happiness Inc. is a thriving business.
    How do we distinguish the science from the hype? Perhaps the best way is to question the sources of evidence. If you are told that smiling at yourself in the mirror in the morning is the key to happiness, look for the source. Is it based on a piece written for “Bliss Magazine” with no mention of sources? Or is it based on reviews of randomized, controlled scientific studies?
  3. The culture of immediate gratification. We want things now. Yesterday. So we drink a beer or take a tranquillizer. Or tap an emoji on a smartphone screen instead of calling. Happiness takes a little spade work. But the long terms benefits are enormous.
  4. Some things are out of our control. I am talking about the second slice of the “happiness pie.” The world is going through a perfect storm of chaotic changes that humans are not used to dealing with. Covid 19, climate change, overcrowding..economic chaos..I could go on. You may not be able to change that slice of the pie. But the third slice is right next to you. Can you see it? No? Perhaps your armchair is getting in the way.