Psychology of Happiness: A Summary of the Theory & Research

Psychology of Happiness: A Summary of the Theory & Research

I will admit that when I learned that I was to write an article on the psychology, theory, and science of happiness, I thought “easy!”.

Little did I know the overwhelming depth of this topic! I found myself asking questions – can science explain happiness?

Can happiness be measured? What is happiness, anyway?

Arguably, a lot has been written on the topic of happiness, including on this website. The following provides an exploration of happiness, and, importantly, it provides you with links to further resources on this important topic.

Keep reading to discover a range of topics including the main theories of happiness, and a fascinating look at the neuroscience of happiness, Mahjong Ways Slot as well as an interesting discussion on topics such as subjective wellbeing (the more scientific term for happiness), what positive psychology has to say about happiness, success and happiness, and more. Hopefully, it will answer some questions about happiness. Please enjoy!

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Happiness & Subjective Wellbeing Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients identify sources of authentic happiness and strategies to boost wellbeing.

A Scientific Explanation of Happiness

What exactly do we mean when we talk about a scientific explanation of happiness? What, in fact, is the science of happiness?

Put very simply, the science of happiness looks at “what makes happy people happy” (Pursuit of Happiness, 2018). If you think about it, the subjective nature of happiness makes it incredibly difficult to define and also challenging to measure (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

Let’s look into this further …

In the past

Happiness has been the topic of discussion and debate since the ancient Greek times. Hedonism has a long history (Ryan & Deci, 2001). Science has looked closely at happiness as ‘hedonically’ defined – or, in other words, happiness is the outcome of the pursuit of pleasure over pain (Ryan & Deci, 2001).

Aristippus, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BC claimed happiness was the sum of life’s ‘hedonic’ moments (Ryan & Deci, 2001). Hedonic enjoyment is a state whereby an individual feels relaxed, has a sense of distance from their problems and, can be said to feel ‘happy’ (Ryan & Deci, 2001).

Since the days of Aristotle, happiness has been conceptualized as being composed of at least 2 aspects – hedonia (or, pleasure) and eudaimonia (a sense that life is well-lived) (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

In the present

What does science say about this? Well, research has shown that, whilst these two aspects are definitely distinct and that, in ‘happy’ people, both hedonic and eudaimonic components of happiness correspond (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

A study by Kesebir and Diener (2008) report that in happiness surveys, more than 80% of interviewees rated their overall ‘eudaimonic’ life satisfaction as “pretty to very happy” and, at the same time, 80% of people interviewed also rate their current, hedonic ‘mood’ as positive (e.g. giving a rating of 6-7 on a 10-point valence scale, where 5 is ‘hedonically neutral’).

Neuroscientists have made substantial progress into investigating the functional neuroanatomy of pleasure (which, according to Kringelbach and Berridge 2010, makes an important contribution to our experience of happiness and plays a key role in our sense of wellbeing).

Pleasure has, for many years in the discipline of psychology, been closely associated with happiness (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

According to Sigmund Freud (1930), people: ‘strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and displeasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure’ (p. 76).

Kringelbach and Berridge (2010) argue that the neuroscience of both pleasure and happiness can be found by studying hedonic brain circuits. This is because, according to most modern perspectives, pleasure is an important component of happiness.

Does this provide the opportunity to ‘measure’ happiness, therefore providing a scientific explanation of happiness?

In fact, work of neuroscientists has found that pleasure is not merely a sensation, or thought, but rather an outcome of brain activity in dedicated ‘hedonic systems’ (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

All pleasures, from the most fundamental (food, sexual pleasure) right through to higher-order pleasures (e.g. monetary, medical, and altruistic pleasures) seem to involve the same brain systems (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

Some of the hedonic mechanisms are found deep within the brain (the nucleus accumbens, ventral pallidum, and brainstem) and others are located in the cortex (orbitofrontal, cingulate, medial prefrontal and insular cortices) (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

In the future

It can be said, then, that pleasure activated brain networks are widespread. Despite this exciting finding – a brain network for happiness – Kringelbach and Berridge (2010) say that further research is needed to fully comprehend the functional neuroanatomy of happiness.

As well as the findings from neuroscience supporting an anatomical basis to happiness, another component of a scientific explanation of happiness is the issue of measurement.

Can happiness be measured?

Some individuals argue that maybe happiness should not be the subject of scientific explanation because it is impossible to objectively measure it (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008).

Perhaps, though, as argued by Ed Diener, happiness is subjective. According to Ed Diener, people are happy if they think they are, and each person is the best judge of whether they are, in fact, happy or not (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008).

He introduced a term to describe this ‘measure’ of happiness: Subjective wellbeing.

Having the measure of subjective wellbeing makes a scientific explanation of happiness possible… by asking questions such as:

  • Are you happy?
  • How would you rate your happiness on a scale of 1 – 10

Controlled experiments can be devised to determine what can be done to raise/lower these responses.

The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) has been valuable in the assessment of subjective wellbeing. It has been a positive development in the science of happiness.

ESM provides an overall indication of wellbeing over time, based on the total balance of measurement of positive and negative affect at different times (Norrish & Vella-Brodrick, 2008).

Diener provided evidence that subjective wellbeing has “construct validity” meaning that, yes, it is measuring something ‘real’! This is because Diener showed that subjective wellbeing is constant over time, is highly correlated with some personality traits and has the capacity to predict future outcomes.

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