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What Science Has to Say About Happiness

By Paula Ramirez
Share to PinterestWhat Science Has to Say About Happiness

Happiness is a state of contentment and well-being, but its meaning is widely subjective. For most people, finding happiness is an ongoing goal. Because it is such an important part of the human condition, researchers have long tried to apply scientific principles to clarify the importance of happiness and quantify how people reach it. What they’ve found is that a lot of factors contribute to happiness.


The concepts of happiness

Researchers created constructs or concepts to better understand and explain happiness:

  • Affective well-being is feelings of joy and pleasure
  • Eudaimonic well-being is a sense of meaning and purpose in life
  • Evaluative well-being is life satisfaction

Each person’s level of happiness is unique, dependent on environmental and individual factors, culture, and personal history.

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Predictors of happiness

Although happiness is subjective and its parameters differ from one person to the next, researchers have identified certain predictors that appear to universally lead to happy feelings.

  • Social competence: the ability to handle social situations effectively
  • Social skills: getting along with others and creating healthy relationships
  • Cooperativeness: the extent a person goes to satisfy another’s concerns
  • Relationship satisfaction: especially with those who support them
  • Serious leisure activity: fulfilling activities that combine special skills, knowledge, and experience

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Happiness makes us physically healthier

Researchers have discovered that a happy person is generally a healthy one. Studies show that impaired happiness is a consequence of poor health, and being unhappy may lead to a higher risk of disease. Not only can happiness help us live a longer life, but it may also reduce the risk of high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, and arthritis. Plus, it boosts the immune system.

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Happiness improves mental health

Defining psychological health isn’t easy. There are shifts in what is important and the definitions evolve over time. Researchers know that the basic building block for good mental health is happiness. Finding ways to achieve it is important for quality of life. Spending time with those wecare about, resolving day-to-day stressors, finding the humor in everyday life, and discovering our potential are factors that contribute to how happy we are. Recognizing times when we aren’t happy and finding ways to remedy those issues are signs of good mental health.

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Genetics play a role in happiness

In 1996, psychologists studied several thousand sets of middle-aged twins, focusing on their perceptions of happiness. The purpose was to determine whether or not genetics is a factor for how happy people are in adulthood. What they discovered is that only 3% of a human’s well-being relies on socioeconomic status, educational level, family income, marital status, and religious commitment. They estimated that genetics, however, make up 44% to 52% of our "subjective well-being," the scientific term for happiness.

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Life circumstances are fleeting

Fresh surroundings, a big promotion, or a new love interest can make a person feel happy. Similarly, unfortunate circumstances — the loss of a job, being overlooked for a promotion or raise, or experiencing heartbreak — can make people feel sad. For some people, these circumstances play a significant role in happiness levels, accounting for around 40% of their well-being. In others, it's a relatively insignificant one, around 10%. Researchers believe that circumstances aren’t as telling of human happiness levels because they don’t usually have long-term effects.

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Positive and negative affect

“Affect” is a technical term in psychology that describes the emotions and expressions we display and how they influence our actions and decisions. A positive affect refers to positive emotions, like pride, joy, enthusiasm, cheerfulness, energy, and exuberance. Sadness, fear, distress, disgust, and lethargy are negative emotions that lead to a negative affect. These affects influence not only our happiness levels, but our opinions, our thoughts, and our brain activity. Researchers found that positive affectivity helps us achieve happy feelings. It leads to people being not only more open and engaged but more creative. Negative emotions limit our ability to find happiness by narrowing our thoughts and the options we are willing to consider.

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For years, researchers have explored whether or not religion makes people happier, and therefore, healthier. A 2019 study of data from two dozen countries by the Pew Research Center found that actively religious people in most of the countries weren’t more likely to describe themselves as being happier and healthier than those with no religious affiliation. Studies show that it isn’t necessarily a specific faith that helps boost happiness. However, having faith in general — a strong belief in something for which there is no proof — can boost happy feelings. It can help people discover ways to move beyond self-interest, explore deeper truths, and serve the greater good, which can improve overall well-being.

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Productive work

People need a purpose, and for millions of people around the world, daily work or a career provides this. Social scientists say that as a general rule, people never find satisfaction just by earning money. While it may provide a temporary fix for current circumstances, the adage is apparently true: it won’t buy happiness. Finding work that provides a sense of accomplishment or service to others is more likely to result in long-term happiness.

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Managing wants

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Sociologists, psychologists, and spiritual leaders have repeated the mantra time and time again. Having more “stuff” doesn’t make you happier. Many people continue an endless cycle of working, earning, and buying, yet don't achieve happiness by doing so. Fulfillment from acquiring material possessions is short-lived. Instead, the science suggests we need to create a strong foundation for happiness. Analyzing and readjusting our wants instead of wanting more of what we already have is key to a happier life.



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