What does it mean to be "Happy"?

Happiness is the goal that sits at the end of the journey for all of us. Life goals, directions we choose to take, jobs we choose to work (or no jobs, for some of us) all end up leading to one big umbrella goal - to be happy. A lot of people feel happy, and a lot of people have to work on their happiness - ups and downs that come natural with the mental health of all human beings.

But what even is happiness? Being 'happy' is defined as an emotional state specifically characterized by feelings of joy, fulfillment, satisfaction and contentment. There are so many ways to define it, but it really stems from positive feelings and satisfaction in your life. Since it's so broadly defined, psychologists often use the term 'subjective well-being', meaning an individual's particular opinion of their own life in the current moment.

The two key components to happiness are:

  1. Balancing your emotions. Everyone has rough days, feels down, or experiences negative emotions. Overall happiness is linked, normally, with having more good days than bad days. Since you can't avoid the bad days all-together, it's the number of them that affect you that matter.

  2. Satisfaction with your life. This is a direct influence based on your feelings about your job, your relationships, your home, and other things that you personally find important.


How do I know if I am happy?

When we look at the perceptions of what happiness is, and what it means, there's an enormous variety of opinions. Even though happiness varies person to person, there are a handful of recurring 'signs' that psychologists often look for when measuring a patient's happiness. These signs can be seen as:

  • Feeling satisfied, overall, with your life.

  • Feeling that the living conditions you are exposed to are acceptable, and good.

  • Feeling like you are living the life you wanted for yourself when you were young.

  • Feeling more positive than negative, and having more good days than bad.

  • Feeling like you either have, or absolutely will, accomplish your goals in life.

Remember: Just because you're a happy person, doesn't mean you're ONLY happy! Happy people are still going to feel the full range of emotions - anger, sadness, loneliness, boredom. However, the difference between a happy person and an unhappy person, is that the happy person will see the positive, the silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel in a bad situation. They can rely on their optimism and happy demeanor to overcome the negative encounters in their lives.

Two Types of Happiness

Happiness was shown in ancient Greek culture as something that comes from two separate kinds of emotional gratitude - Hedonia and Eudaimonia.

  • Hedonia - Hedonic happiness comes directly from pleasure-related situations. It is most commonly associated with doing what feels good, with self-care and self-fulfilling desires, and can have the hedonic happy person experiencing pure enjoyment and satisfaction.

  • Eudiamonia - Eudiamonic happiness comes from seeking virtue, and meaning in your life and interactions. Important aspects of wellbeing include your life feeling like it means something, that it has value and purpose to those around you. Often, this happiness is associated with fulfilling goals and long-term dreams, taking on responsibility and concern for the welfare of others, and living up to the ideals and goals you've set for yourself along the way.

Nowadays, psychologists refer to these two types of happiness as Pleasure, and Meaning. There has been discussion in recent years of adding a third base-type of happiness, called Engagement. This would directly reflect the happiness that is derived from being involved and active in the many different aspects of life.

Research has shown that, of the three types of happiness, people often rank higher in their Eudiamonic satisfaction than their Hedonic satisfaction. As an example, volunteering for something that you believe strongly in is going to be more meaningful to you, than it may necessarily be pleasurable. Binge-watching the newest season of RuPaul All Stars will probably rank more pleasurable, than meaningful.


There are quite a few types of happiness that fall under these categories:

  • Excitement: Looking forward to an event/situation with positive anticipation!

  • Optimism: Overall life outlook; everything is more positive, more upbeat

  • Gratitude: Being thankful and appreciative to those around you for all they do

  • Joy: Often a brief and fleeting feeling, it is felt very strongly in the moment

  • Pride: Satisfaction in something you have accomplished or completed

  • Contentment: Related to a sense of satisfaction in your life, experiences, and situation



Ways we can be happier, thanks to science!

There are a lot of influences on happiness, and it varies widely per person. Your job, your friends, your apartment - the same way that each of us is unique, happiness means something different for us all.

There are, however, a handful of behaviors that science has taken the time to correlate for us.

  1. Growing Old (or being the ripe age of 23): A study done in 2014 found that adults in their 70s were far happier than fresh adults at 18. This was due to the fact that, even though both age groups experiences extraordinary global events, the older crowd (in knowing more about themselves, and the world) can enjoy the changes more. Other studies have confirmed that 69 and older are the happiest years of your life, although a lot of folks reported 23 as their happiest year.

  2. Caring about those around you: Studies about the "moral molecule" have proven that caring about your loved ones really does matter, and not only for them. The moral molecule releases high levels of oxytocin into the brain when you think about your loved ones - this can help with pain relief, as well as perpetuating that love that you feel for them! Even spending time on social media and reading posts/looking at pictures of your loved ones can boost your mood and oxytocin levels.

  3. Positive thinking and following the Big 5: Self-help gurus got this one in the bag! Positive thinking is extremely important to being a happy person, and having good mental health! A 2010 study showed that the top 5 components of positive thinking are practicing acts of kindness, being optimistic, being grateful, using your strengths, and relishing in the luckiness you have been granted in life thus far.

  4. Exercise: It shouldn't be a shock by this point in time - exercise directly affects your mental health. Working out released endorphins, which are natural pain killers and create a feeling of euphoria within the brain. A great example is "runner's high"!

  5. Having Pets: Okay, DUH! How could this NOT make you happier!? A study done in 2011 showed that pets not only increase our self-esteem, but provide a bigger sense of belonging and responsibility in our lives (pets are a key component of your Eudiamonic happiness!)

  6. Volunteering: Volunteering can create a boost in self-esteem and overall psych well-being, which is naturally going to lead to a happier view. Often times, due to the societal expectation/strong dynamics of self-interest, people don't go out of their way to help someone else. But when you do, the feelings associated with being selfless can provide a major boost to your mental health, and therefore your happiness.

  7. Enjoying Art and Culture: Getting out of the house is important. In 2011, a study was done that spoke to both male and female participants about outside sources of happiness - enjoying ballet, concerts, and event sporting events led to a higher rate of happiness.

  8. Having sex: It's no doubt that sex makes you happier. Frequent sex in your life can help lead you to lower anxiety, stress and depression. It has affects on your physical wellbeing, and due to the lowered anxieties and stressors, can also positively impact your ability to make money. In 2013, a study showed that folks getting it on more than 4x a week, often make 5% more money than those who have sex less.

  9. Not overthinking about being happy in the first place: When we are stuck over-focusing on stuff, we end up not paying attention to the world around us. Keeping yourself present, and feeling the emotions as they come, is ultimately a wonderful key to maintaining the happiness you have already achieved.

Happiness is something that we all strive for - it's the end all, be all, ultimate goal of the day. Some of us are already happy - more good days than bad, feeling vindicated and proud of our work and home, of our relationships and life path. Some of us are fighting with it, working on how to overcome feelings of anxiety or stress that could be keeping us from achieving the happiness we so deserve. Either way, having an understanding on what it means to be happy, and where to go from here, is the first step to continue down the path towards happiness.


"Happiness is a direction, not a place." - Sydney Harris