Despite its apparent simplicity, happiness is hard to pin down. Psychologist’s happiness scales are imprecise, and the field of Positive Psychology focuses on five agreed-upon components that boost well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.
But even this hedonic approach is changing the way researchers study happiness. For example, studies are increasingly focusing on pleasures and displeasures.
1. Happiness is a state of mind
For decades psychologists have been asking what makes people happy. Now, researchers are finding answers that may surprise you. For example, the factors that might first come to mind—like income and social status—don’t play a big role in happiness. Although richer people are happier than poorer people, the difference is small. Also, people who are religious are only slightly happier than those who are not.
Happiness is a feeling that encompasses a variety of emotions, such as pleasure, excitement, and contentment. It also includes a deeper sense of satisfaction and meaning, Dr. Stern says. Happiness is a complex emotion, and like all emotions it has to do with our perception of things.
That means that our happiness changes over time, as we grow older and develop new relationships. It’s a complex process, but one that can be influenced by the things we choose to do or not do. This is why it’s important for people to work on their happiness throughout the lifespan.
2. Physical health is a state of mind
Achieving physical health involves eating nutritious foods, getting adequate sleep, engaging in regular exercise and reducing stress. It also includes recognizing and managing chronic illness or pain, and seeking medical care when needed.
Happiness is a complex topic that’s difficult to define and measure in an objective way. But scientists are getting closer to understanding what factors may increase happiness.
For example, researchers are finding that the brain mechanisms involved in pleasure reactions – from sensory (food and sexual) to monetary, artistic, or altruistic – overlap with one another. This functional perspective suggests that pleasures that are important for happiness have a common neurobiological basis.
Moreover, many of the practices that researchers have found to be effective in boosting happiness – like social connection, gratitude, and mindfulness – work across the board. This means that a person’s level of contentment with their life could be more universal than previously thought. However, a lack of diversity in psychological research has been a major barrier to the study of happiness.
3. Physical health is a state of mind
It is no surprise that physical health depends on a healthy state of mind. A person who experiences stress and anxiety, for example, might suffer from high blood pressure or stomach ulcers, while someone who is surrounded by love and compassion may enjoy better mental health.
The science of happiness is complex, but advances in the psychology and neuroscience of pleasure make the hedonic aspect of the concept the most tractable for scientific study (Kahneman, Kahneman, & Diener, 2022). It may also be easier to measure subjective feelings than to analyze the causes of them.
Researchers have shown that some of the factors associated with happiness include gratitude, self-compassion, and spending time outdoors. But a person’s attitude toward adversity and their ability to handle difficult situations can also influence how happy they are. For example, people who feel that nature is an important part of their identity are more likely to experience happiness than those who do not.
4. Physical health is a state of mind
A healthy body is a central component of overall wellbeing. In fact, it is the strongest predictor of mental health with a one point improvement in physical health resulting in a 0.43 point rise (or decline) in mental health. Physical wellbeing can be improved by eating well, getting moderate to vigorous exercise and getting enough sleep along with maintaining a healthy lifestyle including socialization and leisure-time activities.
The eight-week course is taught by Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas who are both internationally renowned experts in positive psychology and highly skilled teachers. They will introduce students to the roots of a happy and meaningful life with lessons that are grounded in research. Students will try several research-backed activities and discover how their happiness changes over time. Health professionals who enroll can earn continuing education credits.