The Psychology of Happiness: Scientific Facts for a More Positive Life
Happiness… Elusive, yes. Fleeting, perpetually. Absolute, only at the bottom of a jar of Nutella…
We all spend our entire lives trying to achieve happiness, but it is difficult to define its meaning, fully grasp this ephemeral, intangible, weird thing we all hanker after.
If we brought together hundreds of people to talk to each other about what makes them happy, we would have many different answers. Some might answer from religious, maybe philosophical or even spiritual perspectives that give them happiness and meaning, but psychology has also made an effort to define happiness, so what says yee?
Positive psychology, or happiness psychology, is an effort by many professionals of the mind to define exactly what happiness is, since it seems like a very abstract and ambiguous idea. It is a concept that can vary according to cultures, religions, regions and even by age. But we all have something in common: we all have a mind. Studying what happiness is as a psychological and neurological process can be vital to propose new principles and habits.
Let’s see how psychologists have defined happiness and how we can apply their discoveries in our lives.
The pursuit of happYness… literally
If we go back as far as we can, looking for the first research that was done to define happiness, we have to draw the curtain behind positive psychology and even psychology itself. We must go back, like waaaay back, all the way to the Renaissance era, where thinkers, lacking any type of scientific tool and technique to measure or study cognitive processes, were already trying to define happiness in a universal way. Oh, those Renaissance ere folks, like squirrels with a nut.
There were many philosophers and thinkers back then, but two principles prevailed to define happiness:
Hedonism and vital happiness.
Hedonism was propelled by utilitarianism, and it holds that happiness is making pleasure prevail over displeasure. In this way, the things that make us feel satisfied (like slathering a jar of Nutella all over yourself and, oh god, ok, calm down you, I’m getting a little carried away, sorry… now, swiftly moving on…) will overshadow the things that do not, and by doing this we will constantly be happy.
It is like having a barrel and trying actively to fill it with situations and sensations that make us feel good, so the barrel will never be full of situations that make us feel sad.
Very simple right?
Well, not everyone liked that concept, since it was very superficial and banal. So the other proposal gained more fans.
The conception of vital happiness took a step further. That thought held that happiness depends on the global value of life, something that transcends the experiences you live or the environment that surrounds you.
Following this train of thought, to be happy depends more on how you decide to experience your present and give value to your current situation, facing life in a more positive way without depending on everything going well for you. You can take a bitter experience and instead of suppressing it, you take it as a lesson that will help you to be happy in the future.
Happiness psychology 101
They are very fancy words and it is impressive what a group of people achieved before the internet was invented, but what does modern science say about it?
Happiness is a mental state of being, it’s brain chemistry with a strong neuronal impact.
Among all endogenic factors, biological sub-factors are the significant predictors of happiness.- Dariush Dfarhud, Maryam Malmir and Mohammad Khanahmad
Well, it sounds like a solid concept right? The problem is that this state of mind is different for everyone and it still has a link with personal perceptions, beliefs and values. We can accept things from Hedonism as well as take some principles of vital happiness.
Although a concise definition of happiness has not yet been formed, universal agreements have been reached regarding it. So maybe you don’t have to worry about what Freud said happiness was but to take these scientific facts and find a way to apply them in your day to day life.
Facts about happiness according to psychology:
Happiness can adapt throughout life
Happiness is not static or fixed, it can be shaped and adapted according to the situations we are experiencing. A former billionaire can still find a way to be happy after losing his fortune and earning just $ 11 an hour.
A person who suffers an accident and loses the ability to walk will begin to develop new perceptions of happiness after their life changes drastically. Being blind or handicapped does not take away your ability to be happy.
So no matter how difficult things are right now, don’t think that you are incapable of feeling happiness because of the situation you are in, as this is adaptable.
Happiness depends on social perceptions
Your idea of being happy is likely shaped by your upbringing and the people around you. If you were born into a wealthy family where you were taught that happiness is being able to buy whatever you need, you will hardly find joy in spirituality or introspection. If you surround yourself with backpacker travelers whose passion is to explore the world even if they don’t have a penny on them, you will not seek happiness locked in your room with all the luxuries that money can buy.
The people we surround ourselves with can alter the way we think about happiness, so keep an eye out for that. Maybe it’s time to clean up and rule out people who aren’t helping you be happy.
Cliché but true: money can’t buy happiness (shit)
I’ve always hated that phrase, mainly because 99 of my problems would be solved with a million-dollar bank account. So when a wealthy celebrity lectures you that money doesn’t equal being happy, I feel like punching them in the face… with a wad of hundred-dollar bills.
However, positive psychology claims that material abundance does not ensure an optimal state of mind. Even having a crazy amount of money can affect your ability to feel happy.
How you perceive yourself is very important
The philosophers of vital happiness had a point. Studies show that the patient’s self-perception is essential to understand happiness. No matter how green your lawn is, you will never appreciate it if you don’t stop looking at your neighbor’s yard.
You should actively try to assess your current situation, accepting the good and the bad and having as positive a perspective as possible. This is not just life coaching, it is science!
Of course, being positive every day is impossible, so don’t even try it. Many motivational coaches sell you the idea that happiness only depends on yourself and you just have to smile every day and voila, you are happy. Not only is this untrue, but it can also be very dangerous to mental health.
Positive psychology accepts all aspects of the human mind and understands that there will inherently be negative situations in our lives. However, we have tools to face and value everything that happens to us, since happiness is not a place where you arrive, it is a way of traveling the journey.
So, what makes you happy? Answers on a postcard, or the comments if that’s more your thing.
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