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What is Happiness?

. 7 min read . Written by MJ Kang
What is Happiness?

We think we all live for the happier life. However, happiness has been the subject of attention since some time ago. The number of people who are talking "Rather than seeking happiness, I will be satisfied with the life given." or "I'm afraid I'm too happy." are getting bigger and bigger. But these sentences don't make any sense, like "I don't like shapes, but I like the triangle". The reason of this contradiction is that societies have a wrong understanding of happiness.

Happiness as a Luck

Happiness is defined with 'a lucky event or condition' in a lot of countries. Over 24 in 30 countries have 'luck' in their etymology. In English hap means lucky event, and Glück of German, Bonheur of France, Khoshali of Iran, Lykke of Norway are having lucky event as their root.

But understanding happiness as a luck may cause problems. This means that happiness is not what we seek or obtain, but something coincidentally come to ourselves. At the same time, it makes us feel that happiness is difficult and stop our efforts for a happier life. Darrin M.McMahon, America historian, explain about the reason is because happiness should be without natural disaster or disease, which people in past lean on 'luck' to be in that state. However, by overcoming natural disasters and diseases, happiness becomes the goal to actively pursue in our life.

Happiness as a Satisfaction

So the meaning of happiness we should talk about is satisfaction of life, and rewarding experiences in life. It is called subjective well-being in psychology. Many people interpret happiness as an emotion. But happiness is not a kind of emotion. It is rather group of emotions and activities that we feel good. When you are thankful, inspired, or still and peaceful, happiness can be with them. The PANAS(Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) scale, which is used to measure the degree of happiness in psychology, also uses a variety of emotional groups as measurement factors.

Positive affect Negative affect
Attentive Hostile
Active Irritable
Alert Ashamed
Excited Guilty
Enthusiastic Distressed
Determined Upset
Inspired Scared
Proud Afraid
Interested Jittery
Strong Nervous

When we learn that the emotional state of happiness is very diverse in nature, the point of view of happiness becomes very flexible. We can become happy when we are inspired by art works, interested in objects, and focused on what I am doing.

Many studies suggest that we can not get enough happiness because we believe that there is only one right way to become happy. Perhaps we are already satisfied, already thankful, already alive, already enjoying, and still living with the task of finding the experience of happiness.

Happiness ≠ Always Positive

Every people knows the Smiley logo. Although Smiley easily implies happy emotion, it might cause a misunderstanding about happiness. Happiness is not the state without negative feeling. Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada has researched that happiness is the state with positive state : negative feeling = 2.9013 : 1. Despite it turns out that this calculation have wrong parts, it gives us the preceding result.

Ethan McMaham also research about the condition of happiness and classify it into 4 kind: experiencing pleasure, not having negative experiences, contributing to others' well-being, growing oneself. Interesting point about not having negative experience is that the person who avoids pain gets more shocked when experiencing stress.

However, we should not increase our weight by looking at happiness only as an object of conquest, pursuit, and design. We should also look happiness as our discoveries of what happily came to life.

Actually, research has shown that travel offers the highest level of happiness. There are three reasons. First, we don't work. In the result of this research, working has shown as the lowest level of happiness in society. Second, we eat delicious food, enjoy, chatting, and walking while travel. These activities are having positive affects on happiness. Finally, it satisfies our basic needs. In the process of traveling, we have a positive impact on competence because we voluntarily build plans. Also, it has low danger of evaluation. Autonomy is also one of the basic needs that trip satisfies, and we also get more bonded relationship thorough travel.

Other Characteristics of Happiness

David Lykken and Auke Tellegen's paper, 'Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon' has shown that happiness of individual is not related with demographic factors(age, gender, education level, job, salary). This implies us that anyone in any circumstance can get happiness. We are not doing the Olympics to be happier than someone else. We just want to be a little happier now.

Philip Brickman and Donald T.Campbell's paper 'Hedonic Treadmill' is also one of the interesting paper about happiness. Hedonism is a thought that argues that the pursuit of pleasure and intrinsic goods are the primary or most important goals of human life. The paper is based on the idea that even if you are happy, you will eventually return to its original state. But it turns out that it takes at least nine years to return to the original state after a positive or negative events.

We do not condemn lovers who express their love for each other on the sand as reckless or unreasonable, although they are sure to be erased on the waves. It is because the moment is part of a very important life for them. Even if we go back into place, the happy times we have experienced are precious in themselves. It is not a wise attitude for life to ignore the happiness of this moment now because it will eventually return to its place. The most certain life for us is always this moment.

How Do We Live Happier

So, we learned various characteristics of happiness, and how we think or handle happiness. Then how can we become more happier?

Make Life Happier

There are two approaches for improving happiness. First one is the psychological approach. Technology of mind that can experience happiness in any situation, for example, meditation and positive reinterpretation of negative events are the psychological ways to make happiness. The recent happiness-related applications like Mindfulness or Meditation are also based on this.

Second one is an environmentalist approach. This approach is often neglected over the first approach, but this approach is much easier way to make happiness. It is the way to make circumstance that easily experience happiness. Eating delicious food or spending time with friendly people can be an example of this. Regardless of what food you eat, it is important to be grateful and enjoyable, but it is equally important to eat delicious and healthy food from the beginning.


The comparison with others is also one of the evidence of unhappiness. The importance of comparison in our society is growing by spreading of SNS.  Good relationship with others is the one that making companion rather than comparison. Make relationship more valuable than happiness, and make experience more valuable than possession. It makes you less compare yourself with other, immerse in that moment, and helpful to your identity and story.


The way to use money for the happiness is quite obvious. Think money as a mean, not as a result. Use money to buy an experience rather than possession. Going trip, taking with friends in a cafe, and watching favorite movies are more helpful to your happiness. Also buy time with money. Outsourcing the tasks that distracts you. Make your life and fill your brain with what you 'want' rather than what you 'should'. Think yourself as a shoppers that buying experience in the store called life.

"Happiness is the Frequency, not the Intensity, of Positive versus Negative Affect." - Ed Diener

Live a Good Life

Just as delicious food and good food are different, happiness does not always lead to a good life. Life is a continuation of interpretation and reinterpretation. It is a human being to regret that past pleasures were foolish to think now, and that past sufferings are now blessings. As Charlie Chaplin says: "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." Moments of experience do not end at that moment, but are constantly reinterpreted and reassessed in the flow of time. Therefore, we can not understand a good life with just the feeling of the moment.

 To live a good life, we should have meaning of life. The absence of meaning in life has a negative impact on Alzheimer's, heart attack, stroke, and life expectancy. The meaning of life should satisfy these four conditions: Significance(personally important and valuable work), usefulness(when you feel your actions are useless), Understanding(when I can explain what happened, more likely expected), identity(who am I, where I came from, and where I'm going). Meaning of life is in other word, the purpose of life. Erid Klinger once said that the human brain cannot sustain purposeless living. So how do we find and make the purposeful life?

The way to make purpose and meaning of life is making 'personal project'. Brian Little's research, 'personal projects' analysis implies that the important source of human experience is the true self. To live a life of one's own. These personal project - in other words, challenge - should have self-benefit, efficacy, fun, support, and integrity to increase meaning of life. Efficacy is the element when we have good result in working, and this affects happiness in a short term. The point is integrity. It is the connection with one's own element, how well it fits in with one's identity.

In comparison to pleasure, meaning is more distant and inaccessible. This is the reason that we should think about happiness - good life in short term - and meaning of life - good life in a long term - both. The meaning is not experienced when pursuing itself obsessively, but naturally at the end of the process of trying to achieve important goals.


  • Good Life, In Cheol Choi
  • Personal Projects, Brian Little