Happiness is often considered one of life’s ultimate goals, but understanding what makes you happy isn’t always easy.
Happiness can mean many things. It can come in the form of experiences such as eating ice cream on the beach, or it can have broader implications such as finding satisfaction in a relationship.
There are many things in life that are known to bring joy — birth, marriage, reunion. But what makes you happy is something only you can define.
Happiness is a psychological state, part of what’s known as positive affect in psychology. Similar to other emotions, its inner workings are complex — a place where theory and neuroscience converge.
At its core, happiness is an emotional state brought on by chemicals and hormones interacting with targeted cells in specific regions of the brain.
But understanding happiness often means more than grasping the physiological aspects.
Since the time of ancient Greek philosophers, the psychological theory around happiness has been composed of two aspects, according to a 2001 review of research.
These two things are:
- eudaimonia: your sense of well-being based on functionality and purpose
- hedonia: the act of pursuing pleasure over pain
In Sigmund Freud’s book “Civilization and Its Discontents,” he summarized those two concepts of happiness by defining the emotion as having two sides: A positive and a negative goal. While one wants “the absence of pain and unpleasure,” the other wants “the experience of strong feelings of pleasure.”
Hedonia vs. hedonism
Hedonia — in the concept of what makes you happy — is considered an overtone when used in relation to happiness theory. It’s a tendency to pursue things that bring you joy and avoid things that cause pain.
Hedonism belief exists in several forms and is considered a way of life, according to a 2016 study. One of the most popular is the practice of pursuing pleasure because you believe pleasure is the only thing that gives meaning to life.
Is happiness the same as well-being?
Well-being is another broad concept, often linked to what makes you happy.
Happiness is a part of well-being, but well-being — sometimes formally known as
For example, life can be great and your well-being good, but that doesn’t mean you consider yourself always in a happy state.
Subjective well-being is how you rate and evaluate your life based on different things, including happiness, achievement, life purpose, and general feelings of hope and optimism.
From a physiological standpoint, chemicals in your brain are what cause you to feel the sensations of happiness.
There are many chemicals, primarily neurotransmitters, and hormones and each plays an important role on the happiness scale, according to a
Dopamine, for example, is known as the feel-good hormone because it plays a role in encouraging you to repeat behaviors that result in pleasure.
But pleasure is only one facet of happiness.
Oxytocin is another chemical associated with happiness. It’s commonly called the love hormone because it promotes feelings such as affection and empathy.
Cortisol, though it’s viewed negatively as a stress hormone, is there to help manage anxiety when your body faces stress.
All these things can factor into what makes you feel happy. For you, happiness might be that feeling of comfort from a loved one, or it may be the feeling of relaxation that comes from an absence of anxiety.
Happiness suggests that you’re, well, feeling happy.
When you’re happy, you’re experiencing the opposite of negative emotions — the hallmarks of conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.
A 2021 study suggests that happiness is a protective factor in otherwise overwhelming circumstances, such as social isolation, that helps keep negative emotions at bay.
When you’re happy, other areas of your mental health may flourish, as well. You may find your social relationships improve in both quality and quantity, according to a 2017 book.
Happiness may even translate into how likely you are to experience success.
Research from 2005 suggests that yes, success does make people happy, but that’s not what makes them more successful. Instead, the relationship appears to go both ways — being happy may position you toward behaviors that lead to success.
In adolescents, happiness has been linked to lower reports of psychopathological symptoms, according to a 2015 study. Symptoms included:
- obsessions and compulsions
- phobic anxiety
- paranoid ideation
The study also linked happiness to fewer behavioral challenges such as antisocial tendencies, impulsiveness, or withdrawal.
While mental health is one area where the effects of happiness seem evident, your physical health may benefit, too.
Among other physical benefits, a 2019 research article suggests happiness may be predictive of longer life expectancy in older adults. Happiness might also decrease mortality among the population in general.
Happiness is individual. It can stem from a number of positive emotions, thoughts, and experiences, all contributing to your overall positive affect.
Since what makes you happy may be different from what makes someone else happy, increasing happiness might be best achieved by looking at ways to increase positive affect.
What is positive affect?
Positive affect in psychology is the phrase given to the spectrum of positive emotions (such as joy, optimism, and enthusiasm) and thought expressions that contribute to how you interact with the world around you.
Creating and seeking altruistic environments
Altruism is defined as selflessness and concern for others. A
A 2021 study found that altruistic environments may contribute to high levels of life satisfaction and increased positive emotions.
This doesn’t mean you need to be in an environment that caters to you in order to be happy, but it does suggest that support and care from those around you are important to your happiness levels.
For example, working for an understanding manager who helps shoulder some of your work burdens may make you happier than if you had a manager that has no consideration for your time and overschedules you.
Finding your calling
Finding that thing in life that brings you fulfillment is considered your calling or purpose.
In a 27-year research study on aging, researchers found that this sense of purpose was the single most important thing associated with life and work happiness and longevity.
Finding your calling isn’t always easy. You may need to sit down, journal, and evaluate the things in life that are most important to you to develop a plan to reach them.
Redefining your decision making
Decisions can be stressful, even more so when you’re fixated on picking the best option.
In a 2002 study on decision making, researchers evaluated people looking for the best option (maximizers) versus those who were content with the first decision that met their basic criteria (satisficers).
Overall, the satisficer decision-making process resulted in higher happiness levels because perfection wasn’t always the goal.
To make decisions satisficer-style, you can start by writing a list of criteria your choice must hit and commit to accepting any choice that meets the criteria without over-evaluating.
Doing something nice for your pet
Loyalty from a pet can be unparalleled. They love you no matter what, and that type of bond can be a great comfort throughout life.
It can bring great joy to do something for them when they do so much for you.
In a 2021 study on pet ownership, people who spent $5 on their pet experienced greater happiness than if they spent that money on themselves or another person.
You don’t have to spend money to do something nice for your pet, though. A walk, a game, or extra attention during the day can mean the world to them.
Happiness is a part of positive affect and is often a key component of subjective well-being.
While the physiological pathways of happiness have to do with chemicals and brain function, what makes you happy can have much deeper psychological roots.
Altruism, life purpose, and how you approach decisions can all affect your state of happiness.
It’s OK not to feel happy all the time. You can still enjoy overall improved well-being without living in a constant state of happiness.