Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: happiness from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(15c) 1 obs : good fortune :prosperity 2 a : a state of well-being and contentment :joy b : a pleasurable or satisfying experience 3 : felicity aptness

Summary Article: Happiness
from Encyclopedia of Emotion

People often state that they aspire to be happy, and people regularly wish happiness for their loved ones. However, people's intuitive understanding of this affective state is imprecise, and many people may know little about what it would actually take to achieve happiness for themselves or for others. A fundamental impediment to understanding is vagueness in terminology. The word happiness can mean both a short-lived emotional reaction to a particular event, such as winning a prize, graduating from college, or reuniting with a loved person after a short trip, and a long-lasting way of feeling, akin to an attitude or personality trait. In contrast, many other affective states described in this book are conceptually clear. For instance, both fear and disgust are immediate reactions to particular events such as a near car accident or the experience of observing a dinner partner with poor table manners.

Many researchers have attempted to clarify the diverse positive emotions or affective states by assigning distinct terms to distinct states. For example, Kalat and Shiota (2007) have identified joy as the term that applies to an immediate positive reaction to a particular event, whereas happiness is the state of positive feeling that is long-lasting. The term well-being is similar to the meaning of happiness.

Measuring or detecting happiness is best achieved through multiple routes. One form of measurement is to simply ask people about their levels of happiness or related states such as satisfaction or other positive emotions. Another way is to observe behavior. Facially, the expression most associated with happiness is smiling. Of course, people can fake smiling to be polite, ingratiating, or for other reasons; smiling is not a completely reliable indicator of happiness. However, Duchenne smiles are more often true indicators of happiness than non-Duchenne smiles. A non-Duchenne smile involves simply a smiling mouth. A Duchenne smile involves a smiling mouth, raised cheeks, and “smiling eyes,” which means that the eyes are somewhat squinted and crow's feet are created. Although Duchenne smiles often (but not always) indicate true happiness, it is important to note that a person can be happy and not smile at all.

Happy people tend to act differently than people who are not happy. The main distinction is that happy people are more sociable and generally behave in a more optimistic fashion, for instance, taking more chances and being more assertive (Argyle & Lu, 1990). Physiologically, happiness is not easily distinguished, although some rough indicators exist. A temporary feeling of joy is associated with a slightly increased heart rate, not nearly as dramatic of an increase as occurs with fear or anger (Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990). Some specific brain activity is linked to happiness. When people are either happy or angry, the frontal cortex of the left hemisphere of the brain is more active, whereas when people are sad or fearful, the frontal cortex of the right hemisphere increases in activity (e.g., Davidson & Fox, 1982; Henriques & Davidson, 2000). Note that activation of the left hemisphere is associated with both happiness and an emotion that is generally described as “negative”: anger. The reason that these two affective states have the same brain activity pattern in the frontal cortex is because this pattern is apparently associated with approach behavior (whereas sadness and fear are associated with avoidance behavior). When an individual is either happy or angry, she tends to become more outgoing and proactive. Additionally, two brain chemicals may be linked to happiness, although research findings are at this point inconclusive. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) associated with pleasure, attention, and some other functions, may be higher in happy people. Also, endorphins, neurotransmitters which inhibit pain, may be more present in happy people than in people who are less happy (Zubieta et al., 2003).

A significant amount of research has been conducted on causes of happiness. Some researchers have simply asked people what makes them happy in their lives. In a large study, Markus, Ryff, Curhan, and Palmersheim (2004) found a number of factors related to life satisfaction. The most common factor was relationships with family and friends. Other common responses were physical health, financial security, self-development, a job that they found satisfactory (or better), faith, and enjoyment of daily activities. When people are asked what would make them more happy, they often mention having more money. However, research indicates that even people who win large amounts of money in the lottery do not become permanently happier. Although they are happier for a few months, they often soon return to the level of happiness that they had prior to winning (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).

Some events do appear to have an effect on levels of happiness for long periods of time, often years. In particular, losing a spouse to either death or divorce and losing a loved job can both lead to long-term decreases in overall happiness. Diener and Seligman (2004) found that losing a spouse was associated with diminishing levels of happiness. After the loss, happiness began to slowly increase over the years but did not return to the former typical level of happiness. In a study of 24,000 German workers, Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2004) found that participants' happiness dropped when they lost a job. Then happiness began to increase over time but did not return to prior levels even after 15 years or after getting another job.

The study of happiness and other positive emotions and affective states has exploded since the 1990s, as part of an interest in what constitutes the “good life,” a field called positive psychology. Research on these positive states has proved fruitful; scientists have learned much about the benefits of positive emotions. Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener (2005) have conducted a large review of research, reporting the links between positive emotional states such as happiness and a wide variety of positive outcomes such as good physical health, satisfaction in relationships, satisfaction with one's work life, and above average problem solving. The study of positive emotion states is “hot,” and the field is likely to continue to produce new findings that, when applied, can improve the quality of people's lives.

See also affective personality traits, extraversion, joy, Positive and Negative Affect (Activation) Schedule, positive emotions, positive psychology, satisfaction, Satisfaction with Life Scale, smiling.

Further Readings
  • Bagozzi, R. P. (1999). Happiness. In D. Levinson, J. J. Ponzetti, & P. F. Jorgensen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human emotions (2nd ed., pp. 317-324). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
  • Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
  • McMahon, D. M. (2006). Happiness: A history. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.World Database of Happiness Web site:
  • References:
  • Argyle, M., & Lu, L. (1990). Happiness and social skills. Personality and Individual Differences, 11, 1255-1261.
  • Davidson, R. J., & Fox, N. A. (1982). Asymmetrical brain activity discriminates between positive and negative affective stimuli in human infants. Science, 218, 1235-1237.
  • Diener, E., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 1-31.
  • Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.
  • Henriques, J. B., & Davidson, R. J. (2000). Decreased responsiveness to reward in depression. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 711-724.
  • Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Levenson, R. W., Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1990). Voluntary facial action generates emotionspecific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology, 27, 363-384.
  • Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2004). Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 15, 8-13.
  • Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
  • Markus, H. R., Ryff, C. D., Curhan, K. B., & Palmersheim, K. A. (2004). In their own words: Wellbeing at midlife among high school-educated and college-educated adults. In O. G. Brim, C. D. Ryff, & R. C. Kessler (Eds.), How healthy are we? (pp. 273-319). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Zubieta, J.-K., Ketter, T. A., Bueller, J. A., Xu, Y., Kilbourn, M. R., Young, E. A., et al. (2003). Regulation of human affective responses by anterior cingulate and limbic μ-opioid neurotransmission. Archives of General Psychiatry, 60,1145-1153.
  • Copyright 2010 by Gretchen M. Reevy

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Happiness
    Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia

    Happiness has been highly overrated by moral philosophers, most of whom have taken it to be the greatest good or final end. One notable exception...

    Full text Article HAPPINESS
    Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850

    The pursuit of happiness, famously listed as an unalienable right in the American Declaration of Independence (1776), was a serious quest in the...

    Full text Article Happiness
    Bloomsbury Thematic Dictionary of Quotations

    See also contentment , laughter , pleasure One joy scatters a hundred griefs. Chinese proverb If you haven't been happy very...

    See more from Credo