Happiness is an emotion associated with feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense joy. A variety of philosophical, religious, psychological and biological approaches have been taken to defining happiness and identifying its sources.

Philosophers and religious thinkers have often defined happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. Happiness in this older sense was used to translate the Greek Eudaimonia, and is still used in virtue ethics. In everyday speech today, however, terms such as well-being or quality of life are usually used to signify the classical meaning, and happiness is reserved for the felt experience or experiences that philosophers historically called pleasure.

Happiness forms a central theme of Buddhist teachings, which focuses on obtaining freedom from suffering by following the Eightfold Path. In the Buddhist view, ultimate happiness is only achieved by overcoming craving in all forms. Aristotle saw happiness as "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason," or the practice of virtue. In Catholicism, the ultimate end of human existence consists in felicity, or "blessed happiness", described by the 13th-century philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas as a Beatific Vision of God's essence in the next life. One psychological approach, positive psychology, describes happiness as consisting of positive emotions and positive activities.

While direct measurement of happiness is difficult, tools such as The Oxford Happiness Inventory have been developed by researchers. Physiological correlates to happiness can be measured through a variety of techniques, and survey research can be based on self-reported happiness levels.

Research has identified a number of correlates with happiness. These include religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age and income. Happiness economics suggests that measures of public happiness should be used to supplement more traditional economic measures when evaluating how successful public policy is.


Looking for the level of happiness as reported by people and comparing it to various elements in their lives reveals the following findings:

  • About 50% of one's sadness depends on one's genes. This is shown by studying identical twins and learning that their happiness is 50% correlated even when growing up in different houses.
  • Ten to fifteen percent is a result of various measurable variables, such as socioeconomic status, marital status, health, income, and others.
  • According to the article, the remaining 40% results from actions that individuals deliberately engage in for the purpose of becoming happier. However, these actions may vary between persons. For example, extroverts may benefit from placing themselves in situations involving large amounts of human interaction. Also, exercise has been shown to increase one's level of well-being significantly.


Michael Argyle developed The Oxford Happiness Inventory as a broad measure of psychological well-being. This measures happiness as an aggregate of self-esteem, sense of purpose, social interest and kindness, sense of humor and aesthetic appreciation. This has been criticized for lacking a theoretical model of happiness and because it is felt that certain aspects overlap. Some studies suggest that happiness can be measured effectively.

Though it may be impossible to measure happiness objectively, physiological correlates to happiness can be measured through a variety of techniques. For instance, psychophysiologist R.J. Davidson has developed reliable fMRI and EEG tests that correlate to subjective levels of happiness. Stefan Klein, in his book The Science of Happiness, links the dynamics of neurobiological systems (i.e., dopaminergic, opiate) to the concepts and findings of positive psychology and social psychology.

Correlation with religious involvement

There is now extensive research suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed. Surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew Organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being "very happy" than the least religiously committed people. An analysis of over 200 social studies contends that "high religiousness predicts a rather lower risk of depression and drug abuse and fewer suicide attempts, and more reports of satisfaction with sex life and a sense of well-being, and a review of 498 studies published in peer-reviewed journals concluded that a large majority of them showed a positive correlation between religious commitment and higher levels of perceived well-being and self-esteem and lower levels of hypertension, depression, and clinical delinquency. Studies by Keith Ward show that overall religion is a positive contributor to mental health, and a meta-analysis of 34 recent studies published between 1990 and 2001 also found that religiosity has a salutary relationship with psychological adjustment, being related to less psychological distress, more life satisfaction, and better self-actualization. Finally, a recent systematic review of 850 research papers on the topic concluded that "the majority of well-conducted studies found that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale) and with less depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, drug/alcohol use/abuse." However, most of those studies were conducted within the United States.

The individual level of happiness and religiosity correlations show up when measuring within the United States, a predominantly religious country. According to a 2007 paper by Liesbeth Snoep in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness in Netherlands and Denmark, countries that have lower rates of religion than the United States. When measuring between countries, the least religious industrialized countries such as in northern Europe have a much higher happiness than the most religious industrialized country, the USA, so cross country comparisons on religiosity and happiness seem to show a societal level correlation of increased secularization and decreased religiosity to increased happiness. It may be simply that non-religious people are less happy in a religious country, but everyone is happier in more secular, less religious countries.

Other correlates

Research in the United States shows that happiness may correlate with partisan identity. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to state that they are "very happy." The Gallup Organization states that the happiness gap has been fairly steady:
Why Republicans are happier is not clear, but the result has been the same in nearly every asking of this measure since 1996, including one reading under former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and three under Republican President George W. Bush. Only in 1996 did Republicans and Democrats express about equal levels of happiness.

In addition, surveys conducted by the General Social Surveys, from its inception in 1972 through 2006, consistently show a happiness divide, with Republican men being happier than Democratic men, and Republican women being happier than Democratic women.

Research has also found that U.S. citizens who identify themselves as "conservative" are more likely to report being "happy" or "very happy" than those who consider themselves to be "liberal". On both sides of the political spectrum, extremists report being happier than moderates. Parents are more likely to report being happy than non-parents, and religious belief also appears to be positively correlated with happiness. Happiness is also correlated with the ability to rationalize or explain social and economic inequalities.

Research in the US has found that older Americans are generally happier than younger adults. The effect does not appear to be generational, because longitudinal research found that happiness increased over time for the older people who were studied. While older individuals reported more health problems, they reported fewer problems overall. Young adults reported more anger, anxiety, depression, financial problems, troubled relationships and career stress.

Worldwide findings

The Satisfaction with Life Index is an attempt to show the average self-reported happiness (subjective life satisfaction) in different nations. This is an example of recent trends to use direct measures of happiness, such as surveys asking people how happy they are, as an alternative to traditional measures of policy success to GDP or GNP. There are also several other examples of measures that include self-reported happiness as one variable. Happy Life Years, a concept brought by Dutch sociologist Veenhoven, combines self-reported happiness with life expectancy. The Happy Planet Index combines it with life expectancy and ecological footprint.

Scientific and psychological views

Biological approach

The evolutionary perspective offers an alternative approach to understand what happiness or quality of life is about. Briefly, the questions to be answered are: What features are included in the brain that allows humans to distinguish between positive and negative states of mind, and why did evolution add these features? Answering these questions points towards an understanding of what happiness is about and how to best exploit the capacities of the brain that humans are endowed with. The perspective is presented in detail by the evolutionary biologist Bjørn Grinde in his book Darwinian Happiness, as well as in a more formal way.

Positive psychology

In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, describes happiness as consisting of "positive emotions" and "positive activities". He further categorizes emotions related to the past, present and future. Positive emotions relating to the past include satisfaction, contentment, pride and serenity. Positive emotions relating to the future include optimism, hope and trust. Positive emotions about the present are divided into two categories: pleasure and gratifications. The bodily and higher pleasures are "pleasures of the moment" and usually involve some external stimulus.

Gratifications involve full engagement, flow, elimination of self-consciousness, and blocking of felt emotions. But when a gratification comes to an end then positive emotions will be felt. Gratifications can be obtained or increased by developing signature strengths and virtues. Authenticity is the derivation of gratification and positive emotions from exercising signature strengths. The good life comes from using signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification in, for example, enjoying work and creative activities. The most profound sense of happiness is experienced through the meaningful life, achieved if one exercises one's unique strengths and virtues in a purpose greater than one's own immediate goals.

Set point theory

The happiness set point is a notion proposed by Lykken and Tellegen that we all have a baseline level of happiness that we return to. Although good and bad events may shift us from this baseline temporarily, we cannot permanently increase or decrease our happiness levels in the long term. Others have since challenged this pessimistic view, some drawing on neuroplasticity as evidence that our happiness level is not set in stone.

Philosophical views

The Chinese Confucian thinker Mencius, who 2300 years ago sought to give advice to the ruthless political leaders of the warring states period, was convinced that the mind played a mediating role between the "lesser self" (the physiological self) and the "greater self" (the moral self) and that getting the priorities right between these two would lead to sagehood. He argued that if we did not feel satisfaction or pleasure in nourishing one's "vital force" with "righteous deeds", that force would shrivel up (Mencius,6A:15 2A:2). More specifically, he mentions the experience of intoxicating joy if one celebrates the practice of the great virtues, especially through music.

About one hundred years later, the Hindu thinker Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, wrote quite exhaustively on the psychological and ontological roots of bliss.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, written in 350 B.C.E., Aristotle stated that happiness is the only emotion that humans desire for its own sake. He observed that men sought riches, or honor, or health, not for their own sake but in order to be happy. Note that eudaimonia, the term we translate as "happiness", is for Aristotle an activity rather than an emotion or a state. Happiness is characteristic of a good life, that is, a life in which a man or woman fulfills human nature in an excellent way. People have a set of purposes which are typically human: they belong to our nature. The happy person is virtuous, meaning he or she has outstanding abilities and emotional tendencies which allow him or her to fulfill our common human ends. For Aristotle, then, happiness is "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason": happiness is the practice of virtue.

Many ethicists make arguments for how humans should behave, either individually or collectively, based on the resulting happiness of such behavior. Utilitarians, such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, advocated the greatest happiness principle as a guide for ethical behavior.

Religious and spiritual views

Explanations of happiness in mystical traditions, especially in advanced spiritual techniques, are related to full balance (conjunction, union, "secret marriage") of so-called inner energy lines (energy channels of a soul or deepest dimension of the human): nadi (ancient Indian), gimel kavim (Hebrew), pillars, columns, gnostic ophis or caduceus. In balanced state, two main lines (left & right, Ida & Pingala) form a third line, called Shushumna. Speaking technically, (full) activity of this third or central line is happiness. Left and right lines include all aspects of normal human life: sleep and awake, body and mind, physical and spiritual, and so on. To attain balanced state of these two lines is a main task of life—a paradoxical result of all kinds of activities and endeavours combined with full relaxation or tranquility at the same time.

In Catholicism, the ultimate end of human existence consists in felicity (Latin equivalent to the Greek eudaimonia), or "blessed happiness", described by the 13th-century philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas as a Beatific Vision of God's essence in the next life.

As an example, according to Augustine's Confessions, he lived much of his life without God. He sinned much and recognized his sinfulness. As a youth, he sinned for its own sake, and later, in the pursuit of a perceived good. When he lost a dear friend to death, it troubled him a lot, and he turned to God for answers. He turned to God to find true happiness and was converted to Christianity. He found that true happiness can only come from a relationship with God and appreciating God's creation for His sake, and not its own.

Happiness forms a central theme of Buddhist teachings. For ultimate freedom from suffering, the Eightfold Path leads its practitioner to Nirvana, a state of everlasting peace. Ultimate happiness is only achieved by overcoming craving in all forms. More mundane forms of happiness, such as acquiring wealth and maintaining good friendships, are also recognized as worthy goals for lay people (see sukha). Buddhism also encourages the generation of loving kindness and compassion, the desire for the happiness and welfare of all beings.

According to Buddha, "Mind is the forerunner of states of existence. Mind is chief, and (those states) are caused by the mind. If one speaks and acts with a pure mind, surely happiness will follow like one's own shadow!" In Buddhism, the third of the Four Noble Truths states "to eliminate suffering, eliminate craving," thus establishing happiness as beyond material and emotional possession and attainable only through an attentive practice leading to extinguishing of craving and aversion.

One of the core concepts in Buddhism is that of Dharma, also a central concept in Hinduism. Dharma is about expressing and acting according to one's core nature. This eliminates potential causes of disharmony in the mind and leads to happiness.

According to Jainism, happiness and bliss is the natural state of the soul. A soul, when liberated from all its karmas, experiences infinite bliss, knowledge and perception.

Happiness in economic thought

Common market health measures such as GDP and GNP have been used as a measure of successful policy. However, although on average richer nations tend to be happier than poorer nations, beyond an average GDP/capita of about $15,000 a year, studies indicate the average income in a nation makes little difference to the average happiness of the people in the nation. It has been argued that happiness measures could be used not as a replacement for more traditional measures, but as a supplement. Gross national happiness is a concept introduced by the King of Bhutan as an alternative to GDP, but there is as yet no exact definition.

See also



  • Władysław Tatarkiewicz, Analysis of Happiness, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1976.
  • Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, Knopf, 2006.
  • Barbara Ann Kipfer, 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, Workman, 1990/2007, ISBN 978-0761147213.
  • Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness, Marlowe, 2006, ISBN 1-56924-328-X.
  • Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, Penguin, 2005.
  • David G. Myers, Ph. D., The Pursuit of Happiness: Who is Happy-- and Why, William Morrow and Co., 1992, ISBN 0-688-10550-5.
  • Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph. D., Authentic Happiness, Free Press, 2002, ISBN 0-7432-2298-9.
  • Saint Augustine, Confessions, Oxford World's Classics, 1998, ISBN 0-19-283372-3.
  • "Psychological Wellbeing", Hills, P., & Argyle, M. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: a compact scale for the measurement of psychological well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 1073–1082.
  • Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It, Basic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-465-00278-8.

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