When psychologists talk about happiness or subjective well-being, they mean the experience of frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect, and a sense that life is good and worthwhile. Happiness can be thought of as an umbrella term that includes low-intensity positive emotions (e.g., tranquility), high-intensity positive emotions (joy, euphoria), and everything in between. Importantly, people differ in how happy they tend to be, on average.
Who is a happy person?
One of the strongest predictors of happiness is the quality of a person’s interpersonal relationships. Happy people report strong social support, and they spend time and effort nurturing and maintaining their relationships. They also report engaging in prosocial behavior (essentially, going out of their way for others) and expressing gratitude. They find life meaningful and are committed to their goals. They are optimistic about their futures, they do physical exercise, and they try to live in the moment.
Happy people are not Pollyannaish or out of touch with reality. In fact, they have stress in their lives (as people who “put themselves out there” tend to be highly engaged with others and with life in general!). They may have even faced traumas and crises. But, they possess the ability to cope with what life throws them.
First, you might be wondering if it’s a good thing to be happier. Sure, it might feel good to be happy, but aren’t very happy people unmotivated to improve their lives, or unsympathetic to the plights of others, or simply selfish and self-absorbed? And isn’t your level of happiness pretty hard to change? These are common misperceptions that have been debunked by numerous psychological investigations.
Reasons to be happy
First, happiness carries a number of benefits. Happy individuals have more friends, more satisfying social interactions, and a lower likelihood of divorce. This is not surprising. Happy people are simply more fun to be around. And in terms of physical and mental health, happy people have stronger immune systems, cope more effectively with stress, and, most remarkably, even live longer. Happy people simply cope better with the hand that life deals them.
In addition to being healthier and more socially adept, happy people are also more creative. In work that has especially strong relevance to the workplace, psychologist Alice Isen’s work shows that, when people are put in a positive mood, they come up with relatively more creative solutions to problems and are more likely to think “outside the box.” Happiness encourages interest and exploration of one’s environment.
Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotion convincingly suggests that positive emotions (like happiness, joy, interest, pride, etc.) are vitally important for creating and maintaining much of what brings success in life, such as social relationships and productive work. According to this theory, positive moods open us up to new ways of thinking, they encourage our exploration of the world, and promote a sense of curiosity about new ideas and about other people.
In sum, happiness doesn’t merely “feel good.” It carries a wide variety of benefits for the individual, as well as for families, workplaces, and communities. Hopefully you are convinced (if you weren’t already!) that increasing happiness is a worthwhile aim.