Feelings 101

HAPPINESS 101

Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happy mental states may also reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being. A variety of biological, psychological, economic, religious and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including positive psychology and happiness economics are employing the scientific method to research questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained.

The United Nations declared 20 March the International Day of Happiness to recognise the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals.

Definition

Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. Happiness in this sense was used to translate the Greek eudaimonia, and is still used in virtue ethics. There has been a transition over time from emphasis on the happiness of virtue to the virtue of happiness. Since the turn of the millennium, the human flourishing approach, advanced particularly by Amartya Sen has attracted increasing interest in psychological, especially prominent in the work of Martin Seligman, Ed Diener and Ruut Veenhoven, and international development and medical research in the work of Paul Anand.

A widely discussed political value expressed in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the universal right to “the pursuit of happiness.” This seems to suggest a subjective interpretation but one that nonetheless goes beyond emotions alone. In fact, this discussion is often based on the naive assumption that the word happiness meant the same thing in 1776 as it does today. In fact, happiness meant “prosperity, thriving, wellbeing” in the 18th century.

Nowadays, happiness is a fuzzy concept and can mean many different things to many people. Part of the challenge of a science of happiness is to identify different concepts of happiness, and where applicable, split them into their components. Related concepts are well-being, quality of life and flourishing. At least one author defines happiness as contentment. Some commentators focus on the difference between the hedonistic tradition of seeking pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the eudaimonic tradition of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way.

The 2012 World Happiness Report stated that in subjective well-being measures, the primary distinction is between cognitive life evaluations and emotional reports. Happiness is used in both life evaluation, as in “How happy are you with your life as a whole?”, and in emotional reports, as in “How happy are you now?,” and people seem able to use happiness as appropriate in these verbal contexts. Using these measures, the World Happiness Report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness.

Research results

Since the 1960s, happiness research has been conducted in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including gerontology, social psychology, clinical and medical research and happiness economics. During the past two decades, the field of positive psychology has expanded drastically in terms of scientific publications, and has produced many different views on causes of happiness, and on factors that correlate with happiness. Numerous short-term self-help interventions have been developed and demonstrated to improve well-being.

Happiness in its broad sense is the label for a family of pleasant emotional states, such as joy, amusement, satisfaction, gratification, euphoria, and triumph. For example, happiness comes from “encountering unexpected positive events”, “seeing a significant other”, and “basking in the acceptance and praise of others”. More narrowly, it refers to experiential and evaluative well-being. Experiential well-being, or “objective happiness”, is happiness measured in the moment via questions such as “How good or bad is your experience now?”. In contrast, evaluative well-being asks questions such as “How good was your vacation?” and measures one’s subjective thoughts and feelings about happiness in the past. Experiential well-being is less prone to errors in reconstructive memory, but the majority of literature on happiness refers to evaluative well-being. The two measures of happiness can be related by heuristics such as the peak-end rule.

Happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures. Indeed, despite the popular conception that happiness is fleeting, studies suggest that happiness is actually rather stable over time. Happiness is partly genetically based. Based on twin studies, 50 percent of a given human’s happiness level is genetically determined, 10 percent is affected by life circumstances and situation, and a remaining 40 percent of happiness is subject to self-control.

The acronym PERMA summarizes five factors correlated with well-being:

  1. Pleasure (tasty food, warm baths, etc.),
  2. Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
  3. Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
  4. Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
  5. Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).

The capacity for loving attachments and relationships, especially with parents, is the strongest predictor of well-being later in life.

Meditation has been found to lead to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness.

It has been argued that money cannot effectively “buy” much happiness unless it is used in certain ways. “Beyond the point at which people have enough to comfortably feed, clothe, and house themselves, having more money – even a lot more money – makes them only a little bit happier.” “Spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves”.

There have been some studies of how religion relates to happiness. Causal relationships remain unclear, but more religion is seen in happier people. Consistent with PERMA, religion may provide a sense of meaning and connection to something bigger, beyond the self. Religion may also provide community membership and hence relationships. Another component may have to do with ritual.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid depicting the levels of human needs, psychological, and physical. When a human being ascends the steps of the pyramid, he reaches self-actualization. Beyond the routine of needs fulfillment, Maslow envisioned moments of extraordinary experience, known as peak experiences, profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient, and yet a part of the world. This is similar to the flow concept of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

Self-determination theory relates intrinsic motivation to three needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Cross-sectional studies worldwide support a relationship between happiness and fruit and vegetable intake. Those eating fruits and vegetables each day have a higher likelihood of being classified as “very happy,” suggesting a strong and positive correlation between fruit and vegetable consumption and happiness. Whether it be in South Korea,Iran, Chile, USA, or UK, greater fruit and vegetable consumption had a positive association with greater happiness, independent of factors such as smoking, exercise, body mass index, and socio-economic factors.

Layard and others show that the most important influence on happiness is mental health.

Spirituality

While religion is often formalised and community-oriented, spirituality tends to be individually based and not as formalised. In a 2014 study, 320 children, ages 8–12, in both public and private schools, were given a Spiritual Well-Being Questionnaire assessing the correlation between spirituality and happiness. Spirituality – and not religious practices (praying, attending church services) – correlated positively with the child’s happiness; the more spiritual the child was, the happier the child was. Spirituality accounted for about 3–26% of the variance in happiness.

Measures

Several scales have been used to measure happiness:

  • The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) is a four-item scale, measuring global subjective happiness. The scale requires participants to use absolute ratings to characterize themselves as happy or unhappy individuals, as well as it asks to what extent they identify themselves with descriptions of happy and unhappy individuals.
  • The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) is used to detect the relation between personality traits and positive or negative affects at this moment, today, the past few days, the past week, the past few weeks, the past year, and generally (on average). PANAS is a 20-item questionnaire, which uses a five-point Likert scale (1 = very slightly or not at all, 5 = extremely). A longer version with additional affect scales is available in a manual.
  • The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) is a global cognitive assessment of life satisfaction developed by Ed Diener. The SWLS requires a person to use a seven-item scale to state their agreement or disagreement (1 = strongly disagree, 4 = neither agree nor disagree, 7 = strongly agree) with five statements about their life.

The UK began to measure national well being in 2012, following Bhutan, which already measured gross national happiness.

Physical mechanisms

It is generally accepted that happiness is at least in part mediated through dopaminergic, adrenergic and serotonergic metabolism. A correlation has been found between hormone levels and happiness. SSRIs, such as Prozac, are used to adjust the levels of serotonin in the clinically unhappy. Researchers, such as Alexander, have indicated that many people’s usage of narcotics may be the unwitting result of attempts to readjust hormone levels to cope with situations that make them unhappy.

Health

In 2005 a study conducted by Andrew Steptow and Michael Marmot at University College London, found that happiness is related to biological markers that play an important role in health. The researchers aimed to analyze whether there was any association between well-being and three biological markers: heart rate, cortisol levels, and plasma fibrinogen levels. Interestingly, the participants who rated themselves the least happy had cortisol levels that were 48% higher than those who rated themselves as the most happy. The least happy subjects also had a large plasma fibrinogen response to two stress-inducing tasks: the Stroop test, and tracing a star seen in a mirror image. Repeating their studies three years later Steptow and Marmot found that participants who scored high in positive emotion continued to have lower levels of cortisol and fibrinogen, as well as a lower heart rate.

In Happy People Live Longer (2011), Bruno Frey reported that happy people live 14% longer, increasing longevity 7.5 to 10 years and Richard Davidson’s bestseller (2012) The Emotional Life of Your Brain argues that positive emotion and happiness benefit long-term health.

However, in 2015 a study building on earlier research found that happiness has no effect on mortality. “This “basic belief that if you’re happier you’re going to live longer. That’s just not true.” Consistent results are that “apart from good health, happy people were more likely to be older, not smoke, have fewer educational qualifications, do strenuous exercise, live with a partner, do religious or group activities and sleep for eight hours a night.”

Happiness does however seem to have a protective impact on immunity. The tendency to experience positive emotions was associated with greater resistance to colds and flu in interventional studies irrespective of other factors such as smoking, drinking, exercise, and sleep.

At work

Despite a large body of positive psychological research into the relationship between happiness and productivity, happiness at work has traditionally been seen as a potential by-product of positive outcomes at work, rather than a pathway to success in business. However a growing number of scholars, including Boehm and Lyubomirsky, argue that it should be viewed as one of the major sources of positive outcomes in the workplace.


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