The pursuit of happiness

If you’re a human being, I suspect you want to be happy. What is happiness for you? Happiness for me is reminiscing about good times with a friend while I indulge in some Nando’s chicken, or receiving a standing ovation at the end of a theatre performance. My versions of happiness may not be your cup of tea, but the stimulus for happiness is subjective and thus hard to measure objectively.

What is the definition of happiness?

“Happiness” is not only hard to measure, but it is also difficult to singularly define. You can’t define happiness without using a synonym for happiness, and you can’t interpret it to everyone’s satisfaction. Oxford dictionaries’ Captain Obvious definition for happiness is “the feeling of being happy”.

So if the feeling of happiness is hard to define, then what? The solution to understanding feelings like happiness is through examination and experimentation, and by that I mean science.

Compared with misery, happiness has come out virtually unscathed in the study of social science. A quick Wiley Online Library search reveals 50,522 results for the word “happiness”, compared with 409,708 for the word “depression”.

However, over the past decade, the science of happiness has received a fair bit of attention, because, of course, everyone would like to be happier, and probably more now than ever because studies show modern living is depressing.

The progressive nature of humans to distort nature has had some dire consequences for the human brain. Let’s be honest here, our barely evolved brains are struggling to handle the modern world properly. What should have taken hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to a digital environment through the process of evolution, has taken merely decades.

When the brain comes into contact with technology, it can become extremely addicted to it and reliant on it. This can lead to negative effects such as anxiety, stress, loneliness and depression. Severe mental illnesses have dramatically increased in the US, “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007 — from one in 184 Americans to one in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling — a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades,” writes physician Marcia Angell in the New York Times Book Review.

Since the days of Aristotle, happiness was thought to have at least two aspects: hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (a life well lived). In contemporary psychology, happiness is referred to as simply pleasure and meaning. Positive psychologists such as Dr Martin Seligman have recently added one more distinct component to the definition of happiness: engagement. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family friends and hobbies.

Using these three aspects, psychologists have come up with a scientific term for happiness called “subjective-well being (SWB)”, which is defined as a person’s cognitive and affective evaluations of his or her life. According to a 2012 paper on SWB, these evaluations include emotional responses to stimuli as well as cognitive judgements on what is satisfying and fulfilling. So SWB is a combination of life satisfaction and feelings of fulfilment.

In identifying SWB across people in the real world, it was found that roughly 50 per cent of our happiness is determined by our genes, 40 per cent by our daily activities and the remaining 10 per cent by our circumstances – so what you choose to do with the 40 per cent is entirely up to you.

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