Many opinions about what happiness is have been voiced throughout history. Yet, so far, there is no one magic wand to instantly create lasting happiness nor is there a simple “happiness thermometer” to help measure it. The good news is that science has now taken a role to help both by defining this elusive state of being and by recommending the best routes to follow to achieve and then sustain it in lasting and even lifelong ways.
First, social scientists now mostly agree on a definition: happiness is “subjective well-being.” Simply put, each of us is exactly as happy as we think we are and say we are when asked. And these same scientists have now measured people’s level of happiness reliably by using what is termed “self-reported subjective well-being”—which means letting people record how happy they’re feeling by answering a simple questionnaire. This definition has been validated as being accurate.
Second, there is corroboration from the field of biology. Happiness isn’t just some vague, ineffable feeling, it is an observable physical state of the brain—one that can be induced deliberately. Measurable biological results solidly confirm the validity of “self-reported subjective well-being.” Since emotions are in fact biological events, happy people display specific patterns of brain activity. According to a field called affective neuroscience, positron emission tomography (PET) scans have demonstrated that the left prefrontal cortex of the human brain—the area associated with positive emotions—lights up when people are feeling happy. This area is often cited as the prime locus of happiness.
The Long and the Short of It
If you reflect for a moment about what makes you happy, your “self-reported subjective well-being” includes two different durations of feelings: the bursts of pleasurable experiences resulting in positive emotions that make you feel happy for a short time and the deeper feelings of well-being, contentment, and satisfaction with life in general. These more underlying feelings that life is good, purposeful, worthwhile, and satisfying—that life has meaning—are more sustainable and longer-lasting than the mere simple bursts of pleasure.
Almost everyone, hopefully, has experienced both these types of happiness at some point in life. And that experience is borne out by the research: short-term pleasure certainly makes people feel happy, even euphoric. But sustainable happiness requires depth and people and meaning in a life. Neither alone is sufficient, but both together can be rewarding and reinforcing by evoking feelings of happiness in different ways and for varying lengths of time. When we work hard and even struggle while working toward a worthy goal—one that has intrinsic meaning for us—our happiness is increased. Certainly enjoying pleasure while in an activity can make it all the more meaningful, but it is often the struggle that makes the end result all the more worthwhile.
Happiness, therefore, has both a present, short-term feeling and benefit and a longer-term, more lasting feeling of meaningful enjoyment. Our life experiences of feeling both intense joy and a deeper feeling of underlying contentment with ourselves and our life validate this scientific definition.