Living a Happy Life: What the Research Says in 2018


This article summarizes the key findings from current research on living a happy life. It has been written with the average health-conscious reader in mind, so jargon has been kept to a minimum (although the findings of the research have been presented clearly and accurately). The article is informative and easy to read, and a full list of references is provided at the end of the document.

Living a happy life: what the research says in 2018 To achieve very high happiness, it is helpful not only to have desirable personal circumstances but also to live in a prosperous, happy society with strong social support. (Diener et al., 2018, p. 176)

Happiness. Everybody wants it. So much so, in fact, that America's Founding Fathers felt it necessary to enshrine this common human desire in the Declaration.

Independence. Although happiness has always been a universal aspiration, it wasn't until recent years that the subject was deemed worthy of a more scientific treatment; depression (which is perhaps the complete opposite of happiness) was, understandably, considered a more urgent avenue of inquiry within psychology. These days, however, the situation has changed completely, and we now know more than ever before that independence makes people happy.

What is happiness? Happiness = positive feelings + positive functioning

First thing's first: happiness is not the absence of a mental disorder. The old, traditional disease model of psychology has now been supplanted by one that views happiness - positive psychological health as an entirely separate issue from mental illness. Drawing from two strands of ancient Greek philosophy, psychologists have identified the main features of happiness: positive feelings (hedonia) and positive functioning (eudaimonia). Happiness is, therefore, far, far more than a lack of disorder or illness (Keyes, 2002; 2014).

Hedonia: positive feelings

Positive emotions are what many people think about whenever they think about happiness, mainly excitement and pleasure. A life without these would undoubtedly be an unhappy one, but there's a problem with the hedonic approach to feeling good: it's often deeply unsatisfying in the long run. That's because people adapt rather quickly in response to pleasurable events activities or stimuli and soon revert to their usual level of happiness. A perfect illustration of this would be the well-documented cases of lottery winners who experience joy and euphoria for a short while post-win before returning to their baseline emotional state. A classic study (Brickman et al., 1978), for example, found that after 18 months, lottery winners were no more or less happy than their non-winning counterparts.

Money really can't buy happiness. Furthermore, relying solely on pleasurable activities (or substances) as a source of happiness is not a good idea because it can lead to addiction. Addictions aren't necessarily confined to drugs and alcohol either, as recent research shows that more and more people are becoming addicted to computer games (Wittek et al., 2016), for example. A little hedonism goes a very, very long way.

Eudaimonia: positive functioning

In Greek moral philosophy, eudaimonia describes a type of well-being that only comes from a life well-lived, a life in which the individual experiences personal fulfillment in many different spheres. Herein lies the "positive functioning" aspect of happiness and this school of thought is neatly encapsulated in the World Health Organization's 2004 definition of mental health, which is as follows:

". [A] state of well-being in which the individual ... realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community" (World Health Organization, 2004, p.12)."

Unlike hedonia, however, achieving eudaimonia requires a lot of work and effort. There are no shortcuts to this type of happiness because it requires dedicated efforts to cultivate inherent talents, abilities, and close social relationships.

Which is more important?

Both hedonia and eudaimonia are necessary for a truly happy life. Eudaimonia without hedonia is too much work and no play, which makes Jack a dull boy. However, too much play
and no work doesn't necessarily make Jack a happy boy, as studies show that work (paid or unpaid) is incredibly essential for mental health (Wadell & Burton, 2005; Modini et al., 2016). Perhaps it's best to think of happiness as carbohydrates hedonia represents those fast-burning carbs (sugars) that temporarily give energy and brighten mood but cause you to crash and burn later on.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, represents the slow-burning and stable carbs that don't produce a noticeable spike in energy or mood but enable you to power through the day. Both types of carbs are necessary; yes, the slow-burning carbs are essential for long-term use, while the fast-burning ones are an immediate, short-term source of energy. In the same way, hedonia is our immediate, short-term source of happiness, while eudaimonia is our deeper and longer-lasting source of happiness.

While this may make it seem like the path to happiness is eudaimonia, sometimes it’s not practical to engage in the activities that evoke eudaimonic happiness. If you’re feeling sad or stressed, often treating yourself to a simple hedonic pleasure, like eating dessert or listening to a favorite song, can be a quick mood booster that requires a lot less effort than engaging in a eudaimonic activity. Thus, both eudaimonia and hedonia have a role to play in one’s overall happiness and well-being.

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