Positive psychology is the study of factors and
processes that lead to positive emotions, virtuous behaviors and optimal
performance in individuals and groups. Although a few, mainly “self
psychologists” were always interested in health, adjustment and peak
performance, the study of happiness was thought to be unimportant, even
trivial. This probably still remains true: for every 100 serious psychology
books and papers there exist 99 on depression; there is only one on
happiness. But we have known for 50 years that happiness is not the opposite
of unhappiness: they are quite unrelated to each other
“Happiness is a mystery like religion and should never be
G.K. Chesterton, 1920
Fundamental concerns The psychology of happiness attempts to answer
some very fundamental questions pursued over the years by philosophers,
theologians and politicians. The first series of questions is really about
definition and measurement of happiness; the second is about why certain
groups are as happy or unhappy as they are; and the third concerns what one
has to do (or not do) to increase happiness.
Science starts with definitions. So what is happiness? Sometimes it is
described as a state of well-being, contentment, peace of mind or fulfillment;
something to do with life satisfaction or equally the absence of psychological
distress. It has also been described in terms of pleasure, enjoyment and fun.
To be in a state of flow is to be happy.
“A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy.”
A. Solzhenitsyn, 1968
Measuring happiness Most measurements of happiness are by standardized
questionnaires or interview schedules. It could be done by informed
observers: those people who know the individual well and see them regularly.
There is also experience sampling, when people have to report how happy
they are many times a day, week or month when a beeper goes off, and these
ratings are aggregated. Yet another form of measurement is to investigate a
person’s memory and check whether they feel predominantly happy or
unhappy about their past. Finally, there are some as yet crude but everdeveloping
physical measures looking at everything from brain scanning to
saliva cortisol levels. It is not very difficult to measure happiness reliably and
Does happiness matter? Indeed it does! The research evidence suggests
happy people have strong immune systems so they are healthier and live
longer than unhappy people. They tend to be more successful at work and
have better personal relationships. They are more attractive to others. They
seem to like themselves more than unhappy people and to cope better with all
sorts of setbacks. Happy people make better decisions and tend to be more
creative. Unhappy people seem to waste time and effort being vigilant for
signs of danger or failure. This saps their energy.
There is evidence of heritability of subjective well-being. Twin studies have
shown that just as people inherit a propensity or predisposition for
depression, so they do for happiness. But environmental factors inevitably
play a part, particularly early family home environments. We also know that
although people can experience events that cause extreme happiness or
unhappiness, they tend to return to the starting point relatively quickly.
“If you want to be happy, be.”
Leo Tolstoy, 1900
Learning to be happy There are many simple things people can do to
increase their happiness. The first is not to confuse success with happiness.
The next is to take control over their lives and schedules. It has been found
that if you act happy (smile, express optimism, be outgoing) it makes others
react to you differently and you actually feel happy. Finding work and leisure
activities that really engage your skills and passions help a great deal. Having
regular exercise, sleeping and eating well help keep up a good mood.
Investing time and care in relationships is a very important feature of happiness.
Affirming others, helping others and regularly expressing
gratitude for life increases happiness, as does having a sense of purpose and
hope that may be best described as a faith.
Positive psychology shifts the focus from exploring and attempting to correct
or change personal weakness to a study of strengths and virtues. Its aim is to
promote authentic happiness and the good life and thereby promote health. A
starting point for positive psychology for both popular writers and
researchers has been to try to list and categorize strengths and values. This
has been done, though it still excites controversy. The following is the current