What Does It Really Mean to Be Happy? 6 Experts Explain
When you go to your “happy place,” you might picture yourself relaxing on a beach in Bali, fitting back into a pair of favorite old jeans, or landing that promotion you’ve been gunning for. But here’s the thing: Elation, achievement, and success aren’t the same as the warm and fuzzy feelings of happiness—and mixing them up may actually bum you out. That’s why we endeavored to learn what happiness really means, by interviewing a handful of people who have devoted years of their lives to studying it. Read about what their research and real-life experience has taught them; then use their wisdom and advice to boost your own joy. (Spoiler alert: Those old jeans will do more good in the giveaway bin.)
“Happiness isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do.”
I used to think I had a clear idea of what happiness looks like. I came to the U.S. at 13. My family emigrated from Russia, and we lived outside of Detroit. It was a really rough time, especially because I didn’t speak English. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and self-doubt. The only time I felt OK was when I achieved anything—the day I was moved from remedial English, the day I moved out of the projects.
I thought, “This is how I’m going to be happy: I’m going to achieve things.” I lived my life with this attitude. I’ll be happy when I get into a good college. When I graduate. When I move to New York. When I get married. When I’m able to take care of my family...
I was always proud of my achievements, yet the happiness bubble would eventually pop. I thought I wasn’t doing enough to gain the privilege of feeling good, but I hit a wall, burned out, and couldn’t push anymore.
When I stumbled onto research about gratitude nine years ago, I thought it was a bunch of BS. Saying three things I was grateful for would make me happy? Ridiculous. If I was grateful for everything, I wouldn’t work for anything. Still, I decided to do a 30-day experiment. I told my husband and daughter that each day, I’d write down something I was grateful for and say “thank you” to someone at least once.
The punch line is obvious. I noticed a difference right away. It’s not like I became a happy-go-lucky person, but I started to find joy in small, everyday moments. Tiny things, like my daughter running up to give me a hug. Coming into my living room and noticing the light hitting a vase of tulips. Even driving to work in minimal traffic and suddenly enjoying the commute.
Before I began practicing gratitude, I wasn’t present for those moments. I only stepped on them before running away. Happiness, I now realize, is not something you feel, but something you do. We don’t have to earn it, or be “good enough.” We just have to practice.
— Nataly Kogan, CEO of the learning platform Happier and author of Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones)
“Winning the lottery won’t make you happy indefinitely.”
Even though money matters, it’s not the only thing that contributes to our happiness. If money means covering all of our basic needs, it can positively contribute to happiness. However, after basic needs are met, increasing your disposable income follows the law of diminishing returns.The impact on happiness from 100 more dollars when you’re already rich? Close to zero. In happiness research, there’s something called “set-point theory.” It states that the increase in someone’s happiness in response to life events, such as winning the lottery or moving into a bigger house, will return to its baseline after time. This theory teaches us that we should enjoy the journey, not the destination, of life events. It’s important to remove the illusion that there is any one thing in this world that will make us permanently happy.
— Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living
“Being happy is more than satisfying your impulses.”
Many neuroscientists would tell you that all happiness is a chemical and electrical process in the brain: motivation, followed by reward. As much as I love neuroscience, I like to stay curious about the possibilities beyond what science is ready to prove. The more I learn about timeless happiness, the more I see that it correlates with three experiences—relationships, contribution, and mastery. By “relationships,” I mean a feeling of connection and belonging—being seen for who we really are. (Tribes in South Africa traditionally greet each other with “Sawabona,” which translates to “I see you.” The response? “Sikhona,” or “I’m here.”) By “contribution,” I mean a sense that we’re offering something to the world that’s uniquely our own and makes a difference to others. And by “mastery,” I mean growing and working to be better versions of ourselves.
The fourth thing that ties into happiness and often gets overlooked is reflection. Not vegging out, but actually making time to quiet the mind and take stock of where you are currently in life.
The stuff we think gives us “happiness” right now—such as scrolling through social media—activates the brain’s ancient motivation-and-reward system, and only gives us momentary pleasure. The average American swipes her phone thousands of times a day. We don’t even know we’re doing it anymore. When we first “liked” that post on Instagram, it felt great. Now, it’s just a habit. To have happiness, we need to say yes to things that strengthen our relationships, help us contribute to the world, or allow us to master new skills—and learn to resist things that just satisfy our impulses. In other words, spend less time looking at screens and more time looking at nature, the people you care about, and yourself. Do that, and you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction: You’re doing more than just what your brain is telling you to.
— Ellen Petry Leanse, leadership coach and author of The Happiness Hack: How to Take Charge of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into Your Life
“We can find happiness at work.”
The quality of your relationships is the number one factor for your happiness. Some people think that means only at home. It’s like, “Why would I try to be friends with people at work? Spare me the fluffy stuff.” I used to think that too, and I now realize how shortsighted that mentality is. If we’re working full-time, we spend more time with our colleagues than with anyone else. Why wouldn’t we try to invest in those relationships?
Get face-to-face and make eye contact. We have “mirror neurons” in our brains, which make happiness and unhappiness contagious. So it’s important to pay attention to how you’re showing up at work, because that’s what you’ll get back from your coworkers later on in the day. You are the culture. We’re all affecting each other, and research shows it extends out, not just to your colleague but your colleague’s colleague. Invest whatever and however you can in relationships. Practice forgiveness, though it’s easier said than done. Practice kindness. And don’t just band together when things are going wrong; celebrate your successes when things are going great. That’s when you can really solidify your bond.
—Scott Crabtree, founder of the coaching and consulting organization Happy Brain Science
“Don’t chase happiness—look for meaning instead.”
Happiness is typically defined as a positive emotional state—this smiley-face ideal. People quote Aristotle as saying, “A good life is a happy life.” But really, the Greek word that Aristotle uses in his teachings, eudaimonia, better translates to “flourishing” than “happy.” And when you read him, he specifically makes a distinction between “flourishing” and “happy.”
Flourishing is living a virtuous life where you pursue excellence in your work, relationships, and community. Doing those things might not make you feel happy all the time. They’re hard. They can be stressful. Being a parent or leader takes effort, right? But it leaves you with a deeper sense of meaning.
I advocate for the pursuit of a meaningful life, rather than chasing happiness. Research backs me up on this. When people pursue eudaimonia, they end up with greater well-being. They’re actually healthier, and they live longer, too. People who believe their lives are meaningful have less of the brain plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and they’re less likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
So what does it take to create meaning? That’s the million-dollar question. One of the key aspects of a meaningful life is transcendence—those rare moments when you step outside yourself and feel connected to a higher reality. It might happen on a trip to the Grand Canyon, or while you’re meditating, or sitting in church. Transcendent experiences exist on a wide range, and they can change you.
—Emily Esfahani Smith, journalist and author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness
“To be happy, be brave.”
My former job—hosting Live Wire!, a nationally syndicated radio variety show—was a dream. I got paid to write comedy. I met fascinating people. I had actual fans who loved the show and told me so. I mean, who gets to have fans?
But it was so anxiety-producing that for two weeks out of every month I was filled with dread about the next live show. Even so, I did it for almost a decade, until the night before our ninth-anniversary show, when I had a massive anxiety attack that would not go away. It lasted for two days.
The show brought so many extraordinary things and people into my life that I thought I should be happy. Everyone thought I was lucky, and when everyone thinks you’re lucky, it takes you a lot longer to realize how miserable you are.
The anxiety attack was the world’s most unpleasant wake-up call. Still, it took me a couple of weeks to let the hosting job go.
My whole body changed the moment I did. My shoulders dropped, and I could breathe again. But I wasn’t immediately happy. In fact, I was immediately out of sorts and wondering what the hell to do with my life. That’s what sparked my Okay Fine Whatever Project—I wanted to see if I could teach my brain that everything was going to be OK by doing things that scared me and then writing about them to process the experiences.
Instead of thinking, “That sounds terrifying” when confronted with a new and weird experience, I thought, “Well, that sounds interesting.” And that was enough to make a difference.
Do I feel there’s a link between bravery and happiness? A hundred percent. Regret and complacency are bitches. No one wants to hang out with them, and fear invites them in, over and over again.
Bravery is a daunting word—I wish there was a word for tiny braveries: Trying to make a new friend as an adult. Going to Thailand when flying gives you panic attacks. Letting the person you’re dating know that you care about them before you know how they feel about you.
These are things you’re not going to win medals for, but when you add them all up at the end of your life, they are going to define whether it was a life worth living.
I think people’s striving for some ideal “happiness” is one of the great causes of unhappiness in the world. If we strive for anything, it should be a healthy mind and body, a sense of purpose, and the ability to give and receive love without reservation or expectation. That seems as close to true contentment as I could get.
Also, cheese makes me happy. A good, strong vintage cheddar.
—Courtenay Hameister, author of OkayFine Whatever: The Year I Went from Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things
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