For much of the 20th century, the field of psychology was silent about positive psychology. Instead, negative emotions and psychological disorders seemed to compel attention for topics such as depression, anxiety, phobias, neuroses and so on. During the 21st century, however, the field of psychology has expanded and shifted to include much more of a focus on positive emotions, such as joy, satisfaction, and happiness.
Shift in Psychology
The shift from focusing on negative emotions and psychological disorders to positive emotions parallels a broader shift in medicine as a whole toward wellness. But the shift in psychology has been even more deliberate.
As a result, we increasingly have science-based strategies we can all use to find greater happiness; even those who don’t naturally find the silver lining. And these are strategies that are very do-able.
Enjoying Life’s Experiences
There is more to happiness than we tend to assume. We often talk and think about happiness in very simple terms. We think about times in which we’ve felt really happy and we contrast that with times we’ve felt decidedly unhappy—just one dimension, where all we have in mind is more or less.
But happiness actually consists of at least three distinct components. One component of happiness is pleasure, meaning how much we enjoy life experiences. We experience pleasure from enjoying a great glass of wine, seeing a beautiful sunset, or watching a funny movie.
These experiences all bring us pleasure, and make us feel happy. People who practice savoring such experiences derive even more pleasure.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Being Fully Absorbed
The second component of happiness is engagement with our life, meaning being fully absorbed in whatever we are doing. Why is engagement such an important part of happiness? People who are fully engaged in an activity experience flow, a psychological state in which time seems to fly by, or stop, in an immersive and positive way.
They are fully absorbed in what they are doing and are not aware of time passing. One might experience the state of flow when going for a run, reading a book, or working on a favorite hobby.
Finding a Purpose
The third, and perhaps the most important, component of happiness is finding purpose or meaning. Psychologists describe purpose as ‘a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self’.
We could find meaning in our career, our volunteer work, or things we do for our family or community. People who feel their lives are good, meaningful, and worthwhile experience the highest levels of happiness.
Happiness and Money
If pleasure, flow, and meaning are so important, what about money? An increase in money, such as receiving a raise at work, does initially lead to more happiness. But here’s the problem. We then adapt to this newfound wealth and think that we need just a little bit more money in order to feel happy. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The more of it one has, the more one wants.”
One study revealed that public service lawyers—public defenders, in-house counsel lawyers for nonprofits, and criminal prosecutors—reported higher levels of well-being than lawyers in higher-paying and more prestigious private firms. Why?
Greater Personal Meaning
Lawyers in both groups work long hours. Lawyers in public service make much less than those in firms. And the higher-paid lawyers probably liked being higher paid. And yet, those working in high-paying firms with requirements to bill a certain number of hours report lower happiness.
What really accounts for the big difference in happiness between these two groups of lawyers is most likely a direct result of the greater personal meaning and interest those in public service derive from their jobs.
Now, lawyers aside, this is not saying that income never matters. For people with very low or no income, more money does indeed lead to more happiness. But for everyone else, once our basis needs are meet, we soon return to our prior level of personal happiness, regardless of greater wealth.
The Adaptation-Level Principle
According to the adaptation-level principle, we have a tendency to quickly adapt to a new situation, whether that’s monthly income, a more pleasant climate, or the latest iPhone.
Adaptation also explains why we are wrong to believe that big life events will lead to lasting increases in happiness—I’ll be happy as soon as I graduate, get a promotion, buy a house, get married, have kids, retire, and so on.
We may immediately feel happier after these events occur, but then over time, we adapt to this new reality and revert back to our prior level of happiness.
Common Questions about What Makes Us Happy
Engagement is an important part of happiness. People who are fully engaged in an activity experience flow, a psychological state in which time seems to fly by, or stop, in an immersive and positive way.
The most important component of happiness is finding a purpose or meaning. Psychologists describe purpose as ‘a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self’.
According to the adaptation-level principle, we have a tendency to quickly adapt to a new situation whether that’s monthly income or a more pleasant climate. We may immediately feel happier after some important big events occur, but then over time, we adapt to the new reality and revert back to our prior level of happiness.