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Nature of Happiness

What is happiness? We’ve all experienced it, but what exactly is it? According to scientists, there are actually two types of happiness: subjective well-being, and psychological well-being1. Subjective well-being includes emotions such as joy and sadness, and perceptions such as pleasure and pain. Psychological well-being is concerned with long-term wellness. It includes autonomy, self-acceptance, and personal growth. Think of subjective well-being as the sinful pleasure from eating a double-fudge chocolate sundae. Psychological well-being is the feeling of accomplishment from sticking to a diet for 6 months and losing 15 pounds.

The concept of subjective well-being has its origins in the philosophy of hedonism, which was first proposed by the Greek philosopher Aristuppus (435–355 BC). Aristuppus taught that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Pleasure is the only good. The achievement of pleasure is the only virtue. He and his students lived together in a commune where they practiced free love, and devoted themselves to immediate sensory gratification (like Woodstock but with togas).

Unlike Aristuppus, Aristotle (384–322 BC) proposed that true happiness arises from eudaimonia, being true to one’s daimon or inner self. In Aristotle’s view, you should develop what is best within you, and use your skills and talents in the service of humanity. This philosophy of human flourishing and self-actualization evolved into the modern concept of psychological well-being.

Sometimes, subjective well-being and psychological well-being are mutually exclusive. Doing 50 pushups is good for your health, but it’s not very pleasurable. But most of the time there is an overlap of one-half to two-thirds2. Imagine how it feels to win a championship. There’s a short-term rush of pleasure, and a long-term sense of pride and accomplishment.

A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.

Evolution of Happiness
Hundreds of millions of years ago, the first nervous systems evolved in simple animals such as sea worms. This enabled them to sense things in the environment, and respond with rudimentary feelings. Over time, neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and endorphins, were used to reward survival-enhancing behaviors with positive sensations, and punish survival-threatening behaviors with negative sensations. With the evolution of reptiles, animals gained a conscious awareness of positive and negative sensations. Now they could actively seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Finally, the evolution of self-consciousness in humans placed feelings at the heart of our personal experience.

Our perceptions of beauty have been shaped by natural selection and sexual selection. In a similar way, these evolutionary forces have influenced our feelings of happiness and unhappiness3. Natural selection is about survival. Behaviors that help us survive are rewarded with positive feelings. It feels good to eat and sleep. Behaviors that could harm or kill us are punished with pain. It hurts to put your hand in a fire. With sexual selection, things are more complicated. In general, you are rewarded for actions that improve your chances of attracting a mate and having kids. Achievement increases status, status attracts mates, therefore achievement feels good. But what if you’re so focused on achievement that you have no time to find a partner? That’s no good for the propagation of your genes. Happiness is an evolutionary balancing act. Your brain is constantly re-evaluating its priorities to help you survive and reproduce.

As if your brain didn’t have enough on its mind, modern society makes things even more complicated. For hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors roamed the plains of African in tribes of a few dozen people. Life was simpler back then. Your career choices were hunting or gathering. There were only a handful of potential mates, so you couldn’t be too picky. Nowadays, the global village conspires to make us miserable. We’re bombarded with images of the most beautiful people in the world. We hear about the accomplishments of the most talented people who have ever lived. It’s impossible to measure up. There’s too much competition.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
-Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Self Help
Where can we turn when we need support for our battered egos? Most of us live in enormous cities, miles away from family and relatives. It’s easy to get lost in the system. No wonder 17 percent of Americans will suffer from major depression during their lifetime4.

There is hope. By understanding how happiness works, scientists have discovered how to increase your happiness. In this article on Subjective Well-being, we’ll learn how changing your thinking changes your happiness. In Rewards of Happiness, we’ll discover that happiness makes you healthy, wealthy, and popular. Finally, in Psychological Well-being we’ll explore your life’s purpose and the meaning of life.

The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.
-Allan K. Chalmers

  1. Ryan RM, Deci EL. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: a review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Ann Rev Psychol. 52:141–166.
  2. Waterman AS. (1993). Two conceptions of happiness: contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 64(4):678–691.
  3. Grinde B. (2002). Happiness in the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies. 3:331–354.; Buss DM. (2000). The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist. 55(1):15–23.
  4. Blazer DG, et al. (1994). The prevalence and distribution of major depression in a national community sample: the National Comorbidity Survey. Am J Psychiatry. 151:979–986.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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