The Psychology of Happiness
A lot has been written about happiness and from psychology to philosophy, different theories of happiness have focused on issues of satisfaction, contentment, and even spiritual liberation. But happiness is one of the most subjective mental states and several factors could be at play when a person is truly happy. Whereas anger or fear could be defined with physical reactions and certain behavioral patterns, this is not so for happiness and that is how happiness is extremely subjective. For example, one bar of chocolate could make one child happy whereas another child would want two chocolate bars to feel truly happy.
So why do we feel happy? Happiness is usually associated with some kind of gain or attainment. When we achieve or attain something, we feel satisfied and this triggers happiness. The attainment does not have to be material, it could very well be spiritual. It could even be bodily and physical, just as an insomniac person would feel happy after a good night’s sleep. So, in defining happiness we have to locate a specific material, spiritual or physical gain or attainment and the contentment arising as a result of this attainment. The question would arise whether it is possible to be happy without any attainment. I would say that it is not possible to happy without attaining something and this attainment does not have to be immediate and could be related any past achievement. Now, you could say that you do know someone who is always happy without any specific reason. It’s that you haven’t found out the reason for his happiness. He may be a simple man with simple needs and happy after a warm bath or a nice meal, so that’s still some attainment. So, happiness always involves some attainment or need fulfillment, however small or big that is.
Psychologists have used several models including bio psychosocial and PERMA models to explain happiness suggesting that happiness is attained when our biological, psychological and sociological needs are met or when there is pleasure (bodily for instance), engagement (in some activity for instance), relationships, meaning (for instance purpose of life) and accomplishments. These models suggest that happiness involves something deeper than just our fleeting pleasures. I would differ and suggest that happiness being extremely subjective, some people may just be happy attaining pleasures whereas some others would seek meaning or possibly accomplishments and relationships. So the level or type of attainment that makes one happy would vary from one person to another.
Thus some people would be happy when their basic needs are fulfilled whereas some others would not be happy even after significant professional accomplishments as they may be expecting some other level or kind of achievement. Thus happiness largely depends on our subjective understanding of what it means to be happy. Since happiness is so subjective it cannot be strictly placed within models or frameworks although the underlying common factor that makes people happy is always some kind of attainment, gain or need fulfillment.
The next level of analysis would be whether happiness could be categorized to generalized happiness or a continued happy state of mind and specific happiness for attaining one of the specific pleasures or goals. I would suggest that there cannot be a generalized state of happiness without a specific reason. A seemingly happy person may not be genuinely happy or may be genuinely happy as he may have attained an exalted spiritual state or accumulated substantial wealth. So again as we see a continued state of happiness could also be explained with attainment.
The need fulfillment or attainment that triggers happiness could be biological such as bodily pleasures as when we quench our thirst, satisfy physical desires etc. The attainment could be social when we form relationships and feel happy or simply talk to strangers at a large event or remain engaged in social activity, or the attainment could be spiritual when we seek and even find some kind of spiritual liberation. The attainment or need fulfilment could be psychological when our love needs are fulfilled or when we reach our goals or fulfill our ambitions. The biological, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of attainment could provide happiness according to their needs. Thus happiness is intricately tied to our specific needs although these needs could be interrelated as for example, the need for status or power could be both social and psychological.
Thus we distinguish the factors that could lead to happiness
1. Biological (bodily pleasures, basic needs)
2. Social (status, relationships, social activity and engagement)
3. Psychological (emotional, love, friendship, personal accomplishments)
4. Spiritual (finding meaning and purpose, transpersonal needs)
There could be several reactions to happiness and this could range from smiling to engaging in rigorous physical activity as happiness could mean a sudden surge in energy levels. People who engage in physical activity are more likely to be happy due to improved blood circulation and general good health. However happiness being an extremely subjective emotional state, in order to feel genuinely happy, some achievement in terms of long-term goals such as love or conjugal life, wealth, spiritual liberation, or professional achievement could help a person to attain a continued happy state of mind. This is the prolonged state of happiness that has causes similar to any transient state of happiness although the effects could be long-lasting. The people who have a prolonged state of happiness are generally lively, sporty, fun loving and optimistic. A child may show a prolonged state of happiness when adequate care and love are provided by their parents or carers. However transient states of happiness are more common as prolonged states of happiness could be interrupted by adverse life events so momentary joys and pleasures provide us with reassurance to accept and embrace life.
From a more psychoanalytic point of view, happiness would be related to desire, libido, our energy levels and even the defense mechanisms that we unconsciously use to vent out our frustration and thus remain happy or calm. Happiness would naturally raise our libidinal levels and make us more energetic and high levels of energy could, in turn, make us happy, so this process is cyclical. Several scientific studies have shown that happiness is directly related to our levels of energy.
Considering defense mechanisms, psychoanalysis could in a way suggest that happiness is actually acting out or reaction formation when we show certain reactions that may be completely opposite to what we feel. For example, in reaction formation we may show happiness, when in reality we are sad or depressed. Although genuine happiness could be explained with psychoanalysis as well, as for example, an artist is genuinely happy when he can sublimate his desires to socially acceptable forms of expression through his creativity. A sportsman is genuinely happy when he can channel his aggressive or sexual desires through sport or rigorous activity. So these defense mechanisms in psychoanalysis could actually produce genuine happiness in people because of the inherent survival and coping strategies involved in these defenses.
Finally, happiness being a state of mind would be entirely subjective and would evoke extreme subjective reactions. For instance, someone laughs on hearing a joke and feel happy about it and someone else would be sarcastic or may not feel the same level of excitement. Whereas anger and other emotions could be explained in terms of physical responses, happiness usually does not have defined physical responses although there is a general positive feeling of well being and the physical responses could vary considerably. As I have stated on the psychology of emotions, it would be necessary to determine the components of feeling and bodily reaction for every emotion including happiness and psychology has an extensive research project to consider for the future.
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