The Psychology of Happiness
Happiness, by its very nature, is governed by the subjective experience of individuals.
Essentially, happiness is an emotional state, encompassing a combination of contentment, joy and a deep feeling of meaningfulness. Clinically speaking, our emotional states do not remain constant and fluctuate as we engage in different contexts and, as we are impacted by different stimulus from our environment. As a result of this fluctuation, we observe someone as being “happy” if they experience happiness more often then they experience subjectively unpleasant emotional states.
Considering happiness as an emotional state, allows an understanding of what it may feel like, however it does not clarify why one person experiences happiness and another does not. To understand this “why” of happiness I find it of particular use to identify elements that seem to be present within an individual’s functioning when they experience happiness.
The first element that I would like to highlight, is living in one context. that is to say, focusing on what one is involved in while one is present and engaged in said context. If we are, for example , at home with a loved one, and we are focused in that context, we would be considering the interactions that we are engaged in not thinking about what is happening at work. This will type of focus allows us to experience, whatever the context has to offer, and therefore allows us to experience happiness. Moreover, if we are focused in a different context than the one we are functioning in, we are helpless to give any input to the context that we are focusing in, this helplessness causes stress, which obviously blocks happiness. For example, if we are at home, but thinking about what we need to do at work tomorrow, we cannot DO anything about tomorrow right now, so we will be powerless and experience a degree of uneasiness.
The second element I would like to highlight is the presence of compassionate empathy. Empathy involves the act of understanding another’s subjective experience, from their frame of reference. This understanding allows us to feel a sense of connectedness that gives us a clearer picture of our world, creating a calmness. This however may not be sufficient for happiness as the understanding alone does not require care. When compassion is present with empathy, one feels moved by the understanding resulting in a sense of meaning. For example, if we see the winner of an intense marathon crying at the finish line, we may understand how much the win meant to him/her and how intensely overjoyed and overwhelmed they feel, however if we have compassion in addition to our empathic understanding we may feel a moved and pleased for them as well!
This leads me to the next element. Kindness. Social psychology has shown us that acts of kindness, tend to elicit reciprocal behavior, that is to say, when we observe kindness we are more likely to behave in a kind manner. Acts of kindness create emotional closeness between people as they elicit vulnerability and acceptance. It is this closeness that creates a connectedness that allows us to feel a deep sense of belonging, that we are a member of a group of the same species. This group membership ties into group dynamics of belonging to a group which is an integral part of human functioning and creates a role for us, giving a sense of meaning.
It is this connectedness that plays a crucial role in happiness, and as such the next element I would like to highlight is having meaningful relationships. that is to say, relationships involving high levels of understanding and acceptance. This allows us to feel connected and gives us an interdependence allowing us to have a role and a purpose. In essence our happiness is strongly impacted by the quality of our relationships.
With the knowledge of the crucial role our relationships play in our happiness, I would highlight the next element of happiness as: not having “unfinished business” in our relationships. research has shown that when we receive input within a relationship that has a unpleasant emotional response, our view of the relationship is altered. To give an example, imagine your partner comments about how you look. Imagine you feel hurt by the comment. If you never speak about the hurt impact that you have experienced, you will have a degree of “unfinished business” within that relationship. Our perception of our partner will be altered by this unfinished business, the more unfinished business we accumulate, the more our view of our partner will be altered. Carrying this unfinished business and the resulting alteration of perception creates distance and hurt, which blocks happiness. So, as a result, clearing out unfinished business is crucial to happiness.
Finally, being accepting rather than critical is a pivotal element of happiness. If we accept rather that judge what we see in our environment (other people and other things) life is less frustrating. When we are critical, we elicit frustration. We may for example see a crack in the wall in our house and judge it as being bad, creating frustration, however if we are not critical we open the possibility of seeing the beauty in the pattern. This process can be applied to our interactions too, if we believe walking barefoot in p is wrong and we see someone at the mall with no shoes on, we may feel frustrated. However, if we are not critical we may see the freedom the individual sees and appreciate the beauty in that, creating a calming, connected compassion and a feeling of happiness…