Happiness: Definition, Benefits, Types

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

What Is Happiness?

Happiness encompasses a range of optimistic emotions, from short-lived pleasure to regular contentment to exuberant joy. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

What Does It Mean to Be Happy? 

To feel happy is to be in a positive state of mind, whether temporarily or in the long term. However, happiness does not have to be the same for everyone. Everyone feels different levels of happiness for a variety of reasons—or sometimes, for no reason at all. 

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness,1 explains how we have the ability to choose to feel happy through actions in our control, like goal-setting, mindfulness, meditation, and building strong and fruitful relationships. 

What Does Happiness Feel Like?

Happiness can feel like many things. It might be a calming sense of contentment that allows you to relax. It may be the warm sense of camaraderie you feel when laughing with friends.

Happiness also consists of physical sensations. Imagine the feeling you experience during an exciting event, like getting a job promotion or a new puppy. The elation can seem to bubble inside of you, releasing itself through giddy shrieks or even happy tears.

Types of Happiness

There are many types of happiness that someone can experience. Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle distinguished between three different kinds of happiness: hedonia, engagement, and eudaimonia. Various forms and intensities of happiness fall into the main three categories, including joy, excitement, gratitude, pride, optimism, and contentment.

Hedonia

This form of happiness involves the active gaining of pleasure and reduction of pain. Hedonistic acts derive happiness from external sources and are generally short-lived. 

Moments that temporarily increase endorphins, like eating your favorite meal or attending a concert, are considered hedonia. While they do provide happiness, it is not satisfactory in the long term. 

Hedonia does not provide long-term, meaningful happiness because hedonistic acts always need to be repeated to feel that burst of serotonin. They are not deeply improving and impacting your life like eudaimonia or engagement can.

Engagement

Someone who enjoys performing acts of achievement, particularly things that they are passionate about, is experiencing the type of happiness that falls under engagement. The activities they seek out provide meaning, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, which breeds happiness. 

Unlike hedonia, which can be seen as more impulsive and fleeting, acts of engagement can provide a framework for who you are as an individual, helping you to grow in the long term rather than be focused on short bursts of pleasure that do not facilitate growth. For example, volunteering with a local organization every week can bring you happiness through helping others, while also giving you a purpose.

Eudaimonia

Happiness in this category is developed from within an individual. Someone developing happiness in a eudaimonic manner is seeking to live a life they deem as meaningful and purposeful, outside of external factors.

Someone who is eudaimonic can feel daily joy from the family they have created in spite of having less money for lavish vacations, for example. They can enjoy spending time with their close friends, even if they live in a small home with no fancy furniture. They are happy because of their connections to those around them and their zeal for being alive, rather than needing materialistic items to fill them up.

Benefits of Happiness

There are an incredible amount of ways happiness can be beneficial to your life. Upsides to being a happier person include:

  • Keeping you in better health: Being happy can be extremely advantageous for your physical and mental health. It reduces stress, which can have severely negative impacts on your mind and body, like decreased memory2 and higher levels of blood pressure. Happy people are also more likely to participate in physical activity.3  
  • Helping you to live longer: Being happy may contribute to a longer lifespan. Interestingly, a 2017 study4 showed that people who reported more feelings of positivity were 47% more likely to consume fruits and vegetables in comparison to those who reported less positive states of mind. A diet that regularly includes fresh produce lowers your risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. 
  • Making you a better person: People that consider themselves to be regularly happy often find joy through altruistic acts like helping a stranger in need, donating to charities, or spending time volunteering. People with higher levels of happiness are also less likely to be judgemental, as they would not receive genuine happiness through making someone else feel unhappy.
  • Making you more successful: Happy people have higher levels of motivation and seek meaningful ways to enrich their lives. The more they interact with the world around them and participate in opportunities that arise, the better chance they have of reaching success in their career and relationships.
  • Deepening your friendships: You can probably think of a person in your life you’ve gravitated toward because they seem to radiate happiness. Happy, positive people are a joy to be around, and find it easier to make and retain meaningful friendships.
  • Inspiring those around you to be happier: Positivity is contagious! It is difficult to be upset or in a bad mood when you’re around someone that is seeing things from the glass-half-full perspective. Your spouse, children, coworkers, or even your favorite barista can be incredibly impacted by your optimism, making everyone’s lives easier, more fulfilling, and more enjoyable.

9 Ways to Promote & Cultivate Happiness in Your Life

Now that you understand the ways that happiness can benefit your life, it is time to learn how to actually increase your own happiness. Utilizing a combination of these practices on a daily basis is a great way to boost happiness and continue it long  term. 

1. Set Intrinsic Goals for Yourself

Creating and accomplishing goals that align with the type of life you want to live will increase your happiness by proving to yourself you are capable of creating a meaningful life. 

To do this, identify what areas of your life could be improved to make you happier, and set goals that are measurable and attainable. When you meet these goals, you will feel happiness both from actually doing the act, but also from checking it off your list.

2. Express Gratitude Regularly

Taking the time to reflect on the goodness that surrounds you will help to increase positive feelings. Writing in a gratitude journal when you wake up is a great way to start the day off. Consider the gratitude you feel for people that you are thankful for, your home, your pets, or anything else that brings a smile to your face.  

3. Live in and Enjoy the Present Moment

Happy people are not dwelling on the past or projecting how they could be happier in the future. To cultivate happiness in your life, be fully present to the situation you are in. When you find the positives that are currently surrounding you and appreciate them in the moment, happiness will follow.

4. Manage Negative Thoughts

It would be a stretch to say someone can be happy all the time. Less than ideal external circumstances will pop up—that’s life. However, don’t allow negative thoughts to intrude the happiness you’re building. When life is going great, focus on that—not what might go wrong.

5. Meditate

It has been proven that the act of meditation makes people happier.5 This is great news, as mediating is easy, free, and readily available. Taking a few minutes everyday to focus on your meditation practice can rewire your brain to skew toward the positive.1 -2 1 -2 

6. Exercise

Physical activity relieves stress and releases powerful endorphins that increase happiness. Like meditation, even a few minutes of getting your blood pumping can have a significant impact on your happiness levels. 

If you’re not a big fan of hitting the gym, start by increasing your movement with a walk around the neighborhood or a mid-day dance break. The most important part is showing up for yourself consistently.

7. Eat a Healthy Diet

You know the phrase, “You are what you eat”? It’s kind of true. Subsisting off sugary foods, which lead to spikes and drops in blood sugar, can make you feel like you’re on a rollercoaster, from amped and peppy to lethargic and unmotivated in no time. 

Stick to balanced meals, and avoid the temptation to try a fad diet. When your sweet tooth is aching, try some dark chocolate that has a high content of cacao, which increases happiness-boosting endorphins.

8. Prioritize Sleep

It is very difficult to lead a productive, meaningful life on too little sleep. Get a good quality of sleep by turning off electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and don’t settle for less than 7–9 hours.6

9. Let Go

Holding onto grudges, mistakes, and regrets can prevent you from finding happiness. Taking the time to process these events and negative emotions and then actively releasing them will make you feel lighter and ready to notice and accept all the good in your life.

Things to Avoid When Seeking Happiness

To develop and maintain happiness in a sustainable way, stick to methods that can become routine in your daily life. Avoid the following:

  • Valuing the wrong things: External sources of happiness, like status or power, are temporary and cannot sustain happiness in the long term. Instead, seek value from what you currently have: supportive family or friends, a good job, interesting classes at school, the love from your pet, or even just the warm sun welcoming you to a new day of possibilities.
  • Not socializing: Feelings of isolation are detrimental to cultivating happiness. Humans need social interaction to thrive. Though the ongoing pandemic can make this more difficult, there are ways to combat feeling lonely. Try reaching out to a friend a few times a week to feel more connected, or join a local organization to meet people in your community. 
  • Not prioritizing your health: Taking time to assess and work on your mental and physical health is key to finding happiness in your life. Do not neglect your needs, as this is when issues can start to pile up and feel overwhelming. Start by taking small, consistent steps that work to keep your health in good shape, and do not be afraid to reach out to a professional if you need help.
  • Avoiding your feelings: Even though we all prefer to feel happy, it’s okay to feel angry, sad, or even afraid at times. Toxic positivity can actually set you back on your journey toward sustainable happiness. Let yourself feel your feelings instead of assigning moral value to some over others.
  • Striving for control: Most people have some agency over their lives, but not all aspects of your life are in your control. External or societal factors, like racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, ableism, and more, can make it hard to feel happiness through no fault of your own. It’s okay to not feel okay after experiencing a trauma, such as an abusive relationship or an assault. It’s also okay to acknowledge how mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, may affect your ability to feel happy. 

When to See a Therapist About Happiness

If you do not remember what it feels like to be happy, or have been actively trying to create happiness in your life to no avail, it may be time to seek professional help. 

A therapist can help you to determine what factors may be preventing you from attaining a sustainable sense of internal happiness as well as work with you to develop an actionable plan. Find a therapist near you with our comprehensive directory, and begin taking control of your happiness today.