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What is Happiness, Really? (The Many Answers, Studies and Explanations)

Everybody wants to be happy, but most people struggle with defining it. What is happiness, really? What does it mean? Does happiness mean the same for me as it does for you?

It sometimes feels the more you try to answer these questions, the more your head starts to spin.

We've published more than 200 articles on happiness, and have filtered the best information into this single page. Our goal? To help you understand what happiness is.

Most recent articles about "What is happiness"

Here are the most recently added articles about happiness and what it is:

What is happiness in simple words?

There are many words that can be used to describe the meaning of happiness.

We performed a survey that asked respondents the following question:

Of the following words, which 5 words do you associate most with “happiness”?

Each respondent had to pick 5 words that they felt most associated with the word happiness:

  • Laughter/Cheer
  • Joy
  • Pleasure
  • Satisfaction
  • Contentment
  • Safety/Security
  • Purpose in life
  • Love
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Wealth
  • Freedom/Independence
  • Health/Well-being
  • Sex
  • Enlightenment
  • Other

The words appeared in random order. In total, this resulted in 5.775 answers.

word association happiness count

Based on the answers of this survey, you can answer the question "what is happiness?" In simple words, happiness means:

  • Love
  • Family
  • Joy
  • Health / Well-being
  • Satisfaction

At least, those are the most answered words in our survey.

However, these study results mostly showed us that happiness can be defined in a lot of different ways. Our respondents used all kinds of different combinations of words to describe happiness.

But is that the definitive answer to the question "what is happiness?"

What is the true meaning of happiness?

All these different words can be used to define happiness. But what is the true meaning of happiness really?

This completely depends on who you ask. Our definition of happiness is as unique as we each are ourselves. That’s because happiness is not just a single emotion or state of mind. It’s an equation of many different things. This happiness equation varies from person to person and from moment to moment.

To prove this point, I've looked at the ever-changing Wikipedia page on Happiness.

How Wikipedia defined happiness has changed drastically from 2007 to 2008. If you check again now, it has already changed again.

The point is that there's not a single universally-agreed upon definition of happiness.

What factors determine happiness?

The study that we shared earlier shows how much everyone's definition of happiness varies.

But what factors determine our happiness? How is our meaning of happiness influenced by different factors?

When you consider happiness and look at it from a distance, you will find that there are 3 things that can determine your happiness:

  • Your genetics
  • Your internal state of mind
  • Your circumstances

In one of our studies, we asked over 1,000 respondents to weigh these factors. Which one of these 3 factors determined your happiness the most?

What would you answer?

Would you answer 10% – 50% – 40%?

Or maybe 50% – 40% – 10%?

happiness factors column chart 2020

We averaged all the answers and found the following percentages: 24%, 40% and 36%.

But that’s beside the point. If this study showed anything it all, it further proved that our way of defining happiness is unique and should not be compared to what others think of happiness.

Therefore, we shouldn't seek a universal definition of happiness.

Instead, we should do something else. Whenever we ask ourselves "what is happiness?", we should focus on defining what happiness means to ourselves.

How to define what happiness means to you

Last year, we performed an interesting experiment.

We asked 11 different people what happiness meant to them. The background of the people we asked varied from therapists and counselors to psychologists and neuroscientists.

Unsurprisingly, none of these people shared the same meaning of happiness.

One answer we received was:

Happiness means when you are living in accordance with your values.

While another answer we received was:

Happiness means embracing the messiness that comes from being a flawed human in an unpredictable world.

Even though the answers often share a common theme, there's not a single meaning of happiness that everybody would agree with.

Eternal happiness doesn't exist

In our journey to find out what happiness is, we found another important characteristic of happiness:

Happiness never lasts forever.

And that's not a bad thing. Being unhappy sometimes is completely okay.

Even the happiest person alive has been unhappy at some point. Sadness is a vital emotion that we can't turn off. Even if we could, we shouldn't want to. We experience sadness in our lives in order to better appreciate and be grateful for the happy times in our lives.

The idea that being unhappy is a bad state to be in is just wrong. Everybody has his or her reasons to be unhappy sometimes, and those reasons can be perfectly valid.

Some examples of the things in our lives that we can’t fully control:

  • The health and well-being of the people we care about.
  • The health and well-being of ourselves (everybody can get sick).
  • The weather.
  • The job market.
  • The moment our car decides to break down.
  • The outcome of elections.
  • Etc.

We experience sadness in our lives in order to better appreciate and be grateful for the happy times in our lives.

Be aware of the difference between long-term and short-term happiness

If you want to know what happiness means, it's important to know the difference between being happy now and being happy later. If you're aware of short-term vs long-term happiness, you'll be much better able to understand what happiness really means to you.

I want you to picture some scenarios.

  • Picture a life in which you spent your youth partying, doing whatever you want to do and living life as is, without planning for a better future. Sure, you feel pretty happy when doing these things, but you can probably see how this lifestyle will eventually catch up with you, right?

You might have guessed it, but this scenario is focused exclusively on short-term happiness. It’s a fact that pursuing nothing but short-term happiness does not lead to a sustainable happy life.

Now picture the following scenario:

  • You’re in your early twenties and want to become the next Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. You have great ambitions and are incredibly disciplined and inspired to become everything that you think you can become. You spend an incredible amount of time working on your projects, and you even make sacrifices just for the sake of your goals. You don’t have time for sleep, social activities or relationships. Hell, even your health starts to decline. It doesn’t matter though, because you eventually want to reach your goals, and then you’ll be happy, right?

This is another extreme example of happiness. You can probably see how this person is very likely unhappy. He is spending arguably the best years of his life making sacrifices in anticipation of what he eventually wants to become.

happiness is a journey not destination featured
Happiness can be both a journey and a destination!

Happiness now vs. happiness later

The thing is, these extreme examples are not something that you should want. You can only lead a truly happy life when you actively pursue both short-term and long-term happiness.

It’s important to find out what your perfect balance is. Because once you find a balance that works for you, that's when you'll know what happiness is to you.

I’m not here to tell you that you should focus 50% of your attention on short-term happiness and the other 50% on long-term happiness. No. I’m here to tell you that you should be aware of your own happiness. Every single person on this planet has a different definition of happiness. You need to find out what happiness means to you, and how you want to pursue it.

They say happiness is a journey and not a destination. I think happiness should be both.

Why is happiness so important?

Why is happiness so important?

It's not just because being happy makes our lives more fun and filled with joy. Happiness is also linked to success, mental health, physical health, productivity, positive relationships and living a purposeful life.

We've written numerous articles on the biggest factors that are correlated with happiness. Often, we try to find actionable tips on how to live a happier life.

For example, we have an article that covers how 150 minutes of weekly exercise leads to more happiness.

But these factors work the other way around as well.

When you are happy, you are more likely to:

  • Be physically healthy.
  • Be surrounded with positive people.
  • Be more succesful
  • Sleep better
  • Feel less stress
  • Etc.

That's why happiness is so important.

And that's why it's so critical to focus more on your personal happiness. However, it all starts with knowing what happiness means.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, we've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

hugo huijer

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All articles about “What is happiness”

Here at Tracking Happiness, we are extremely fascinated about happiness. We are always on the lookout to answer questions such as:

  • What is happiness exactly and how do people around the world define it?
  • What makes you happy and how does that compare to someone else?
  • What factors are most correlated to happiness?

Whenever we learn something new, we usually write an article about it.

Here’s a full list of articles we’ve written about “What is happiness”:

Closing words

If you arrived at this post without having a clear idea of what happiness is, I hope you're now able to define your personal meaning of happiness.

Now it’s time to hear from you! If I ask you "What is happiness?", I would love it if you'd drop your own answer in the comments below!

Hugo Huijer Founder of Tracking Happiness

Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 7 years.

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