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We all want to be happy, but what is happiness; is it a skill we can learn, and what does neuroscience have to say about it?

What is happiness?

What do you want in life? To be happy?

That’s what most of us want -but what is happiness and how do we get it?

The dictionary definition of happiness is

“feeling or showing pleasure or contentment”

But surely there’s more to happiness than a fleeting feeling.

Whilst happiness is relative as it means different things to different people depending on circumstance and interest, it would seem there are two distinct types of happiness.

Two types of happiness

There’s things that make us feel happy, the experiences of things we love doing and we want more of.

This is hedonia – pleasure and fun. It’s transitory, in the moment – it happens, it makes us feel happy, and then it’s gone and the moment’s passed.

Then there’s a more fundamental type of happiness. The sort of happiness which ideally underlies or underpins our lives.

It’s a state of being that comes with being content with yourself without relying on other people or external props.

This is wellbeing or ‘eudaimonia’ which captures the idea of living a meaningful life as first described by Aristotle.

This sort of happiness is more enduring.

Happiness and Brilliant Living

When we were thinking about the characteristics of brilliant living, we kept coming back to ideas about happiness because the characteristics of brilliant living equally apply to wellbeing and happiness.  This is what we came up with for starters:

  • Sense of control – being in charge of one’s own destiny, choosing the life you wish to lead, and taking positive action to get it.
  • Inner contentment – both within yourself and your relationships with the world.
  • Purpose – you have a clear concept in mind of what you’d like to achieve in your life which is in alignment with your personal values and how you want to live your life.
  • To love and be loved  – to love oneself and also to give and receive love in its wider form, through friends, family and the intimacy of connections.
  • Self-esteem – recognition of your own worth and a respect for others alongside a need for your own individuality.
  • Achievement  – mastery of your own talents, recognition and respect of your efforts by yourself and others.
  • Fulfilment – experiencing and fulfilling your creative potential.

The neuroscience of happiness

Is there a scientific basis for understanding what makes you happy?

There’s been a lot of scientific interest over the past 10 years into what’s going on in our brains when we experience emotions such as happiness.

Developments in neuroimaging have greatly assisted this, as scientists can monitor reactions in the brain in real time.

Richard J. Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler in an article on The Neuroscience of Happiness highlight four constituents or elements of happiness and wellbeing.

Happiness and wellbeing levels are higher when people are better able to sustain positive emotion; recover more quickly from negative experiences; engage in empathic and altruistic acts; and express high levels of mindfulness.

  1. They looked at how long people held on to positive emotions, because studies monitoring brain functions with fMRI indicate that how long a positive response lasts indicates general levels of wellbeing and happiness.
  2. Then how quickly they recovered when really sad things happened. This is where resilience comes in, keeping a high level of wellbeing in the face of adversity. They found recovery from negative events was a good measure of wellbeing. Happy and resilient people of course experience sadness but recover more quickly.
  3. The next finding was that one of the strongest predictions of wellbeing is the quality of our social relationships. Add this to the fact that good social bonds are associated with better health and longer life expectancy, it’s fair to say social relationships are key to a happy and maybe longer and healthier life. The neuroscience also highlights the importance of empathy – sharing feelings of others and compassion – feeling concern for others and a desire to improve things.
  4. Mindfulness is the final positive indicator for wellbeing.

Results of a study by Killingsworth and Gilbert where 2000 people recorded on a phone app how frequently their minds wandered and how happy or unhappy they felt at that moment, showed their minds wandered 47% of the time and they experienced significantly more unhappiness than when they were focussed on an activity – almost any activity!

Mindfulness meditation training results in a decrease in what is activated in our brains during mind wandering.

The conclusion

One of the most significant findings of the neuroscientifc evidence is these 4 constituents of wellbeing all exhibit plasticity. Which is a huge finding because it means with training and practice we can develop and transform these behaviours and ways of being.

“…data are available that indicate that some of these training regimes, even those as short as two weeks, can induce measurable changes in the brain. These findings highlight the view that happiness and well-being are best regarded as skills that can be enhanced through training.” Richard J. Davidson and Brianna S. Schuyler, The Neuroscience of Happiness

Now that is significant for all of us. We can actually increase our happiness by learning how to grow it effectively and enhance it through training.  It ultimately means happiness is a skill we can train for, practice and get more of.

Episode 56 of the Changeability Podcast

Hear us discuss all of this and more in episode 56 of the Changeability Podcast, on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or download or listen at the top of this page.

Links mentioned in episode 56

You can also support the show by subscribing to it on iTunes and leaving us a review on Stitcher, TuneIn or iTunes, this helps us greatly and we’ll read your review if you write to us and let us know you’ve left one – write to hello@brilliantlivinghq.com