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The Psychology of Happiness

Happiness is the state of being happy (no seriously, that was the best google had to offer), but it does nicely segue into the topic of how happiness changes from person to person. For some it’s oodles of money, for some it’s their children and families, for others it’s as simple as a lie in on a Saturday morning while the rain gently meanders down the window pane. When something is this tenuous to grasp, how can we even begin to search for it? What is happiness? How does it work? An actual dictionary (thanks, Google…) defines happiness as follows; A state of well-being and contentment, A pleasurable or satisfying experience. We seem to spend all our lives in pursuit of this elusive emotion


Gandhi said that “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. Author Ayn Rand believed that “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values“. Gandhi and Rand have a point; you are statistically more likely to be happy when you act in accordance with your values. Your values are a combination of your beliefs and motivations, that influence how we see the world and what decisions we make. The Personal Values Assessment is a short simple assessment to help you discover what drives you, and how to incorporate them in your daily life.


When you boil it down to the bare bones, we’re all products of two things; our genetics and our environments. Mutants (genetic and otherwise) aside, there have been hundreds of studies into how our genome affects our life satisfaction and wellbeing. Statistics vary, but our happiness has been shown to be approximately 50-60% genetic.


A lot of modern day psychology focuses on finding out weaknesses and improving them of how we cope with them, or how we improve them. Positive psychology takes a different slant; acknowledging both the good and the bad, but focusing on our strengths and building those up. The Character, Strengths and Virtues handbook identifies 24 character strengths divided and categorized into 6 core virtues, as follows;

Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation

Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, zest

Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control

Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

You can take the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths questionnaire at viacharacter.org.


Interestingly, the old adage “mo’ money, mo’ problems” does hold some weight. People’s happiness rises with increased financial income, but only up to $50-70,000 a year. After that, it plateaus. Whilst I doubt Bill Gates goes to bed every night dreaming of being a pauper, money can really only buy you so much happiness.


One of the things we are all taught to do from a very young age is compare ourselves to others. In this ever increasing rat race, where everything we do is documented on social media for others to see and compare themselves to aswell, it’s hard to keep up, and it’s easy to feel bitter about inequalities. A study showed that the perception of equality in a society goes a long way in making people feel happier. In a study conducted by Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia and Selin Kesebir at the London Business School looks at the connection between economic growth, inequality, and happiness across 34 nations. Looking at high GDP vs low GDP, there was little difference in overall happiness. When you factored in income inequality, when income inequality increased, happiness decreased and vice versa. Turns out “we were poor, but we were happy” can be true, as long as everyone around you is on a similar economic footing and you’re all in it together.

Behaviours then increase happiness

Acting in accordance with your values. Most have a certain cognitive dissonance between who they really are and who they see themselves as, aligning your behaviour with what you really believe can help you find some peace.

Gratitude is a big one too; it’s so easy to compare our lives to others and see the discrepancies, but being grateful for what you have has been shown to improve happiness. Every night before you fall asleep, write down three things that you’re grateful for. It sounds like a load of fairy stories, but it really works; it refocuses your attention on the little things in life, reminding you to be happy when anything good happens.

Pro-social behaviour is key. It’s so hard to drag yourself out when you aren’t feeling good, but seeing friends and getting some social interaction is a good way to raise our spirits. Our friends help shape who we are, and being reminded of good times when we aren’t having a good day can help refocus our attention on the good side of things. 

Focusing on one big goal in the distant future can be as exasperating as it is frustrating. But breaking one big task into little every day goals makes it much more manageable, and that feeling of accomplishment when it’s over goes a long way. Don’t stress about the nigger picture; try to occasionally live in the moment.

It’s frustrating when people say being happy is easy; it’s not. It takes time and effort but it can be done and it is worth it. Especially with term almost done and exams/assignments looking, it can be difficult to look on the bright side. Just keep swimming.