What does it mean to be happy?
When your business has the name “happy” in it, you’d better be ready to explain. I reclaimed happiness through my yoga practice, and it’s my mission to help you create the same happy momentum for your life.
But even though I’d consider myself a happy person, that still doesn’t answer the question: What is happiness?
The curious journalist in me wanted to find out. So I researched happiness to see how it has been defined throughout history and what it means for us in the world today.
After combing through volumes of quotes and facts, I uncovered 10 key themes. In the words of scientists, philosophers, thought leaders, yogis and me, here’s what I think it means to be happy. P.S. Doing yoga fast-tracks you to these themes.
1. Happiness is biological.
“At the very instant you think, ‘I am happy,’ a chemical messenger translates your emotion, which has no solid existence whatever in the material world, into a bit of matter so perfectly attuned to your desire that literally every cell in your body learns of your happiness and joins in.”
—Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine
“…50 percent of individual differences in happiness are governed by genes, 10 percent by life circumstances, and the remaining 40 percent by what we do and how we think — that is, our intentional activities and strategies.”
—Sonja Lyubomirsk, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want
“Happy people, those who smile more, and who report themselves to be enthusiastic, alert and engaged in life show a curious asymmetry in their brain activity; they have more activity in their left prefrontal cortex than in the right.” [Note: The left brain is the region associated with positive emotion.] —Richard J. Davidson, neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison
“To be happy, it seems, is just to be in a certain sort of psychological state or condition.”
—Dan Haybron, “Happiness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition)
“Everyone who has observed human behavior for more than thirty continuous seconds seems to have noticed that people are strongly, perhaps even primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy. ”
—Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist, Stumbling on Happiness
2. Happy people are contagious.
“Research shows that happy people boost the happiness of others in a wide network through three degrees of acquaintance.”
PBS’s This Emotional Life
“Seek your happiness in the happiness of all.”
—Zarathushtra, founder of Zoroastrianism
“Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor’s sister’s friend can give you a 5.6% boost.”
—Los Angeles Times reporting on the “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study” published in BMJ
3. Happy people are grateful and heart-centered.
“I shall take the heart… for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”
—Tinman in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
“The happiest people are the most engaged with others and the least wrapped up in their own problems. Happy people are more likely to express positive emotions like gratitude, altruism, and forgiveness.”
PBS’s This Emotional Life
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.”
—Denis Waitley, American motivational author
In a 2003 study, people who practiced gratitude felt 25% happier than those who did not. The grateful people were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives and they even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week.
—PsyBlog reporting on “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
4. Happiness comes from doing.
“Happiness consists in activity. It is a running stream, not a stagnant pool.”
—John Mason Good, English writer
“Happiness is a word that we generally use to indicate an experience and not the actions that give rise to it.”
—Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
“Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. ”
—Joseph Addison, If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People?
“Action may not always bring happiness; but there is no happiness without action.”
—Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
“Happy people plan actions, they don’t plan results.”
“You’ve got to ask! Asking is, in my opinion, the world’s most powerful — and neglected — secret to success and happiness.”
—Percy Ross, American millionaire
5. Happiness is not a destination.
“When people say that they are happy with their lives, they do not usually mean that they are literally joyful, or experiencing pleasure, all of the time. They mean that, upon reflection on the balance sheet of pleasures and pains, they feel the balance to be reasonably positive over the long term.”
—Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, Authentic Happiness
“The purpose of life is the expansion of happiness.”
—Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Vedic sage
“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
“The great Western disease is, ‘I’ll be happy when…When I get the money. When I get a BMW. When I get this job. Well, the reality is, you never get to when. The only way to find happiness is to understand that happiness is not out there. It’s in here. And happiness is not next week. It’s now.”
—Marshall Goldsmith, American author, quoted in Fast Company
6. Happiness is influenced by your culture and social circle.
34% of adults in America say they’re very happy; 50% of Americans say they’re pretty happy; 15% consider themselves not too happy.
Pew Research, 2006, “Are We Happy Yet?”
“Raising incomes can raise happiness, especially in poor societies, but fostering cooperation and community can do even more, especially in rich societies… It is no accident that the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust and quality of governance.”
World Happiness Report
People in Costa Rica, Vietnam and Colombia live the longest, happiest, most sustainable lives, according to the 2012 Happy Planet Index (HPI), which ranks 151 countries on these three attributes. The United States ranks 105.
“You have it easily in your power to increase the sum total of this world’s happiness now. How? By giving a few words of sincere appreciation to someone who is lonely or discouraged.”
7. Happiness is an attitude.
“Happiness depends on attitude toward life more than accomplishing specified goals.”
—Raymond A. Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life?
“If only we wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”
—Charles de Montesquieu, If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People?
“No man is happy who does not think himself so.”
—Publilius Syrus, 1st century BC Latin writer
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
—Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, CE 161-180
“Whatever you are most attached to exerts the most control over your life and becomes your primary source of both happiness and anxiety.”
The Law of Attachment from You Can Choose to Be Happy by Tom G. Stevens, PhD
“Happiness is secured through virtue. It is a good attained by man’s own will.”
—St. Thomas Aquinas, The Little Book of Happiness: Quotes by History’s Icons, Celebrities, And Saints
8. Happy people live in the now.
“In order to be utterly happy, the only thing necessary is to refrain from comparing this moment with other moments in the past.”
—Andre Gide, If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People?
“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”
—Groucho Marx, American comedian and actor
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”
—Kurt Vonnegut, 20th century American writer
“I will argue that what we are programmed for by evolution is not happiness itself, but a set of beliefs about the kinds of things that will bring happiness, and a disposition to pursue them. This makes sense of several consistent but puzzling findings: that people believe they will be more happy in the future than they are now, but in fact seldom are… and that people are consistently wrong about the impact of future life events on their happiness.”
—Daniel Nettle, Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile
9. Happiness arises from struggle.
“A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.”
—Helen Keller, The Simplest Way to be Happy
“Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. ”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
“Happiness requires desiring something which demands effort and creatively undertaking a process thought necessary to attain it.”
—Raymond A. Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life?
“Indeed, man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”
—St. Augustine, philosopher and theologian
“Happiness is the divine discontent. It’s the creative impulse. If you were totally happy — blissed out — then there would be nothing to do. You would be doomed to eternal senility. As long as you have a little discontent and the creative impulse, then you’re happy.”
—Deepak Chopra interviewed by Rainn Wilson
10. Being happy means fully accepting your life as it is.
“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
—Henry David Thoreau, American author, naturalist
“My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?”
—Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts
“The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does.”
—James M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
What do you think is the key to happiness? Share below!
In the photo: My framed print of Marc John’s “What to focus on”