Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D.


Happiness as an Emotion

Happiness is an emotion we often feel when we are engaged in something that is meaningful and valuable to us. When we are engaged in something that is meaningful, that contains the promise of something novel that can change us, we feel happiness. Whether solving a science problem, observing another person, having sex or talking to someone else, we are engaged in processes that produce new meaning, new information, and often a sense of happiness. Communication with oneself and others, the exchange of meaningful information, is ultimately what leads to more meaning and greater happiness.


Research into Happiness

Happiness in its broad sense is the label for a family of pleasant emotional states, such as joy, amusement, satisfaction, gratification, euphoria, and triumph. [1] For example, happiness comes from “encountering unexpected positive events”, [2] “seeing a significant other”, [3] and “basking in the acceptance and praise of others”. [4] More narrowly, it refers to experiential and evaluative well-being. Experiential well-being, or “objective happiness”, is happiness measured in the moment via questions such as “How good or bad is your experience now?”. In contrast, evaluative well-being asks questions such as “How good was your vacation?” and measures one’s subjective thoughts and feelings about happiness in the past. Experiential well-being is less prone to errors in reconstructive memory, but the majority of literature on happiness refers to evaluative well-being. The two measures of happiness can be related by heuristics such as the peak-end rule. [5]


Happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures. [6] Studies suggest that happiness is rather stable over time. [7][8] Happiness is partly genetically based. [9][10] Based on twin studies, 50 percent of a given human’s happiness level is genetically determined, 10 percent is affected by life circumstances and situation, and a remaining 40 percent of happiness is subject to self-control. [11]

The capacity for loving attachments and relationships, especially with parents, is the strongest predictor of well-being later in life. [13] Meditation has been found to lead to high activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which in turn has been found to correlate with happiness. [14] Money can increase happiness up to an annual income of roughly $60,000, beyond which it does not increase happiness significantly. “Beyond the point at which people have enough to comfortably feed, clothe, and house themselves, having more money – even a lot more money – makes them only a little bit happier.” [15] “Spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves”. [16]

There have been some studies of how religion relates to happiness. Causal relationships remain unclear, but more religion is seen in happier people. Religion may provide a sense of meaning and connection to something bigger, beyond the self. Religion may also provide community membership and hence relationships. Another component may have to do with ritual.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid depicting the levels of human needs, psychological, and physical. When a human being ascends the steps of the pyramid, he reaches self-actualization. Beyond the routine of needs fulfilment, Maslow envisioned moments of extraordinary experience, known as peak experiences, profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient, and yet a part of the world. This is similar to the flow concept of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Self-determination theory relates intrinsic motivation to three needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.


Values, Wants and Needs

One’s values and basic interests determine what is valuable to oneself. Happiness requires that one engages in an activity that is meaningful and of value to oneself. Engaging in these activities and situations brings more positive emotions, happiness, and a greater sense of fulfilment in life. Wants and Needs that create greater happiness have to be in sync with one’s values.


The Call of Happiness

Almost everyone strives for happiness in life, and the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the US constitution and many other important documents, but many people feel it is beyond their reach. Some may suffer from a mental health condition like depression, which reduces the amplitude of one’s felt emotions overall, including happiness, and may require treatment. A larger problem is possibly missing direction in life and decision-making, which often is a result of being disconnected from oneself. If one feels what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, this leads to actions and thoughts that generate greater happiness.


The Search for Things that Make Happy

Happiness begins with finding out what makes one happy. This does not have to be anything external. It can be things to think about or something interesting to read. It can also be meditation in silence. Many people feel the pressure from what they think the world expects of them. Simply internalizing external expectations will not bring happiness. My thoughts and actions have to make sense in relation to how I see myself and what I value. This self-image can be affected by mental health conditions like depression, but one’s basic values seldom are.


The Stability of the Self and One’s Values

Our values are mostly stable over time, but meaning depends on the information we exchange with our environment, which again depends on how we communicate with ourselves and others. One can be happy in solitude, but this happiness depends on how I communicate with myself and the non-human world around me and on my interactions with the world when I am with others. Most people do need companionship once in a while.


Connecting the Inside and the Outside

Happiness is when we are connected to the inside and outside world, when we can communicate freely with both. Fears prohibit us from getting in touch with ourselves and others to the extent that can bring about happiness. Happiness is when an organization strives to be optimally adapted to itself and the environment, when it is changed by it and can change it in beneficial ways. This does not require great activity for humans. Even sitting in one’s chair at home can bring about happiness, when we feel ourselves and the world around us. Everything contains information, a tree and even a stone. Humans on the other hand are great information processing systems and we send and receive information all the time. Happiness as an emotion is also a consequence of how we process information, of how we think, which is one reason why we need to take stock of how we process information on the inside (think) and how we process information on the outside (interact with others). Happiness thus depends to a great extent on how we arrange our surroundings and ourselves in these surroundings.


Values and Meaning lead to Greater Happiness

Focusing on one’s values and finding meaning in things leads to greater happiness. This does not have to be time consuming. It just requires doing what feels important, which can be a radically new way of doing things.






[1] Algoe, Sara B.; Haidt, Jonathan (2009). “Witnessing excellence in action: the ‘other-praising’ emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration”. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4 (2): 105–27. doi:10.1080/17439760802650519. PMC 2689844. PMID 19495425.

[2] Cosmides, Leda; Tooby, John (2000). “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”. In Lewis, Michael; Haviland-Jones, Jeannette M. Handbook of emotions (2 ed.). New York [u.a.]: Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1572305298.

[3] Lewis, Michael. “Self-Conscious emotions”. In Barrett, Lisa Feldman; Lewis, Michael; Haviland-Jones, Jeannette M. Handbook of Emotions (Fourth ed.). Guilford Publications. p. 793. ISBN 9781462525362. Retrieved 1 April 2017.

[4] Marano, Hara Estroff (1 November 1995). “At Last—a Rejection Detector!”. Psychology Today. Retrieved 1 April 2017.

[5] Kahneman, Daniel; Riis, Jason (2005). “Living, and thinking about it: two perspectives on life” (PDF). In Huppert, Felicia A; Baylis, Nick; Keverne, Barry. The science of well-being. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198567523.003.0011. ISBN 9780198567523.

[6] Seligman, Martin E. P. (2004). “Can happiness be taught?”. Daedalus. 133 (2): 80–87. doi:10.1162/001152604323049424. JSTOR 20027916.

[7] Baumeister, Roy F.; Vohs, Kathleen D.; Aaker, Jennifer L.; Garbinsky, Emily N. (November 2013). “Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life”. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 8 (6): 505–516. doi:10.1080/17439760.2013.830764.

[8] Costa, Paul T.; McCrae, Robert R.; Zonderman, Alan B. (August 1987). “Environmental and dispositional influences on well-being: Longitudinal follow-up of an American national sample”. British Journal of Psychology. 78 (3): 299–306. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1987.tb02248.x.

[9] Okbay, Aysu; et al. (18 April 2016). “Genetic variants associated with subjective well-being, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism identified through genome-wide analyses”. Nature Genetics. 48 (6): 624–633. doi:10.1038/ng.3552.

[10] Bartels, Meike (1 January 2015). “Genetics of Wellbeing and Its Components Satisfaction with Life, Happiness, and Quality of Life: A Review and Meta-analysis of Heritability Studies”. Behavior Genetics. 45 (2): 137–156. doi:10.1007/s10519-015-9713-y. ISSN 0001-8244.

[11] Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2008). The How of Happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Books. p. 56. ISBN 978-0143114956.

[12] Seligman, Martin E. P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Simon and Schuster. p. 16. ISBN 9781439190760.

[13] Vaillant, George E. Triumphs of Experience. Harvard University Press. p. 191. ISBN 9780674067424.

[14] Claire Bates (2012-10-31). “Is this the world’s happiest man? Brain scans reveal French monk found to have ‘abnormally large capacity’ for joy, and it could be down to meditation”. Mail Online.

[15] Bennett, Drake (23 August 2009). “Happiness: A buyer’s guide”. The Boston Globe. Retrieved 1 April 2017.

[16] Dunn, E. W.; Aknin, L. B.; Norton, M. I. (2008). “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness”. Science. 319 (5870): 1687–88. Bibcode:2008Sci…319.1687D. doi:10.1126/science.1150952. PMID 18356530.




Dr Jonathan Haverkampf, M.D. trained in medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy and works in private practice for psychotherapy, counselling and psychiatric medication in Dublin, Ireland. The author can be reached by email at jonathanhaverkampf@gmail.com or on the websites www.jonathanhaverkampf.com and www.jonathanhaverkampf.ie.

This article is solely a basis for academic discussion and no medical advice can be given in this article, nor should anything herein be construed as advice. Always consult a professional if you believe you might suffer from a physical or mental health condition. Trademarks belong to their respective owners. No checks have been made.


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