Striving For True Happiness

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

Happiness is “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction, and wellbeing” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Six basic emotions are universal within cultures, including happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust (Barrett et al., 2016). All secondary or complex emotions such as shame, pride, guilt, relief, boredom, and amazement stem from reactions to the basic felt emotions (Pollak et al., 2019). Happiness is associated with the secondary emotions of amusement, contentment, and joy depending on the eliciting event that triggers the emotion (Storbeck & Wylie, 2018). This positive emotion is associated with reward and is considered a high arousal emotion on the pleasure valance (Lim, 2016).

Happiness is an emotion present in a moment or a general feeling of life satisfaction from experiencing more positive emotions than negative ones. Happy people have a positive outlook on life and are often labeled optimists (Oltean et al., 2019). Happiness is associated with longevity (Lee et al., 2019), resiliency (Storbeck & Wylie, 2018), increased performance (Lester et al., 2021), and heightened executive functioning (Storbeck & Maswood, 2016). This emotion has identifiable cognitive, behavioral, physiological, and experiential effects on each person (Storbeck & Wylie, 2018).

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Thought and Behavioral Aspects of the Emotion

Happiness elicits curiosity, alertness, contentment, silliness, closeness, calmness, interest, and joyfulness (Ekman & Cordaro, 2011). When people are having fun, they tend to get louder, have very active body movements, increased heart rate, and pupils can dilate or restrict depending on the happy event. Individuals can also be happy because of contentment or closeness, which is associated with a genuine smile, relaxed body, a decrease in heartbeat, and blood pressure (Storbeck & Wylie, 2019).

Happiness increases social bonding. People who are happy touch others more (Hertenstein et al., 2009), cooperate (Barsade, 2002), are more trusting, foster attachment quickly (Eisenberger et al., 2011), and increase prosocial behaviors like perspective-taking and sympathy (Capara et al., 2008). Happy people are more likely to help strangers, volunteer, and be a listening ear in times of trouble (Storbeck & Wylie, 2019).

Studies have shown that happiness heightens and broadens the brain’s ability to process visual information (Schmitz et al., 2009). One reason for this is happiness decreases negative feelings such as anger, contempt, and anxiety (Fredrickson, 2013). When individuals are in the fight or flight mode, attention gets extremely focused while other visual information is shut out to increase survival (Kozlowska et al., 2015). Happiness suppresses this intense focus and allows the happy individual to see more stimuli in one’s environment.

Research also reveals that happiness increases cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to successfully problem-solve when no clear solution is present (Storbeck & Wylie, 2019). This flexibility exists since happiness increases semantic activity (Storbeck & Clore, 2008). Happiness is also associated with a higher degree of false memory in comparison to sadness (Storbeck & Core, 2005).

Lastly, happiness increases executive functioning, specifically the ability to shift from task to task. Words come easy to happy people because they have better verbal working memory. Happy people expand the capacity for working memory and heightened reactive control (Chiew & Braver, 2014; Storbeck, Davidson, Dahl, Blass & Yung, 2015; Storbeck & Maswood, 2016).

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Physiological Components of Happiness

            A happy person’s brain secretes a cocktail of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters that include serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin each time they experience a happy moment and pleasurable experience (Barret et al., 2016). Serotonin stabilizes mood and gives a person a sense of wellbeing. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and motivation because it is the reward system in the brain. Oxytocin calms the nervous system, locks in trust, love, and bonding with others. Endorphins induce relaxation and pain relief (Dsouza et al., 2020). Happiness is also associated with decreased levels of cortisol (Fredrickson, 2013). Depressed individuals show reduced activity in the frontal cortical region of the brain and blocking of dopamine (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013).

            The cortical (media and lateral orbitofrontal cortex and insula) amygdala and subcortical (parabrachial nucleus, ventral pallidum, and nucleus accumbent) parts of the brain are aroused when a pleasurable stimulus is presented to the person (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013). Neuroimaging research has found decreases in the right prefrontal cortex and increased left hippocampus and amygdala when pleasure is experienced (Suardi et al., 2016). It is important to note that everyone has a unique concentration of neurotransmitters and activations in the brain, complicating research of emotional experiences (Mehta, 2010).

Photo by Sarah Stevenson “Better Together”

Social and Cultural Context of Happiness

Emotion is affected by a person’s biological makeup and the environment they live in (Corado et al., 2015). This environmental influence ensures that cultural display rules and social norms the person is raised with heavily affect how one expresses and experiences emotion (Ekman & Friesen, 1969). A person raised in an interconnected society will experience, process, and express happiness much differently than someone raised in an independent society.

In independent culture, one sees themself separate from others, unique in talents, goals, preferences, and abilities (Lim, 2016). Emotion is viewed through an analytical lens, noncontradiction is valued, and constancy is stressed (Uchida & Kityama, 2009). Cultural display rules reinforce the dramatic display of every emotion. Happiness is a high arousal emotion that is valued and positively reinforced. Independent society encourages individuals to strive for the feeling of happiness above all other emotions. Happiness is considered a human right. In western culture, happiness is felt when someone accomplishes a personal goal, life aligns with individual preferences, pleasure is secured, and pain is avoided (Joshanloo, 2014).

In interconnected cultures, one sees themselves as part of the whole, responsible for how personal emotion affects the group and taught to regulate emotion instead of over-identifying with the feeling (Uchida & Kitayama, 2009). Cultural display rules suggest humbleness, conformity, and suppression of emotions for the benefit of others (Matsumoto et al., 2008). Happiness is not considered a right for someone in interconnected culture, but rather one feeling in the sea of every other valuable emotion. A person in eastern culture would not be positively reinforced for a dramatic public display of happiness. A genuine smile would grace the face of a happy person in the east, showing a sense of pride, but the person will keep in mind how the display of emotion would affect others in their environment (Jack et al., 2012). If one is happy for oneself, it will be expressed in private, not in public, where they would bring attention to themselves. Eastern culture also teaches that emotion is fluid and constantly changing, so overidentifying with any single emotion like happiness will cause one to be trapped and eventually out of balance. The awareness of sadness will loom in the background of a happy moment to stay balanced and avoid over-identification with happiness (Chiao, 2015).

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One of the main differences between Eastern and Western felt emotions in culture is the striving for hedonic happiness and eudaimonic happiness (Storbeck & Wylie., 2018). Hedonic happiness seeks pleasurable, positive experiences while avoiding painful, negative experiences (Shinde, 2017). The goal for hedonism is to obtain desired possessions like fancy cars and big houses and experience positive, exciting incidents like getting a promotion, going on vacation, or eating at the newest popular restaurant in town. The motivation for obtaining these objects and experiences is simply the enjoyment component, lacking functionality (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013). Since this type of happiness is fleeting, obtaining it disappears quickly, causing the individual to strive for the next positive event.

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Eastern culture seeks to obtain eudaimonic happiness, which focuses on a life filled with virtue, inner harmony, and self-control that leads to a sense of wellbeing (Suardi et al., 2016). These individuals are trying to reach their highest potential in life and are not easily trapped in the roller coaster of emotion that flows through a westerner’s life. Easterners are positively reinforced for their ability to regulate emotions, whether it be sadness, anger, or happiness (Yu, 2009). It is difficult to measure levels of eudaimonic happiness objectively, so research is dependent on subjective self-reports of wellbeing (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

Prevalent in western culture, positive psychology, first introduced by Dr. Seligman in 1954, is the scientific study of a person’s strengths and is used to increase individuals’ happiness and well-being so that they can thrive (Gibbon, 2020). Within the practice of positive psychology, it is the belief that happiness is a choice and, although influenced by genetics, is not entirely dependent on genetics (Park et al., 2014). This discipline empowers individuals to take control of their lives and cognitively and behaviorally challenge limiting beliefs and actions.

Eastern culture uses emotional regulation skills like meditation and mindfulness to treat emotions (Lehmann et al., 2019). Mindfulness allows the easterner to feel the emotion, be present with the symptoms, and breathe through it, instead of avoiding it or running from the feeling to replace it with a positive one (Suh & Koo, 2011). Unlike the west, the East values low arousal emotions like calmness more than high arousal emotions like anger (Tsai, 2007; Lim, 2016). For this reason, eastern culture is more skilled at emotional regulation than those in the west (Storbeck & Wylie., 2018).

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Personality Development and Happiness

            Experts suggest five dimensions to personality development that create the basis for personality traits known as the Big Five Dimension of Personality (Power & Pluess, 2015). Research suggests that both nature and nurture affect the development and shaping of personality (Jang et al., 1996). The five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each trait has two extremes, extraversion is at one end of a spectrum, and the extreme opposite is introversion at the other end. The average person will fall in the middle of each side. Research has found that happy people fall into certain areas of each trait.

A person high on the openness trait will be creative, curious, adventurous, and ready to take on new challenges. A person low on the openness trait is afraid to try new things, lacks abstract thinking, does not like change, rarely uses imagination, and is considered traditional (Jang et al., 1996). Individuals who are high on the openness trait scale tend to develop optimistic personalities since many of these traits are associated with happiness (Storbeck & Wylie, 2019).

Individuals high on the conscientiousness trait are thoughtful, empathetic, have suitable impulse restraint, are organized, and pay close attention to details. If the person is low on the conscientiousness scale, they tend to be very disorganized, do not like structure, procrastinates, and rarely meet deadlines (Jang et al., 1996). People who score higher on the conscientiousness trait tend to be happier individuals who can foster meaningful attachments with others (Sun et al., 2016).

Someone high on the extraversion scale loves attention, is a great conversation starter, has a large, eclectic group of friends, is energized when around people, speak impulsively, and finds it easy to make friends. A person low on the extraversion scale does not like attention, thinks before speaking, likes to be alone, and feels drained after socializing (Afshan et al., 2015). Individuals high on the extraversion scale tend to regulate their moods better than introverts and value high arousal emotions like happiness (Lischetzke & Eid, 2006).

People on the high end of the agreeableness trait care for others, feel empathy, are kind, affectionate, trustworthy, love to make others happy, help others in need, and cooperate (Jang et al., 1996). Individuals low on the agreeableness scale are argumentative, manipulative, competitive, insulting, and do not particularly care for people. An agreeable person has prosocial behavior and can quickly build trust and secure attachment in relationships, making them much happier than a non-agreeable person (Oltean et al., 2019).

Individuals high on the neuroticism scale are irritable, anxious, have mood swings, are emotionally unstable, and lack emotional regulation, so they have trouble with resiliency from big emotions (Jang et al., 1996). People low on the neuroticism scale are relaxed, emotionally stable, resilient, and rarely struggle with bouts of depression or anxiety (Shi et al., 2019). Suffice to say, a person who is low in neuroticism is much happier than an exceptionally neurotic person.

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Happiness in Relation to Mental Health in Childhood and Adulthood

            A childhood filled with happy experiences does not necessarily ensure that the child will grow to a mentally healthy adult, as is the reverse (Kahl et al., 2020). Mental health is based on adaption to change and the genetic disposition of neurotransmitter and receptor sites in the amygdala (Kagan et al., 1993). Children born with a disposition of high reactivity in the amygdala show an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and have thrashing movements when presented with new stimuli. This high level of reactivity is conducive to an anxious personality that may grow to be high on the neuroticism scale (Jang et al., 1996). If a parent coddles the anxious child and keeps them from being presented with new stimuli, the child will never learn to adapt to change in the environment (Kagan, 1989).

However, suppose the parent has an anxious child and teaches them how to emotionally regulate while presented with unfamiliar stimuli. In that case, the child will have a chance to live a mentally healthy life and grow to be a healthy adult (Kagan, 2010). Resiliency and coping strategies are the key components to successfully moving through the vast array of emotionally stimulating events that each person experiences throughout one’s life.

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Increasing Happiness

            Genetics is indeed responsible for a portion of one’s happiness, but research has found several ways to increase the level of happiness beyond hereditary means. Experts suggest that daily exercise can increase joy for up to an hour after exercise. Researchers also found that happy people tend to exercise more (van Woudengerg et al., 2020). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adults should get at least 30 minutes of physical exercise that includes aerobic activity and strength training each day (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). Decrease the amount of time spent sitting, getting up, and moving throughout the day.

Studies show that random acts of kindness practiced for a week significantly decrease anxiety and increases happiness (Rowland & Curry, 2019). As stated earlier, happiness increases social bonding, and happy people tend to help a stranger in need and have increased sympathetic and empathetic social skills (Storbeck & Wylie, 2019). Happy people are high in openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness personality traits (Jang et al., 1996) which makes acts of kindness likely come naturally. So those who may struggle with being outgoing and thoughtful can commit to a weekly activity of doing something nice for others to help build prosocial skills that will lead to happiness.

Keeping a gratitude log in which, a person writes down why they are grateful for certain things is another way to increase happiness (Kardas et al., 2019). Based on positive psychology and cognitive behavior therapeutic approaches, gratitude journals are aimed at controlling one’s thoughts and choosing to spend a period each day training the mind to focus on the positive aspects of one’s life (David et al., 2017). Gratitude journals are associated with increased subjective well-being, and fewer reported sick days (Kushley et al., 2020). It is important to note that gratitude journals do not necessarily work to increase optimism cross-culturally. Comparative cross-culture studies found that eastern collective culture associated positive and negative emotions with the gratitude journal technique (Titova et al., 2017).

A person who has a strong support system reports high amounts of happiness and subjective wellbeing (Gulacti, 2010). There are so many opportunities for even the most isolated of individuals to connect with others these days. With social media, meet-up groups, church congregations, mommy and me classes, and book clubs, one can build a strong bond with people that share the same hobbies, spiritual beliefs, and life situations (Gulacti, 2010). Sometimes just the act of being validated by another human can increase the level of happiness in someone (Bodie et al., 2015).

Each person must see themselves as a unique expression of humanity that can bring color and beauty into the world. It is also wise to limit the amount of time one spends on social media (Riehm et al., 2019). One sure way to hinder happiness is by comparing oneself with others. Since the invention of social media, the problem of comparison with others has risen to astronomical amounts. Researchers found that individuals who compared themselves to others while looking at a stranger’s positive post on Instagram had a lower positive affect than seeing a neutral post or no post all (de Vries et al., 2018). Under the premise of emotional contagion, individuals who did not compare themselves to others reported a positive affect when viewing a stranger’s post that was positive in nature.

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Conclusion

            The term happiness does not mean the same thing to all people, so it is essential to keep this in mind while defining this emotion. Happiness is considered a highly sought-after feeling in western independent culture, and the pursuit of happiness is typically at the forefront of aspirations (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2013). This high value of happiness above other emotions tends to cause happiness to elude the person. Feelings change so quickly, making this positive emotion unreachable, generating frustration and sadness (Mauss et al., 2011). This seeking out happiness above all other emotions eventually becomes counterproductive.

In the eastern collective culture, happiness is valued along with every other emotion, not held higher than others. The easterner will always consider how the expression of any emotion affects those around them (Lim, 2016). Having the ability to emotionally regulate all feelings is critical for a person to live a balanced life regardless of the sentiment. When it comes down to contentment, taking the striving for goals of the west and finding meaning in each emotional experience of the east will lead to the happiest of lives.

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By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Behavior Modification & have worked with individuals ages 0-19 in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am currently earning my master’s in psychology and will graduate March 2022. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients ages 8-95, eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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