Everyone has something to say about happiness. Staunch philosophers, religious leaders, researchers, and your kooky uncle all have a perspective on what a worthwhile life looks like.

Is happiness about living a dutiful, morally obligated life? Is it about indulging in the most luxurious of pleasures? Is it about being content with nothing, or about having the means to get almost anything?

Answering these questions requires more than a resignation to “personal taste”. Studying happiness in the lab allows us to understand just how we can be happiest, and how we can help others to be happy.

My goal is to help us articulate our own happiness, so we aren’t reduced to wise-sounding clichés and frustration when we describe how short-term pain can sometimes be meaningful.

This is the first post in a series of the history and study of happiness. Today, I’ll cover a few ways scientists have defined happiness, which definition I use, and why.

What is Happiness?

To study happiness, we need to better define it. The problem is, researchers are still torn about how to define it, which can make understanding studies at a glance difficult, if not misleading (or worse, contradictory).

Happiness Vs. Meaning: Together or Apart?

Even among scientists, there is disagreement on how to define and measure happiness. There are two major components to it: short-term positive affect (like feeling joyful, being proud, or having fun) and long-term mental well-being (like reflecting on life, and feeling it was worth it, or feeling one’s life has meaning).

Roy Baumeister, whose research I cite in my post about willpower, looks at happiness as a net amount of positive affect, minus negative affect. Thus, the higher amount of experienced positive emotion, the “happier” a person is. He divides “happiness” and “meaning” into two separate entities.

Intuitively, this works and is in line with popular belief that a happy person is one who sees positives in everything: joyful, proud, and carefree. However, studies find that the “meaningful” measure also reflects well-being, with people reporting high life satisfaction even when there are more negative emotions reported than positive emotions.

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that the two should be combined, so “happiness” is defined as the short-term positive affect, and the long-term life satisfaction. She believes the two synergize too well to separate. Research separating the two is less useful when it studies “happiness” solely as short-term affect, because studies show that both contribute to a satisfying life.

A similar issue emerges between the definition of “eudaimonic happiness” and “hedonistic happiness”: self-actualizing and meaningful satisfaction versus pleasurable, sensory-based pleasure.

So, What Is Happiness On This Blog?

To recap, other researchers choose to separate short-term emotions and long-term sense as happiness and meaning respectively. Roy Baumeister and others defines happiness as the short-term affect. They separate living a meaningful life from living a happy life.

Sonja Lyubomirsky tries to tie the two together to create a singular measure of well-being.

After consideration, my preferred method of defining happiness aligns with Dr. Lyubomirsky. In the The How of Happiness, she describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” 1

Here’s why I follow this definition. This definition of happiness:

1) Captures the short-term, positive emotions like joy, pride, and compassion. This is the part of happiness that people usually understand and can articulate. We like to feel good.

2) Captures the a “deeper”, long-term sense that life is worth living, and will continue to be worth living. This involves defining a meaning to life and creating purpose.

3) Recognizes that short-term emotions and long-term feelings synergize with overall happiness. As the blog pushes along, you’ll see studies trickling out that show positive emotions help people work harder towards things that are meaningful. Short-term and long-term happiness components work together to make a complete life.

When I want to talk about joy, fun, and the other short-term positive emotions, I will call it “positive affect”. When I want to talk about meaning, self-actualization, and satisfaction, I will call it “life satisfaction”.

When I want to talk about how they create the best life, I will call it happiness. Let’s hope researchers start doing the same.

How Scientists Study Happiness

Knowing ways we can define happiness leads us to measuring happiness. Though scientists currently debate the best way to measure happiness (for example, having happiness be separate from meaning, or having the two together mean happiness),

Despite the current ambiguity in defining happiness, there is a shared vocabulary to better define the components of happiness. Here are some tested and popular ways to measure happiness:

Positive affect. This term refers to the experience of positive emotion (examples include joy, pride, love, fun, and contentment). Positive affect is the short-term emotion described above, and it does not define the “deep” happiness. The common way to measure positive affect is through the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (known as PANAS).

Life satisfaction. This term refers to a retrospective assessment. Life satisfaction is the long-term sense of being described above — not just feeling happy, but being happy. Has a person’s life been good and worth living? Are they satisfied with how their lives have played out so far? The most popular scale to measure Life Satisfaction is the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).

Subjective well-being. A term (usually) synonymous with “happiness” in research. It measures “emotional states” and “global life satisfaction”. In other words, it’s the more scientific-sound version of measuring positive affect and life satisfaction. It shows up in some studies replacing “happiness” as the key word.

So What’s Next?

Hopefully this gives you an idea of how a scientist can study happiness (and some of the interesting politics surrounding it).

Next week, I’ll dive into the history of happiness, and how our culture shapes the way we envision it. Until then, think about your own happiness. What is your ratio of positive emotion to negative emotion? Upon reflection, do you feel your life so far has been “worth it”? Let me know in the comments below. 2


  1. Sonja’s book is great at explaining the “Why” of happiness, but less good at the “How” despite the book title. If you need convincing about why things like a gratitude journal work, then read Sonja’s book. For more pragmatic tips, I suggest The Emotional Toolkit by Darlene Mininni
  2. Much of this information was from a Berkeley course on happiness by leading happiness researcher and UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner. He’s also the author of the good, Born To Be Good.