Happiness: It's About More Than Just Feeling Good

Father carrying daughter piggyback
Joy is only one aspect of happiness.

Imagine yourself at your happiest. If you’re like me, before I began studying happiness more earnestly a decade ago, you probably envision joyful moments and memories in which everything feels as if it’s going right. If you’ve seen Pixar’s latest animated film Inside Out which depicts the clashing emotions of a young girl, Amy Poehler’s character Joy embodies happiness in this way.

Although blissful experiences can be wonderful, they are only a component of a well-rounded conception of happiness.

In his most recent book Flourish, psychologist Martin Seligman outlines a five-part model of well-being that defines happiness as a much broader concept than “feeling good” in the moment. Rather than imagining happiness as a single character like Joy, it would be more accurate to think of happiness as a family of different characters who work together to give us a sense of our day-to-day happiness and our satisfaction with our lives in general. By recognizing that happiness shows up in many forms, we are more likely to endure the everyday moments that don’t feel so great. 

Positive Emotion

No surprise, feeling good does contribute to happiness. Joy is one of the positive emotions that, when experienced regularly, can enhance and sustain happiness. Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist who studies emotion, has identified nine other distinct positive emotions including gratitude, hope, amusement, and love.

Try This: To bring more positive emotion into your life, get clear on what makes you laugh. Not just a quiet smirk laugh, but an authentic, audible, belly laugh. I’ve recently been laughing to myself catching up on episodes of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Whatever it is that tickles your funny bone, engage with it for a few minutes each day.

But being happy is more than just about feeling happy. It's also about: 


Being immersed in a task that engages us fully raises our happiness. Imagine collaborating with colleagues to brainstorm a solution to an emergent problem or getting lost in a good book. The hallmarks of engagement activities include losing track of time, being challenged at a level that meets your skills and abilities, and being deeply focused on the task at hand. Perhaps surprisingly, positive emotions typically don’t play much of a role when we’re experiencing engagement. It’s more likely we’re so focused that we’re not really feeling anything.

Try This: Dive into something new. Whether it’s taking an art class, learning a new language, or joining your friend at a rock climbing gym, challenge yourself with a new experience that tests and expands your abilities. Just be sure that the challenge is just enough to stretch you beyond your current limits, not break you. If you’re not a cook but would like to be, do start by picking a Food Network show and attempting a recipe. Don’t commit to hosting a five-course dinner party for twelve.


We are inherently social beings, and the more we invest in interpersonal relationships, the more benefits we reap in increases to our well-being.

Relationships provide the foundation for many psychological needs including feeling understood and valued, expressing and receiving love, and having a support system. Our happiness is enhanced when we spend time with someone we care about, make small sacrifices to better our families, and serve our communities. And experiencing the intimacy that comes from truly sharing yourself with another person can provide deep and rich happiness rewards.

Try This: Shared experiences bond us to the people in our lives. Identify a person in your life whom you care for but whom you have not connected with recently.

Make a plan to share a positive experience with this person, whether that’s having a meal, going shopping together, or reminiscing over Skype. The more you feel you can just be yourself with this person, the better.


Feeling connected to something larger than ourselves, whether that’s a family, organization, community, religion, or ideology, provides our lives with a sense of mission and purpose. In particular, when we feel that our core values are reflected by the organizations we belong to, we are able to rise to better versions of ourselves in the ways that we show up and contribute. Having an understanding of the personal meaning behind the work that you do, whether that’s professionally or personally, can deeply enhance your meaning-based happiness.

Try This: Imagine one concrete way in which someone benefits from the work you do in an average week. This could be satisfaction of customers you interact with directly, the reduced stress of people who use a product you help produce, or the values you instill in your children. Create a way to remind yourself subtly of this greater purpose, whether it’s by writing a Post-It on your desk or keeping a photo of someone you consider a hero on your nightstand. Knowing what you stand for and why it matters can keep us going particularly in times when our other happiness pathways seem harder to access.


Setting and achieving goals creates self-efficacy, the belief that we are capable at certain tasks, and ultimately drives confidence and competence. Goals allow us to look to the future with a sense of hope and to look back on the past with pride. Applying yourself to a goal demands that you grow and develop, and being able to look back over your life and see the progress you’ve made can boost a deep sense of happiness.

Try This: Pick one goal that you would really like to accomplish over the next few months. Rather than focusing on the outcome you want to achieve, lay out a clear plan for the process you will commit to in order to achieve it. By being process-focused, you can hold yourself accountable for the things within your control and maximize your chances of success. For example, if you want to get in shape, focus less on the numbers on the scale and more on when, how often, where and how you will exercise.

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