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Psychology of Happiness

The psychology behind happiness - how positive affect is quantified and what influences happiness.

Psychology of Happiness

Just how happy are you? Do you ever wish for a life that brought more moments to be joyful?

Happiness is often an elusive experience - people will go to great lengths for a fleeting moment of happiness. Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, asserts the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Positive Affect

But what precisely is happiness - how can it be quantified, and is there any measurable benefit to possessing a happy mindset over that of a more stoic realist?

“Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.”
G.K. Chesterton, English author (1874-1936)

Happiness is a subjective experience - what brings elation to one person will not necessarily satisfy another - but from a psychological viewpoint, we must be able to quantify this state of mind in order to understand it.

When we discuss happiness, we are referring to a person’s enjoyment or satisfaction, which may last just a few moments or extend over the period of a lifetime. Happiness does not have to be expressed in order to be enjoyed - it is an internalized experience, varying in degrees, from mild satisfaction to wild euphoria.

Psychologists often refer to happiness as positive affect - a mood or emotional state which is brought about by generally positive thoughts and feelings. Positive affect contrasts with low moods and negativity, a state of mind described as negative affect in which people take a pessimistic view of their achievements, life situation and future prospects.

Quantifying Happiness

With positive affect being subjective and relative to the individual, can happiness be measured? The United Nations seems to believe that it can, and releases the World Happiness Report, which ranks countries by the self-reported happiness of its citizens.

In 2016, the report listed Denmark as the happiest nation, followed by Switzerland and Iceland. The US was the 13th happiest country with the UK ranking 23rd. Nordic countries feature prominently as being amongst the happiest societies in the world (Helliwell, Layard and Sachs, 2016).1

The World Happiness Report measured happiness levels using the Cantril Ladder, a scale devised by U.S. psychologist Hadley Cantril (1906-1969). Participants are asked to imagine a ladder with 10 rungs, with rung number 1 representing the worst life imaginable, working upto the optimal life represented by the ladder’s highest rung. They are then asked to identify the step number that they feel reflects their life situation, either at present, in the past or how they envisage it to be in the future (Cantril, 1965).2

The four happiest countries identified by the World Happiness Report placed themselves at 7.5 or higher on the Cantril Ladder (Helliwell, Layard and Sachs, 2016).1

Given that these countries are highly developed and prosperous, it is easy to assume that positive affect is linked to wealth. A common wish in our modern age is to possess more money: wealth can signify success and increases a person’s purchasing power, giving them choices that they might not have been able to make before. But can money buy happiness?

It’s a question that troubles not only psychologists, but economists, too. Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, noticed a strange paradox involving money and happiness. Should a positive correlation exist between the two, we might expect citizens of developed countries to be happier than those of less prosperous nations.

Easterlin discovered that this is not the case - rich people within countries tend to be happier than the poorest in the same country, but overall, more prosperous countries are no happier than their poorer counterparts. These findings, known as the Easterlin paradox, contradict popular assumptions that wealthy people enjoy happier lives.

A study of lottery winners and victims of serious accidents delved further into the link between money and happiness. The happiness of 22 winners of large lottery prizes was compared to that of both controls and 29 people who had been paralysed as a result of an accident. The level of happiness experienced by winning the lottery had numbed people to the smaller joys of everyday live - a resistance the researchers described as “habitation”, as only more significant events could bring the winners joy (Brickman, Coates, Janoff-Bulman, 1978).3

The results of these two studies suggest that money alone cannot bring people lasting happiness.

Why it Matters: Benefits of Happiness

Happiness signifies an increased enjoyment of life, which is of course beneficial in itself. But beyond this obvious advantage, are there any further gains to be had from increased happiness?

One study looked at wide-ranging research into happiness to better understand the link between happiness in successful people.

Researchers suggested that there may be a causal link between positive affect and success - that success not only brings happiness, but that a person who is happy has an higher chance of achieving success than somebody experiencing negative affect (Lyubomirsky et al, 2005).4

The findings of this research support another, earlier, study by Daubman and Nowicki (1987) which artificially induced positive affect in participants in a series of experiments by subjecting them to watching comic films and providing them with sweets.

Subjects were then timed whilst they completed an exercise in creative problem-solving. The researchers found that those in a state of positive affect were able to solve the problems quicker than those in a neutral state or those experiencing negative affect (Daubman and Nowicki, 1987).5 Positive affect prior to success, it appears, boosts our intuitive abilities and enables us to achieve more.

Do Happier People Live Longer?

Can happiness lead to a healthier, longer life? Koopmans et al (2010) conducted a 15-year longitudinal study into the happiness of elderly people, known as the Arnhem Elderly Study. They found higher levels of happiness in those who lived longer.6

But does happiness lead to a longer life or does good health and longevity give people reason to be happier? The researchers also accounted for the participants’ levels of physical activity and found that, once exercise was accounted for, the link between happiness and life span was insignificant. This indicates that happiness may lead to increased physical activity, which in turn can be beneficial.

Indeed, a 2011 study suggested that exercise in sedentary males could be increased by first boosting their positive affect levels (Baruth, 2011).7

Encouraging Happiness

Book store shelves are awash with self-help books claiming to nurture happiness - but is positive affect something that we can nurture, or as the World Happiness Report emphasises, is influenced by our environment and life circumstances, often beyond our control?

Let’s look at some factors which can influence and encourage positive affect:

Acts of Kindness

Contradicting the idea that possessions can bring happiness, giving to others may in fact be more beneficial in terms of positive affect. Stephen Post (2005) noted that, whilst citizens in the US and Europe are more wealthy than previous generations, we are no happier as a result. Post emphasizes the personal benefit that acts of altruism - selfless giving or assistance - can provide (Post, 2005).8

The effect of selflessness on happiness was further supported by a 2008 experiment in which participants were given a gift of $5 or $20 and instructed to either spend it on themselves or on other people. Whilst the amount of money received had no notable effect on happiness, participants who gave away the money experienced elevated positive affect following the experiment (Dunn et al, 2008).9


Familial relationships and friendships affect happiness and can also be impacted by a person’s levels of positive affect. Our ability to make friends often affects our self-esteem - unsurprisingly, people with extrovert personalities have been to found to enjoy higher levels of happiness than introverts (Argyle and Lu, 1990).10

The contagiousness of happiness is not limited to direct relationships: it can influence the happiness of people by up to 3 degrees of separation from the original individual11

A 20-year study of interpersonal relationships demonstrated just how important the happiness of a person’s friends and family is to their own wellbeing.

Between 1983 and 2003, James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis looked relationships between close relatives and found that the happiness of a friend or close family member who lives up to a mile away from a person can boost their prospects of happiness by around 25%.

The study also suggests that the contagiousness of happiness is not limited to direct relationships: it can influence the happiness of people by up to 3 degrees of separation from the original individual (Fowler and Christakis, 2008).11

Spousal relationships can be of particular influence on happiness levels. A study across 17 countries found that marriage does tend to lead to increased levels of happiness. Cohabiting also boosts happiness but by a lesser degree than marriage. The research emphasises the secondary effects of matrimony, such as the emotional and financial support provided by a partner, may explain this change rather than the act of marriage itself (Stack and Eshleman, 1998).12

Self-Determined Happiness

Positive affect might be influenced by external factors in our everyday life, but if people yearn for more happiness, can they bring it about themselves? Schütz et al (2013) studied the habits and happiness of people whose affect levels varied. The study observed a number of ways in which some people were able to proactively nurture their own happiness:13

The self-fulfilling participants showed significantly higher results than all other profiles on the direct attempts strategy, suggesting that in order to increase their happiness the self-fulfilling individuals are more prone to directly attempt to smile, get themselves in a happy mood, improve their social skills, and work on their self-control.

Schütz et al, 2013 via PeerJ

Pretending to be happy through outward expressions of happiness, it appears, may have led the individuals to internalise this joy.

Maintaining an optimistic mindset can also bear further benefits. Brissette and Scheier (2002)14 found that college students who started the semester with a sense of optimism were more able to cope with stressful events and felt that they had better social support even when their friendship network had not increased.

  1. Helliwell, J., Layard, R. and Sachs, J. (2016). World Happiness Report 2016, Update (Vol. I). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
  2. Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concern. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  3. Brickman, P., Coates, D. and Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 36(8). 917-927.
  4. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. and Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin. 131(6). 803-855.
  5. Daubman, K.A. and Nowicki, G.P. (1987). Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 52(6). 1122-1131.
  6. Koopmans, T.A., Geleijnse, J.M., Zitman, F.G. and Giltay, E.J. (2010). Effects of Happiness on All-Cause Mortality During 15 Years of Follow-Up: The Arnhem Elderly Study. Journal of Happiness Studies. 11. 113-124.
  7. Baruth, M., Lee, D.C., Sui, X., Church, T.S., Marcus, B.H., Wilcox, S., Blair, S.N. (2011). Emotional Outlook on Life Predicts Increases in Physical Activity Among Initially Inactive Men. Health Education and Behavior. 38(2). 150-158.
  8. Post, S.G. (2005). Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It's Good to Be Good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 12(2). 66-77.
  9. Dunn, E.W., Aknin, L.B. and Norton, M.I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science. 319. 1687.
  10. Argyle, M. and Lu, L. (1990). The Happiness of Extraverts. Personality and Individual Differences. 11(10). 1011-1017.
  11. Fowler, J.H. and Christakis, N.A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal. 337. 1-9.
  12. Stack, S. and Eshleman, J.R. (1998). Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study. Journal of Marriage and Family. 60(2). 527.
  13. Schütz, E., Sailer, U., Nima, A.A., Rosenberg, P., Arnté, A.C.A., Archer, T. and Garcia, D. (2013). The affective profiles in the USA: happiness, depression, life satisfaction and happiness-increasing strategies. PeerJ. 1(e156). Retrieved from
  14. Brissette, I. and Scheier, M.F. (2002). The Role of Optimism in Social Network Development, Coping, and Psychological Adjustment During a Life Transition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 82(1). 102-111.
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