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Science and technology

What is happiness?

Human beings are constantly striving for happiness, trying to define it, and attempting to discover its secret. It is a question that concerns us on both a personal and a societal level, and it was the subject of our What is Happiness? discussion at Noôdome. Here, we share key ideas from the event.

For the ninth consecutive year, the World Happiness Report’s Happiness Index continues to measure levels of happiness in more than 150 countries. According to last year’s report, the key determinants of happiness at the height of the pandemic were neither income nor status but levels of trust and opportunities to seek and obtain help.

To date, scientists have identified three groups of factors that determine happiness: (1) External factors outside individuals’ control such as living conditions and the circumstances you are born into; (2) personality factors (some people have a happy temperament); and (3) factors linked to personal achievements, such as successfully achieving goals you have set yourself, or the relationships you have built. But what is the optimal balance between all these factors? There is no single answer, of course, and this is exactly why conversations about happiness provoke such interest and heated debate.

Anastasia Dagaeva
creative producer, moderator
Maxim Kashulinsky
founder and publisher of Reminder
Tatiana Pavlova
PhD, psychologist at the Centre for Cognitive Therapy
David Gorodyansky
entrepreneur and Silicone Valley business angel
Alexander Kaplan
Head of the Laboratory for Neurophysiology and Neuro-Computer Interfaces, Moscow State University
What does science tell us about happiness?
Maxim Kashulinsky, founder and publisher of Reminder, a media project addressing health, self-development and practical philosophy:

— “Happiness” doesn’t exist as a term in science. Researchers usually use the term “well-being,” that is, life satisfaction — but happiness is an emotion that is experienced in the moment. For simplicity and to make things easier to understand though, we will use “happiness.”

Scientists ask various questions when they study happiness. One is whether it can be measured; there have been attempts to do this using physiological indicators and to identify a certain biomarker.

It is clear from large data sets that blood pressure is correlated with levels of happiness. According to surveys, people are happier in countries where blood pressure is generally lower, with the exception of Finland, where levels of both happiness and blood pressure are high.

We often say that people “glow” with happiness. Scientists have measured the oxygen saturation levels of facial muscles and have discovered that there really is a link between this indicator and levels of happiness. This is where that “glow” we talk about comes from.

People’s behaviour also reveals information about their levels of happiness — with their use of emojis on social media, for example: it turns out that the more often people use emojis, and the wider the variety of emojis they use, the happier they are.

Something else that puzzles scientists is whether there is a formula for happiness. Since ancient times it’s been customary to speak about hedonistic happiness — the drive to obtain short-term pleasure — and eudaemonism, which is also about happiness but is linked to self-realization, fulfilling duties, and a virtuous life.
There are two contemporary concepts of happiness which in my view break down the concept of eudaemonism into its constituent parts. One of these was set out by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, and is known as PERMA. Distinct concepts are encoded in this abbreviation:
— Positive Emotions: the ability to maintain optimism and have a positive attitude even to unpleasant life events.
— Engagement: the ability to be passionate about what you do. When people are passionate about something and their minds are focused on this rather than wandering, they are happier.
— Relationships: good relationships with those around you. When people have friends and support, that’s the social component of happiness.
— Meaning: searching for meaning in various things — religion, philosophy, hobbies, and work (and this is not about money).
— Accomplishments: goals need to be realistic and attainable but this of course doesn’t stop you having ambitions and setting the bar high.

The second concept was developed by three academics, including the well-known meditation researcher Richard Davidson. They have proposed a framework for researching happiness and trying to increase its levels. They believe that happiness is formed of four elements, or dimensions, that people themselves can develop and strengthen:
— Awareness (being present in the here and now) — attention to what is happening within and around you and to your thoughts, as well as the ability to control this attention.
— Connection (unity) — an open and kind attitude to others, showing your care and gratitude, and recognizing our common humanity.
— Insight (understanding) — the ability to understand your own thoughts, emotions and beliefs and how they affect your psychological state.
— Purpose (intent) — understanding your aims and values; this provides opportunities to find meaning in everyday activities and ultimately, in life.
Tatiana Pavlova PhD, psychologist at the Centre for Cognitive Therapy:
— Happiness doesn’t exist in academic psychology, but we do have the term “subjective well-being.” The psychologist Martin Seligman [originator of the PERMA concept — ed.] proposed moving away from the concept of happiness, since it is associated exclusively with positive emotions. But subjective well-being is much wider: it can be likened to weather, which is formed from the sum of various factors — temperature, pressure and precipitation.

So we’ll use the concept of happiness in this “weather” sense: happiness is not constant bliss but a constant changing of states. This is important.

Firstly, if only good things happen, people get used to this and something happens which in psychological terminology we call “hedonistic adaptation.” The good things that are already there do not make people happy.

Secondly, if you always avoid unpleasant experiences (emotions, thoughts, or events), life satisfaction diminishes. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as experiential avoidance. You need to learn how to accept negative states in order to be happier and enjoy better well-being overall. One element of happiness is meaning, which you achieve even through unpleasant emotions. There is a book about this by Russ Harris, called The Happiness Trap.

But are we made for happiness at all? Evolution has meant that human beings pay more attention to the negative; this is clearly important for survival. There is research showing that we recognize negative words more quickly than positive ones, and people attach greater meaning to losing $100 than to gaining the same amount. This is reflected in the development of psychology: scientific research on illnesses such as anxiety, depression and other disorders has been happening since the end of the nineteenth century, while positive psychology has only developed as a science since the 1990s.
One element of happiness is meaning, which you achieve even through unpleasant emotions
It looks like there are lots of things getting in the way of us being happy. Then again, an experiment with guppies revealed some interesting results: fish which had been designated in advance according to their behaviour type were released into an aquarium with perch for 60 hours. The researchers then looked to see how many of them had survived. 40% of the cautious guppies survived but not one of the bolder ones that had swum around freely survived. It turns out that those who have a positive and relaxed disposition subject themselves to greater risk. So, is it right to talk about happiness here? Absolutely! The main thing is to remember that happiness is not the same thing as bliss.

Happiness can be 50% or more “innate” — that is, determined by genetics. 10% is due to circumstances and the remaining 40% is down to the individual’s personal input. You can develop the habit of being happy yourself through simple, regular exercises like talking to strangers, taking pauses when you’re doing something nice, and savouring experiences.

“If you have friends, you can be happy anywhere, and vice versa: without friends you can’t find happiness anywhere.”
David Gorodyansky, entrepreneur and Silicone Valley business angel:
— I once saw the documentary Happy (2012 — ed.) in which, in contrast to his colleagues who are studying depression, a psychologist decides to research happiness. He travels all round the world in order to discover where the happiest people live and why they are happy. At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the people he’s been looking for are in Denmark. This is all because they have moved out of their houses and flats into co-living spaces and are living together. They have their own personal rooms and bathrooms, but the living rooms and kitchens are shared: this is where they and their neighbours prepare food and spend time with their friends. And they choose to do this. They are happy because they never feel lonely.

I then became interested in comparing countries’ per capita GDP with the Happiness Index in various countries (as shown in the World Happiness Report). I didn’t discover a direct correlation between levels of income and happiness. Japan, for example, has the third largest economy in the world after the United States and China, but it has the seventh highest rate of suicide in world. In the United States, 40 million people are on anti-depressants. That’s 14% of the population. The happiest people, according to the Happiness Index, are those living in Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

I have a theory, which might sound provocative: it’s generally thought that happiness is something very personal for everyone. I only partly agree with that. I think that an important factor in happiness is friendship — a strong link and connection with other people. If you have friends, you can be happy anywhere, and vice versa: without friends you can’t find happiness anywhere. I think what we most underrate as humans today is friendship. You can go into a bookshop and say you want a book about love — and you’ll find a whole section on it. There are a lot of books on philosophy, religion, family relationships, self-development and so on, but there’s nothing on friendship.
If you have friends, you can be happy anywhere, and vice versa: without friends you can’t find happiness anywhere
It’s important to realize that friendship is not the same thing as family, romantic relationships, or relationships with colleagues. It’s a separate and self-sufficient element of all our social lives. Without it, people can feel lonely, which means they are unhappy.

I’m a happy person. I have people who I’m genuinely close to, who I grew up with, and whom I’ve had warm relationships with for over 20 years. What’s interesting is that all my friends are from Russia, whether they live here or they’ve emigrated, even though I’ve lived in the United States since I was a child. I think that Russians love making friends and are able to do so differently from Americans, for example.

If we’re talking about a rough recipe for happiness, I would select three ingredients: family, friendship and meaning. Life has to have meaning.
Alexander Kaplan, Head of the Laboratory for Neurophysiology and Neuro-Computer Interfaces, Moscow State University:
— I’ve been studying the brain for nearly fifty years. Happiness is not found in the brain. The brain is a mechanical machine that processes information taken in through the eyes, ears or other organs, and which then gives commands to our muscles. But happiness is flight; it’s harmony. There’s a reason that people say they’re in “seventh heaven” from happiness. I believe that the mind controls all this harmony. Happiness is a sort of add-on to the psyche.

If you try to look at the essence of the phenomenon, happiness requires a plus and a minus, like in an electric charge. After all, fear, anxiety, sadness and other “negatives” mobilize the body’s resources, which it needs to solve problems, achieve goals and so on. But this is followed by relaxation and satisfaction. A dynamic mechanism like this has developed through evolution.

However, people are often overcome by false alarms when in fact there is no objective threat. It’s as if they get stuck in this, and they’re then unable to feel happiness. Possibly, you should reduce that anxiety through medication.

It’s important to remember that entrenched states of anxiety certainly exist, but there are also bad moods. If people ignore the former, they can get into holes they can’t dig themselves out of — and then they need psychological help. But in the second case you just need to get through, knowing that better things lie ahead. That’s how the brain’s mechanics work and you shouldn’t upset that with tablets.
Happiness really is happiness if you have someone to share it with and most importantly, to dream with!
You can imagine happiness and make it a skill and a habit. As the Dalai Lama says, happiness is not within us, but outside. That’s why you need to attune yourself to it and find the resources for it. My motto is pretty much the same: happiness really is happiness if you have someone to share it with and most importantly, to dream with!

I’m also impressed by the idea of happiness at a national level. Bhutan, for example, became the first country where the government stated that as well as gross domestic product, it would introduce a Gross National Happiness index, and that as well as per capita GDP, levels of happiness would also be calculated. Bhutan has even written this into its constitution.

In the United States’ Declaration of Independence of 1776, there, on an equal footing with the right to life and the right to liberty, is the pursuit of happiness.