Happy woman thinking and asking questions

What Is Happiness Anyway? 6 Happiness Theories Compared

Welcome back for day 4 of my happiness project! Did you catch the blogger collaboration post from yesterday on 7 Tips To Live Life To The Fullest Now So You Don’t Regret It Later?

Check it out! I got 7 bloggers from all over the world, and from all different walks of life to contribute, and they came up with some pretty profound and helpful tips!

But for today, the question I will be focusing on is: “What is happiness anyway?”

Is it a good hike with perfect weather and breath-taking views? Or winning a race you worked really hard to train for? Maybe it’s pizza with friends while watching football on Sunday afternoons, or lazy evenings curled up with your partner, or finally getting that promotion that you’ve been after for years….

People can usually list off a few things that make them happy – but when you ask them to define what happiness actually means, they often struggle to come up with a coherent answer. 

If I’m going to do a happiness project, I guess I had better define this ambiguous term before I get in too deep.

What is happiness anyway? 6 happiness theories compared.
Don’t have time to read the whole thing? Pin for later!

Theories of Happiness

What is happiness? Let’s see what the psychology research and leading happiness experts have to say about it.

Martin Seligman’s Happiness Theory

Martin Seligman is a psychologist and author of the book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.

In his book, he presents the following formula for happiness:

Happiness = Positive emotions + engagement + meaning + relationships + achievement

Here, “positive emotions” are things like, excitement, joy, satisfied etc. and “engagement” refers to a concept that is sometimes also called “flow” in other works such as Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles. 

Engagement or flow means that you are so caught up in a project that you are working on, that you are able to focus intensely, and time passes quickly without you even realizing it.

To experience this engagement or flow, our skill level must match the level of the challenge that we are working on. Otherwise if it’s too easy, we get bored, and if it’s too hard we get stressed out.

Most other equations also contain the concepts of meaning (sometimes called purpose) and relationships, but the one component that is unique to this particular equation that I haven’t seen in the others is “Achievement.”

I find this to be interesting. Of course everyone wants to live a life of achievement, and we’d probably be pretty unhappy if we failed at everything we ever attempted, but for me personally… I’m not sure I’d like to include achievement in my own personal happiness equation.

Let’s continue on to the next equation that offers an alternative to “achievement.”

Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Theory

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.

In her book, she reveals what she calls “The First Splendid Truth”. A rather grandiose name, but maybe rightfully so. I think it holds great insight to the question, “What is Happiness?”

“The First Splendid Truth: To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

If I were to translate her truth into an equation, I think it would read:

Happiness = Feeling good – feeling bad + feeling right + growth

She explains that one of the things that made the biggest difference in her happiness levels over the course of her project, was removing the sources of negative feelings in her life. For example she tried to stop being so impatient and nagging with her husband and children and found that had the greatest impact on her happiness.

What she means by “feeling right” has to do with purpose and meaning in her life. Is she helping others? Is she working in a career that has meaning for her? Is she living in accordance with her values?

And finally we come to her “atmosphere of growth” which to her means continued learning, self improvement, making progress on life goals etc.

I really like Gretchin Rubin’s formula. A lot of the other formulas I read, really didn’t address negative feelings. And I prefer her concept of “growth” as an alternative to Martin Seligman’s concept of “achievement”. It may seem like a small difference to some people, but I think it holds some significance.

To me, achievement means you have to be the best, whereas growth means that you just have to be better than you were before. Achievement is competing against others, whereas growth is competing against yourself. Because happiness must come from within, I prefer “growth” to “achievement”.

“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

– William Butler Yeats

Yes, Mr. Yeats – I agree!

The Gallup Organization’s Happiness Theory

The Gallup Organization is an analytics company in the United States that is known for its polls and research, including research on wellbeing.

According to their research:

Overall wellbeing = Career wellbeing + social wellbeing  + financial wellbeing + physical wellbeing + community wellbeing

Here, “social wellbeing” is similar to that of “relationships” from Martin Seligman’s equation. “Community wellbeing” refers to a sense of engagement in the community you live.

My favorite part of this equation is that it includes physical wellbeing. It is much harder to be happy if you are sick, or if you are too out of shape to engage in the activities that you love – like playing with kids etc. Not to mention that poor physical health can lead to a lot of self-esteem issues which can also affect happiness.

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Happiness Theory

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a Psychology professor at the University of California and the Author of the book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Happiness = circumstances (10%) + biological disposition (50%) + behavior (40%)

This equation takes an entirely different view on happiness, and I love it!

In this equation, “biological disposition” means your genetics. A lot of research suggests that some people are naturally happier than others due to the genes they inherit from their parents, and that this genetic component accounts for 50% of your overall happiness! 

So what does it mean for you if you got dealt a dud of a genetic hand when it comes to happiness? We can’t change our genes, so does it mean that you can never be happy? (More on this to come in future posts, but the short answer is no – there is still hope for you!)

The “circumstances” part of this equation refers to things like whether you grew up rich or poor, or with 2 parents or a single parent, in the inner city or on a farm etc. These things can’t really be changed, but the good news is that research says they account for only about 10% of our overall happiness.

That leaves 40% of our happiness that is controlled by our behavior. The good news here is that we control our behavior! We can choose to work out, to try dating, to step out of our comfort zones, to apply for a different job, etc. This 40% of happiness is under our control! I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s pretty encouraging.

pie chart which addresses the question "what is happiness?" by illustrating one of the theories of happiness.

Aristotle’s Happiness Theory

Aristotle was a revered Greek philosopher who lived from 384–322 BC. He believed in the existence of two different types of happiness – Eudaimonia and Hedonia.

Eudaimonia is a deeper, long-term spiritual type of happiness resulting from humans learning to be moral and virtuous through years of effortful practice. Whereas Hedonia is about superficial and immediate pleasures such as food, drink, sex, etc.

[To learn more about Aristotle’s views on happiness, check out this episode of The Happiness Lab Podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos.]

Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happiness Theory

Tal Ben-Shahar is a Lecturer at Harvard University and author of the book, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.

This theory is the most simple of all that I read:

Happiness = pleasure + meaning

Pretty straightforward, right? Here pleasure refers to short term happiness where meaning (aka purpose) has more to do with long-term happiness. For overall life happiness, this theory says we must have both and is pretty similar to that of Aristotle’s.


So there you have it, clear as mud. I don’t really have a concrete answer to our question, “What is happiness?” There are some overlapping components in these 6 theories of happiness, but there are just as many differences.

How is it that the world’s leading experts on happiness came up with so many different definitions of happiness?

Maybe it’s because happiness looks different for each and every person.

Tune in tomorrow for day 5 of my happiness project, and I will share my very own personalized happiness equation with you!

A hui hou (until then)!


Summary of 5 different equations of happiness
Pin this for future reference!
Share the knowledge!

Author: clarissa.cabbage

Clarissa is a teacher, a coach, and an avid adventurer! Armed with a master's degree in Exercise and Wellness, she is on a mission to teach people how to build healthier habits that support the adventurous lifestyle of their dreams. There is nothing Clarissa is more passionate about than helping people get active and live their lives to the fullest!

8 Replies to “What Is Happiness Anyway? 6 Happiness Theories Compared

  1. Great post on a fascinating topic! For me, happiness is a state of being. It is one I can choose. Sometimes it’s hard to overcome negative feelings, but I do what I can to release them. Gretchen Rubin’s definition comes closest to how I feel. However, without negative feelings, would we recognize happiness?
    I’m glad you decided to join the Blogtober challenge and post about happiness all month, Clarissa!

    1. You make some fantastic point here Kathy! I absolutely agree that without struggle or challenges which can sometimes result in negative emotions, that it would be hard to know what happiness is.

      I also agree that happiness is a choice. That’s what I liked about Sonja’s theory. The 40% of happiness that is accounted for by behavior. We choose our behaviors and therefore we have control over a lot of our happiness.

      And thank you! I’m glad I joined the blogtober as well. Better late than never I suppose. 🤷‍♀️ Next year I’ll be ready for the whole thing. 😉 Thank you so much for adding your your insights to this convo!

    1. I love that Fadima! I think it holds a lot of truth. So often people have so much but are still searching for more. It’s that grass is always greener on the other side effect. I definitely feel like being grateful for what we have can make a huge difference in our happiness levels. Gretchen Rubin’s project was like that – she was looking to improve happiness without making any major changes to her life.

  2. I’ve been thinking about the meaning of happiness a lot lately, so this post is very timely. I agree with you, I prefer growth over achievement. I also think it is important to examine our negative feelings and where they come from. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    1. Everything always seems easier in theory, doesn’t it Priyanka? I think the reason that many people are unhappy despite having a lot, is that they take what they have for granted, and they feel like happiness is something that should just happen rather than something they need to work for. But, that is just my opinion. 🤷‍♀️

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *