by Jane Dean

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines happiness as “feelings of pleasure and contentment”. It is the basic construct of Epicureanism. To Epicurus happiness was the overall end,”summum bonum” or “reason for living”. Happiness meant peace of mind and body, tranquillity or undisturbedness (ataraxia), free from fear (or anxiety), and a body content with natural satisfactions. He taught that mental pleasure is better than bodily pleasure. It can be called enlightened hedonism.

The creators of the American Constitution itself enshrined the idea of pleasure and contentment in the words: “Liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness.”


Studies have shown that:

Happy people are kinder and more helpful to others – i.e. increased altruism
Happy people are more successful and show more effective leadership
They have better physical health, adding up to nine years to life expectancy.
They have better mental health, i.e. less depression, and a more healthy self esteem.
Happy people can think more effectively and expansively.
Happy people are more likely to change the world in a positive way than unhappy people.
(see note 1)


We, the affluent in the West (not those of us who are poor) have an enormous amount of autonomy, freedom and particularly choice. However,too much freedom can be bad for happiness. Why? Alongside with the growth of freedom has come unprecedented unhappiness – clinical depression, suicide. This is particularly true where choice is concerned. There is too much of it. Logically you can ignore a thousand and one options, but this doesn’t always happen. Modern society forces us to put time and effort into choosing, often between trivial things: “Have I explored all the possibilities?” You have high expectations, you wonder if you have chosen the best, and you blame yourself when the choice is less than perfect.

Maximisers need to have and do the best – – the best car, partner, investment, clothes, and the best job. For maximisers choice overload is a nightmare – they only know they have the best when they have studied every alternative, an exhausting and exhaustive search. This guarantees disappointment because they will always agonise over their choices… In studies, Maximisers did better materially, with starting salaries $7000 more that Satisficers, for instance. They made better choices, but felt worse. They reported more stress, more pessimism, more tiredness, more anxiety, more regret,and more disappointment than Satisficers.

Satisficers, on the other hand, are satisfied with the ‘good enough’ option. As soon as they have found that option they stop looking and relax. Obviously there are times when one should seek the best, and one should do what is appropriate for the situation. Only be a Maximiser when it really matters.

To be happy, be a Satisficer.


The biggest single contributor to happiness is a set of close relationships with other people — family, friends, partners and community. The richer and deeper your social networks are, the happier you are.


There is not much difference in feelings of happiness between slum dwellers with social support and two other groups — wealthy people and students. So in the past when communities were more supportive, perhaps we were happier. So invest in a social network.

“The wise man knows that among the factors necessary to ensure lifelong happiness the most important single thing is friendship. Nothing we have to fear in life is eternal or of long duration, and nothing enhances our security and enjoyment more than friendship.” Epicurus


A happily married person is happier than a single person, but marriage suits men more than women. Married men are healthier and happier than everyone else.. Most depressed of all are divorced men. Not women – they perk up! Unhappy wives are the next most depressed group. However, personal relationships bring responsibilities, commitments and obligations to others. The options you have are limited by the needs of others. This restricts your choices which, of course is a good thing. (See comments on choice, above). One benefit of marriage and commitment therefore is that it leaves you with less choice, and therefore less stress. It reduces the set of possibilities you can consider.


This does not necessarily imply status. A study of hospital cleaners, who are on the lowest rung of the status and pay ladder, thought their work was absolutely essential for contributing to the health, safety and comfort of the patients. They were extremely happy in their work, because it had purpose.


Guard against excessively high expectations in work, love life, and family. One way we evaluate how good things are is by comparing them to how we expect them to be. If expectations are too high then the reality of the experience will suffer from the comparison. Today’s freedom, material abundance and unlimited choice create high expectations, and maybe contribute to the current epidemic of depression.

The caption of a New Yorker cartoon read: “Everything was better back when everything was worse.”


Gratitude amplifies good memories from the past (see note 2). The more positive memories you have and the stronger they are,the better are the chances of achieving contentment, serenity and satisfaction. If we cant ‘get no satisfaction’ it is probably because we are not sufficiently thankful. Seligman suggests a gratitude visit. Think of someone who has shown you kindness then write a gratitude letter.


Creative people have ideas that are original, useful and/or aesthetic. They are less creative when under pressure, or being judged by others. Hard work is a prerequisite — big creators spend years perfecting their ideas. They are encouraged by environments that are supportive, reinforcing, open and casual. They need an open mind and a happy mood. Those who were happy were found to out-perform those who were not in a task requiring a creative solution. People are more likely to be creative when they are told to be.


Money can bring a degree of happiness, but once you have enough to eat, clothe and house yourself, each extra amount makes less and less difference. However, money also buys status, aesthetic surroundings and a secure future, all of which contribute to happiness and reduce anxiety.


Intelligence, or lack of it, does not seem to make much difference. Intelligent people don’t necessarily get on better with others, which is very important for happiness. They also might have higher expectations.


David Lykken, a behavioural geneticist, suggests that our feeling of well being is determined half by what is going on in our lives and half by a set point, which is 90% genetically determined. This ‘set point’ of contentment is what we return to after dramatic times in our lives.


Research shows that good looking people ARE happier. There is a small but positive effect of attractiveness on subjective well being, perhaps because the world is kinder to the beautiful.


Marx maintained that belief in a supreme Being was the opiate of the people. This is true in this sense: people with an active faith report more happiness than those without. With faith comes social support, an assured future, and the pleasure of supporting others. Altruism gives a feeling of well being.

OLD AGE – here is a nice surprise.

There is no difference in happiness levels between young and old. We expect life to be harder, and thus there is no surprise. We are more realistic about goals and time running out, and we focus on things that make us happy.


Happiness isn’t everything – it isn’t even the most important thing – but all things being equal, it’s better to be happy than not.


Note 1: “Authentic Happiness.org” Professor Seligman, University of Pennsylvania.

Note 2: “Authentic Happiness” Pofessor Seligman. Free Press, $14…)


  1. Happiness cannot be sought; it is rather a byproduct of usefulness. Emerson says: “the purpose of life is not too be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

    • When a human does something that ithasbeen made suited to by evolution and conditioning, it feels happy. While it may be fashionable to some to deny that socially beneficent behaviour is intrinsically pleasurable this is a point that is only valid in corrupted societies. For example an “aggressive-all-for-me-Nietzchean-egomanic” would fail and die in most foundation(first nations, aboriginal) societies. If we have a well adjusted society (e.g. through a closed “garden”), then honour and compassion loose their novelty as these characteristics are intrinsically usefull to human life and are the choice of people living successfully in those social structures. So this is the thing to be worked on, not chasing ‘things more important than happiness ‘ but by making antisocial behaviour a nonsense such that we are free to pursue happiness (Ataraxia subject to a state of Eudaimonia) without people injuring other’s happiness. To the regular suspects of ‘antisocial’ add, greed, competitiveness and common discourtesy. Hard to do everywhere for anyone that wants it but that’s my angle. I am very fortunate that I have been able to achieve this in my life without having to suffer material poverty or social isolation. Although I think nothing of honour being useful and trying to be compassionate wherever I can make me happy. Perhaps it is more about not doing things that make unhappy but if I ever try to deliberate over something I find “does/will this make me happy” isone ofthe few criteria I can actually apply (there is not much else I can really Know about witha degree of certainty).

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