Forget what you think happiness is

Article by Clare Ansberry, The Wall Street Journal

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to reconsider what makes them happy, researchers began embracing a more complex definition of the emotion that focuses less on uninterrupted bliss…

Laurie Santos is the professor behind ‘Psychology and the Good Life,’ the most popular course in Yale’s history. Here, she discusses how we need to reconsider our approach to mental health to cater for the complex emotions triggered by the pandemic.

Think you know what it means to be happy? Think again.

Scientists are learning how to better measure and improve happiness, as the pandemic forces many to question what brings them joy. In the future, some experts believe, people will embrace a more complex definition of happiness that focuses less on uninterrupted bliss and involves everything from a person’s environment to exercises that train the brain in ways to be happy.

Hundreds of studies, businesses, books, courses and mobile apps promise to help people to be happy. But Americans aren’t happier. Happiness levels in the U.S. fell slightly between 2008 and 2019, according to the 2020 World Happiness Report, even though by many measures—wealth being the most notable—we are better off. “The U.S. has gotten a lot richer but hasn’t gotten happier on most gauges,” says Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who helped launch the report nine years ago. The annual report ranked 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, based on a wide variety of data, including health, income and life satisfaction, from the Gallup World Poll, the World Bank and the World Health Organization, among other sources.

Neuroscientists, economists, psychologists and biologists, among others, are exploring why and whether levels of happiness—which they prefer to call “subjective well-being”—can be increased and sustained, and restored to people who have suffered trauma. They have identified parts of the brain and the circuits most important in positive emotion and are researching tools to stimulate them. Approaches include using optogenetics, or the use of light, to turn circuits on and off, and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure and map brain activity. They hope to identify how strongly people react—both positively and negatively—to a stimulus and whether negative emotional responses can be shortened and positive responses prolonged.

Psychologist Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the brain can be trained, and that exercises including short meditation practices will become routine, like running and weight lifting. Emotional well-being will be as important as physical well-being in the coming years, according to Dr. Davidson.

So, with the help of websites like, you can actually train yourself to increase happiness/emotional well-being. And then maintain it with vigilance and upkeep. Enjoy!

Article by Clare Ansberry, The Wall Street Journal


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