The fascinating science of happiness explained

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The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

We seem to be constantly bombarded online with advice, techniques and secrets to finding everlasting happiness, as if it’s some elusive phenomenon at the end of a rainbow. But what does it mean to be happy, and is it worth the chase? Researchers in the area of subjective wellbeing, the scientific study of happiness, generally agree that we have an optimal level for happiness – and it’s not 100%. Why?

The happiness set-point

According to the psychological theory of subjective wellbeing homeostasis, our mood is regulated around an optimal level, called a set-point. An easy way to understand it, is to compare it to another bodily function that works in the same way, our body temperature. Having a high or low body temperature will put stress on our body over time, so it’s preferable to have an optimal set-point temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. The set-point for our happiness, according to the latest research, is about 80%. This reflects our default mode – the state at which we function most efficiently and effectively, most of the time.

Why can’t you maintain 100% happiness?

When something happens to change our mood, we engage in psychological processes to recover our happiness set-point. When our mood changes, it’s not always ideal for our body. It’s easy to understand why negative moods can be problematic, but why wouldn’t we want to be positive? If you’ve ever tried to fall asleep but you can’t because you’re too excited for what will happen tomorrow, you’ll recognise that positive moods can also inhibit us from doing what we really need to do.

It actually takes effort and energy to maintain a higher or lower level of happiness, so our body works hard to bring us back to our optimal level.

When something bad happens, we tell ourselves things will get better, we tell ourselves we’re good at other things, we tell ourselves we knew it would happen. When something good happens, we quickly get used to the idea, and our elevated mood returns to normal. So, changes to our happiness are usually short-term.

We are naturally wired to regulate emotion

Think of the last time you experienced a heightened level of happiness, or an episode of sadness. Compare that to how you feel now. Changes in our emotional states are normal, and can happen many times over the course of a single day. But over time, we process those emotions and return to our resting state.

This capacity for recovering our normal set-point for mood, for navigating our emotions efficiently and appropriately, is the cornerstone of healthy mental functioning. In fact, the most common mental health problems are generally characterised by the inability to regulate a particular emotion – depression is characterised by the inability to regulate a sad mood, and anxiety is the inability to regulate fear or worry.

So how do we know if we’re really happy?

Feeling happy is less about smiling all the time and constantly feeling on top of the world, and more about the capacity to effectively regulate our emotions. It’s about experiencing appropriate emotions – the right emotion at the right time, and for the right amount of time. In most cases it would be unusual to be happy at a funeral, or to be sad at a wedding, for example.

We are designed to experience a whole range of emotions, and feeling happy is just one of them. Ultimately, it is the capacity to experience and negotiate each of these feelings that makes us feel alive.

Interested in human emotions and thought processes? Check out Deakin University’s range of courses in psychology

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology, Deakin University
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