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What are happiness and well-being? A brief guide

To keep it accessible, many of the points in this FAQ are somewhat oversimplified. Imagine that most sentences start with “Roughly…”

Warning: many of the terms discussed here are used differently by different researchers. We have tried to follow the most common usages here. But one should not assume that ‘happiness’, ‘the good life’, etc. mean the same thing in every article or book that they do here. If you understand the thinking behind the terms, however, you should often be able to tell if one researcher’s ‘happiness’ is really equivalent to another’s ‘well-being’, and so forth.

  1. What is the difference between happiness and well-being?
  2. Why think you can define "happiness" at all? Isn't it completely subjective?
  3. What is happiness?
  4. Is happiness important? Isn’t it just a fleeting feeling?
  5. What is well-being?
  6. Does it matter which philosophical theory of well-being we accept?
  7. How is hedonism about happiness different from hedonism about well-being?
  8. What is eudaimonia?
  9. Is well-being all that matters in a good life?
  10. Should well-being be the sole aim of policy or morality?
  11. What are the main sources of happiness?
  12. What can I do to be happier?
  13. Isn't the pursuit of happiness self-defeating?

1. What is the difference between happiness and well-being?

Most researchers use ‘happiness’ to mean nothing more than a state of mind, like being satisfied with your life or having a positive emotional condition. To ask what happiness is, in this sense, is just to ask about the nature of a state of mind.

By contrast, researchers normally use ‘well-being’ to denote a kind of value. This value concerns what benefits or harms you, or makes you better or worse off. Depending on what ultimately benefits people, this might include things beyond happiness, such as achievement or friendship. Other words for well-being include ‘flourishing’, ‘thriving’ and ‘welfare’. ‘Eudaimonia’ was the ancient Greek term for well-being. To ask what well-being is, then, is to ask what ultimately is good for people.

Much confusion results from the fact many scholars, especially in philosophy and theology, use the word ‘happiness’ as a synonym for ‘well-being’. In the sciences, by contrast, ‘happiness’ standardly takes the psychological meaning. While this project affirms that both uses of ‘happiness’ are legitimate, we will usually employ it in the psychological sense for convenience. A further issue is that laypeople tend to think of “well-being” differently from researchers, for instance as a way of being especially healthy in body and mind. This sort of confusion is one reason we put both ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ in the name of this project.

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2. Why think you can define "happiness at all? Isn't it completely subjective?

Believe it or not, academics don’t like quibbling over words. It doesn’t much matter who gets to keep a word, as long as we are clear and get the substance right. We want to understand what’s really important in life and how best to live, and words are just a tool to help us think and communicate clearly.

As well, it is likely that ‘happiness’ doesn’t have a single “master” definition. Competent English speakers use it to talk about multiple things. That said, some of those things are more important than others. When a parent says, “the most important thing is for my kids to be happy and healthy,” they probably don’t just mean a fleeting emotion of feeling happy. Some definitions make better sense of our concern for happiness in such cases than others.

Happiness researchers want to illuminate whatever it is people care about when they care about “happiness.” Is the parent promoting his child’s happiness, or undermining it? This seems like an important question. Without some notion of what we are talking about—a definition—researchers can’t begin to shed any light on it.

Warning: people often confuse “definitions” of happiness with theories about what causes happiness. “I define happiness as having good relationships and an interesting job that pays well”: when people say things like this, they’re usually talking about what causes happiness. When researchers seek a definition, they want to know what happiness is, such that relationships, work and money are good sources of it. Which brings us to…

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3. What is happiness?

If we are talking about the state of mind, there are three basic theories of happiness:

  1. Hedonism
  2. Emotional state theories
  3. Life satisfaction theories

Roughly, hedonism identifies happiness with experiences of pleasure, versus suffering. Emotional state theories take happiness to be a positive emotional condition, roughly the opposite of anxiety and depression. Life satisfaction theories identify happiness with something more like a judgment than a feeling: being satisfied with your life as a whole. For instance, judging that your life is going well enough by your standards.

Many well-being researchers identify happiness with subjective well-being, which spans some combination of these mental states, such as life satisfaction and emotional well-being.

What about subjective well-being?

‘Subjective well-being’ is probably best understood as a blanket term for the various mental states called happiness in the theories listed above. Sometimes researchers use it for just one of these states, such as life satisfaction. But most commonly, subjective well-being is defined as a hybrid including life satisfaction as one component, and positive versus negative feelings as another. Sometimes “domain satisfactions” regarding certain aspects of life, such as satisfaction with relationships, are also included part of subjective well-being.

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4. Is happiness important? Isn’t it just a fleeting feeling?

Happiness is frequently caricatured as a simple “smiley-face” emotion: feeling happy. Yet no major theory of happiness reduces it simply to a single emotion: at most, the emotion of feeling happy is just one aspect of a much broader, more complex psychological condition. On some views, for example, one might be happy simply through a sense of tranquility.

The idea that happiness is just a feeling contributes to a widespread misperception, namely that it’s frivolous to put much stock in happiness. After all, one can have a good life without having lots of cheery feelings. And no one can expect to be in a state of constant bliss, even if that would be a good thing. “Happiness is a fleeting thing.” Yet if being happy is about having some peace of mind, being in good spirits, leading a fulfilling life, or being reasonably satisfied with one’s life, these complaints make little sense. None of these are fleeting emotions, and it is entirely possible to be happy for a good portion of one’s life in these ways.

More broadly, to care about happiness is not just to care about some ideal state. Even if someone will never be happy, they may still want to do better rather than worse in terms of happiness: it is better merely to be not-happy than to be miserable. Happiness matters as a broad domain within which the quality of our lives can vary; we can be more or less happy or unhappy. Most likely, few of us think it truly unimportant where people stand on that scale.

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5. What is well-being?

Because well-being is a value, what you think of well-being will depend on your views about what matters in life and what is worth seeking: what ultimately benefits a person? What does it mean for a person to thrive or flourish? What should we want for ourselves, and for our children? On one way of dividing things up, there are four basic theories of well-being:

  1. Hedonism: what ultimately benefits you is pleasure and freedom from suffering
  2. Desire theories: what ultimately benefits you is getting what you want
  3. List theories: what ultimately benefits you is having certain items on a list, like friendship or achievement, that are objectively valuable
  4. Nature-fulfillment theories: what ultimately benefits you is fulfilling your nature, for example realizing your potential. ('Eudaimonia' or 'flourishing' are sometimes used for well-being so understood.)

To see the difference between these views, imagine a highly driven medical researcher who is making important discoveries. For her, being happy is less important than achieving worthwhile goals. She succeeds in those goals, but experiences a good deal of stress and frustration. Is she doing well? According to hedonism, she may not be: her life isn’t very enjoyable. Desire theories would likely support the opposite view: what matters is that she’s faring well by her standards, even if what she wants isn’t the most pleasant life. List or nature-fulfillment theories might also deem her to be doing well, but for a different reason: she’s realizing her potential in a genuinely worthwhile life.

Note that, no matter what view of well-being you hold, you could still applaud the medical researcher’s life choices: a hedonist, for instance, might think she is admirably sacrificing her interests to serve the greater good.

When people talk about “subjective” views of well-being, they often mean theories along the lines of the first two sorts: hedonism or desire theories. On those accounts, what’s good for you depends on your subjective point of view. "Objective" theories, by contrast, say that that certain things, like friendship or knowledge, are important parts of human life. Even if you happen not to enjoy or desire such goods, you are still worse off for lacking them. 

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6. Does it matter which philosophical theory of well-being we accept?

Often it matters less than one might think, but sometimes it matters a great deal. For example, some people strongly value leading lives of achievement, pursuing worthwhile and often difficult goals (think New York City). Others prefer a laid-back pace, focusing more on the enjoyment of life (think New Orleans). It is possible to defend either lifestyle using any theory of well-being: hedonists might note that lives of accomplishment can be highly pleasant and fulfilling in the long haul, while Aristotelians might observe that creating and appreciating good food and music, and enjoying the company of good friends and family, may be just another way to lead a life of human excellence. Still, it is easier to see the benefits of the "achiever" lifestyle given an Aristotelian view of well-being, just as hedonists will more likely favor the "enjoyer" lifestyle. If we find that the achievers are less happy than the enjoyers, Aristotelians might think they are still better off; while hedonists would deem the enjoyers better off.

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7. How is hedonism about happiness different from hedonism about well-being?

This is a good example for seeing the difference between the concepts of happiness and well-being. As we are using the terms here, if you affirm hedonism about:

  1. Happiness: you are just describing a state of mind. You’re saying that the mental state denoted by ‘happiness’ is pleasure.
  2. Well-being: you are making a value judgment. You are saying that pleasure is all that ultimately is good for us.

These are totally different views. Someone could be a hedonist about happiness but not well-being: “Happiness is for fools; you are better off doing something meaningful with your life.”

Or, one could be a hedonist about well-being but not about happiness, perhaps arguing that “it isn't important to be happy, because anyone can content themselves with an unpleasant life and be satisfied with it. What matters is not your opinion of your life, but whether you actually enjoy it from moment to moment.”

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8. What is eudaimonia?

Eudaimonia just is well-being—there is no difference, as most scholars understand the notion. The word ‘eudaimonia’ is the ancient Greek term for well-being, and did not refer to any particular way of thinking about well-being. Accordingly, ancient views of “eudaimonia” varied a good deal, just as today’s views about “well-being” or “happiness” vary, including versions of hedonism and the desire theory.

However, Greek philosophers tended to view well-being in distinctive ways. In particular, they generally saw it as a matter of nature-fulfillment: fulfilling our natures as human beings. Realizing one’s potential, for instance: “be all you can be.” As well, most of them held a kind of objective theory, identifying well-being at least partly with virtue, a claim that is most familiar in the works of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics.

Aristotle’s theory has been so influential that contemporary researchers, particularly in psychology, sometimes use ‘eudaimonia’ for conceptions of well-being that roughly follow his view. According to Aristotle, well-being consists in a life of virtuous or excellent activity—including, among other things, moral virtue. We might think of it as the realization of one’s human potential in meaningful or worthwhile activities. But this way of using the term might be misleading, since many if not most ancient Greeks, including many philosophers, rejected Aristotle’s views. Epicurus, for instance, was a hedonist about eudaimonia/well-being: what’s ultimately good for us is not the life of excellence, but the pleasant life. Again, ‘eudaimonia’ was not the name for a certain theory of well-being. It was nothing more than the word Greeks used for well-being, however they conceived it.

One could argue, however, that ‘eudaimonia’ is taking on a new meaning as a part of contemporary English, denoting well-being understood along either Aristotelian lines, or more broadly as Greek philosophers in the eudaimonist tradition tended to conceive it. (The eudaimonist tradition, or “ethical eudaimonism,” founded ethical theory on personal well-being. If we have reason to be moral, in this tradition, it is because it contributes to our flourishing.)

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9. Is well-being all that matters in a good life?

In the broadest sense of the word, a good life is the sort of life that one should want to lead. The majority view in philosophy is that we should want things other than just our own self-interest: well-being isn’t all that matters in life. Other things also are important, such as virtue, or being morally good. In a sense, morality may be much more important: probably most philosophers think we should never act immorally, for instance defrauding the elderly of their savings, even if it would benefit us.

The main source of disagreement on this question is this: some philosophers argue that it is impossible to profit from immorality. To do well or flourish just is to be good, at least in part. On Aristotle’s influential theory, for example, well-being consists in a life of virtuous or excellent activity—including, among other things, moral virtue. Even if a sadistic tyrant enjoys his life, he is a deficient, twisted specimen of humanity, leading a sad life that no one should envy.

On this sort of view, it can make sense to say that well-being is all that matters in a good life. But this is only because well-being is understood so broadly that it includes items we usually consider to be separate from it, like morality. In a way, then, there is remarkably little disagreement among philosophers about the core elements of a good life, namely well-being and virtue: it matters both that life is well worth living, and that it is well-lived. But there is sharp disagreement about whether those elements are really distinct, or amount to the same thing.

Note that ‘the good life’ is often used more narrowly, as just another term for well-being. (“Now this is the good life!”) But we probably tend to use the term more broadly in most cases, to include not just well-being but virtue and whatever other values matter in life. When deciding whether the recently departed had a good life, for instance, we do consider how well they fared—probably not a good life if they suffered nonstop agony. But we also consider how well they lived. You might not envy Abraham Lincoln given his depression and other trials, but still think he had a good life because you admire the way he lived it.

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10. Should well-being be the sole aim of policy or morality?

Many—but not most—philosophers would say yes. Utilitarians, for example, believe that we ought only to do what would produce the greatest sum of well-being in the world. Morality, including political morality, is purely about making people better off on this view.

But a majority of philosophers—about 2/3 in a recent poll—reject views like this. While just about everyone agrees that well-being is important, it is widely believed that other things matter as well. This can be for many reasons, but a few of the most common reasons for rejecting utilitarian approaches in ethics or policy include:

  1. Rights: Most people believe that individuals have rights, not to be violated even in some cases where it might promote the common good. For instance, killing an innocent man to pacify an angry mob. Or a government drugging the population to be happy whether they want it or not, as in the Brave New World. There is much debate about just what rights people have, or when those rights might be overridden. Note that even utilitarians tend to grant that we should uphold many rights, because in the long run people will be better off if we do so. Probably no one thinks judges should ignore the law and decide cases purely based on their view of what would promote the greatest happiness! Often we promote well-being better by not focusing on it directly. In short, there is a broad consensus that decisions should not always be based on calculations about what would have the best results.
     
  2. Capabilities or resources: many political philosophers believe that governments should focus on goods other than well-being. For example, perhaps there is no injustice in the mere fact that some people are unhappy; maybe they made foolish choices or have expensive tastes. Instead, justice might only require a fair distribution of resources like wealth. Or, alternatively capabilities or opportunities like the ability to get a decent job, to read, to access public places, and so forth. Whether people use these resources or opportunities well, leading happy lives, is up to them. Or at least, not a matter of justice: one possibility is that policy should be concerned with promoting things other than mere justice, like well-being. A just society might still be quite unhappy, and that itself seems a concern. Perhaps we should alleviate suffering even if people can’t claim it as a right.
     
  3. Libertarian political philosophers, and near relations, tend to doubt that governments should be in the business of promoting much of anything. The state should maintain the rule of law and protect people from aggression, and perhaps perform some other functions. But the promotion of well-being should be treated as a private affair, not a government function. On one version of this view, keeping governments out of the well-being business may in fact be the most effective means of promoting well-being. Alternatively, it might be considered a violation of property rights to tax one person in order to make another person happier; or paternalistically to violate individuals’ rights for governments to meddle in their pursuit of happiness.

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11. What are the main sources of happiness?

There is no standardly agreed-on list of causes of happiness, partly because happiness arises from a complex interaction of many factors. The effect of any one item, like friendship, depends on lots of other things, like the person’s attitudes, the local culture, stressful events, and so forth. We can’t say that 20% of happiness results from friendship, any more than we can say 20% of the deliciousness of soup derives from salt.

Still, there is a fairly broad consensus that certain factors tend to be especially important for human happiness, in just about any society. Emphasizing that any list will be a bit arbitrary, and that we might reasonably add some other items, here is one short list, which we might summarize as SOARS (from Haybron’s Happiness: A Very Short Introduction):

  1. Security: feeling reasonably secure—enough time, money, not under threat, etc.
  2. Outlook: having the right attitudes—positivity, acceptance, caring for others, etc.
  3. Autonomy: being having a sense of control over one’s life and daily activities
  4. Relationships: having and enjoying good relationships, including a sense of community
  5. Skilled and meaningful activity: regularly exercising your competence at worthwhile activities

Autonomy is the most controversial of these items, as cultures vary greatly in how much they value individual control, for instance sanctioning arranged marriage. Yet there is good evidence that even in highly non-individualistic societies, people do best when their daily activities align with their motivations, and when they don’t feel constantly under another person’s thumb.

Money: evidence is mixed and depends on the notion of happiness involved—life satisfaction tends to be more strongly associated with money than emotional well-being is. But in general, the effect of money probably tends to be strong only for poor people. Outside of poverty, greater income and wealth tend to have only modest effects. As well, the money-happiness connection may not mostly be a matter of greater buying power, but of other things that tend to improve with income: better-paying jobs may also tend to be more skilled and meaningful, for instance.

Genes: it is often claimed that 50% or more of happiness is due to genes. This can sometimes be a useful simplification, but it can also be misleading, as noted above. At most, the research in question suggests that around 50% of the variation in happiness among the subjects in the studies derives from genes rather than, say environment. Because these studies only look at a small and relatively uniform sample of the environments humans face—for instance, middle class Western households—it is quite possible that the role of genes is being overstated. If you look at variations in happiness just among the people on your block, genes will probably play a large role: the environment is pretty similar for everyone. But if you compare the people on your block with warriors in the forests of Papua New Guinea, the environment has much more chance to make a difference, so genes will probably explain less of the differences in happiness between people.

Still, it is clear that genes play a large role in affecting how happy we are.

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12. What can I do to be happier?

There is no simple answer to this question. Happiness depends on a huge range of factors, and what works wonders for one person may not be so effective for another. While there is a growing body of evidence that various interventions can help to boost happiness, such as counting one’s blessings, physical exercise, or meditation, there is no consensus on a “silver bullet” that reliably transforms unhappy people into happy people.

A natural starting point is to consider improvements in areas that are known to be important for happiness in most people, for instance in the SOARS items noted above such as relationships and skilled, meaningful work. Taking care of the fundamentals may be the most important part of securing happiness.

Beyond that, there are a variety of techniques you can try, or skills you can develop, that many have found useful. What works best in your case will depend on your personality and situation. Some excellent resources are listed on our Suggested Readings page.

In general, creating or placing yourself in a situation where the sources of happiness, and sensible choices and habits, tend to come naturally is probably a good way to boost your odds of having a good quality of life. Similarly, if you want to be physically fit, it will be easier if you live in a place that encourages an active lifestyle, like walking or biking daily.

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13. Isn't the pursuit of happiness self-defeating?

It is often said that happiness is best achieved by not pursuing it, a version of what philosophers call the “paradox of hedonism.” Like many popular aphorisms, there is much truth to this suggestion: among the major sources of happiness, it is not clear that any researcher has listed “a constant preoccupation with what will make one happy,” and some research suggests that it sometimes is self-defeating to directly focus on what will make us happy when engaging in activities. Relationships and work, for instance, seem to be most rewarding when engaged in for their own sake, and not simply done with personal happiness in mind. (Philosophers might question whether it is even conceivable to have a loving relationship with no motive but one’s own gratification.)

At the same time, there is no evidence that we are better off never thinking about what will make us happy. When making a career choice, for instance, it seems unlikely that ignoring the fact that one hates certain kinds of work, while loving others, would be a wise means of proceeding if one wishes to be happy. Similarly, there is no evidence that we are more likely to be happy if we disregard strong evidence about the major sources of happiness when deciding how to live. Indeed, it would be very surprising if, for example, one would be better off setting aside evidence that exercise tends to promote happiness when deciding whether to start exercising.

One does not have to think about happiness, or even have the concept of happiness, in order to be happy. But while it is certainly possible to think too much about happiness for one’s own good, there is no reason to suppose that we should not consider matters of happiness at all. On the contrary, understanding what’s important for happiness, and what tends to undermine it, is likely to be beneficial for most of us.

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