Not a Freudian Slip: The Happiness Trend - A Healthy Pursuit or an Obsessive Quest?

Column Editor: Connie Mester, MPH
To learn more about Connie, click here.


image001_c.pngThis article series focuses on happiness and answers the question - does a constant pursuit of happiness make us unhappy? We will explore the importance of happiness and how it impacts our quality of life. We’ll consider how our digitally connected mobile and media-infused world could be damaging our happiness level. Lastly, we will uncover what characteristics can be strengthened or enhanced to boost our happiness (traits like empathy, compassion, kindness, gratitude, etc.) and subsequently our health and well-being.

What is happiness?
Psychologists, philosophers, researchers and even cultures define happiness differently.  Wikipedia defines it as “a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”1  Some consider happiness an emotion you feel in a moment, an ongoing experience you have, or even a trait you are born with.  For others, happiness goes beyond your personal state and is experienced when you focus on bringing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Aristotle believed happiness is about experiencing virtue, and that the goal of happiness is not achieved in single moments, but instead throughout one’s complete life.2 

So if happiness depends on acquiring a generous, courageous, and friendly moral character, and is really more about the enrichment of human life, beyond our own, then how do we enhance our experiences and cultivate further happiness over our lifetime?  And if happiness isn’t really found in single moments, then why is our culture so captivated by instant gratification and obsessed with material objects?

Do we have a happiness obsession?
It seems we have an obsession with happiness as evident in the swell of media on the topic. Books, podcasts, magazines, movies, daily email feeds, and courses, all focused on having a happy marriage, happy employees, raising happy kids, and creating and sustaining a happy life have multiplied.  Happiness is a consistent topic on talk-shows and TED talks. There are over 24,000 books categorized on Amazon under Self Help: Happiness3 and a multitude of apps whose sole purpose is to send you daily inspirational quotes and positive messages.

Since 1972 the Gross National Happiness (GNH) measure has been researching and reporting on the topic and now the World Happiness Report ranks 155 countries by their happiness levels.  The United Nations even founded International Happiness Day held every March to recognize the pursuit of happiness as a human right and a "fundamental human goal."4

Advertisers and media personalities have ramped up the importance of being happy, while HR managers, life coaches, and motivational speakers are working to tap into your emotions and elevate them. The pressure to be happy is everywhere. But is happiness always good? Can the constant quest for happiness be detrimental? And does this industry empowerment around happiness feel more like a manipulating money-making strategy for those tied to the cause? We will explore this in the next article.

If happiness has become a hot, multi-million dollar topic and a big focus of individuals and companies alike, then why does our society continue to struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses? Rates of employee depression, anxiety and stress have increased to 82.6% in 2014, up from 55.2% just two years prior.5 And the number of people on prescription medications to treat mental illness has escalated while at the same time suicide rates have soared.6

Is happiness a trait you are born with?
Why is happiness such an important topic? Do age, gender, or other factors out of our control predetermine our happiness? Research has estimated that about 50% of our happiness is due to our genes.  A much smaller percent, roughly 10-20%, is due to life circumstances, and the remaining 30-40% are things we control.7  Many people expect that our life circumstances, such as our income level, status, attractiveness, etc. play a greater role in our happiness.  This is evident in people’s constant quest for a partner, a job, a new house, a new car, or other external factors to increase their happiness. But ironically the “grass is greener” mentality doesn’t really affect our happiness as much as we think it might. 


Since we can’t change our genetic makeup, does that mean that a great deal of our happiness is permanently fixed? If we intentionally pursued happiness, would it make a difference? Genes do make up about half of our happiness, and another tenth or more is a result of our life circumstances, which are things that are hard to change. But what about the things we can control, like our thoughts and behavior? One of the most significant differences between people’s happiness is their intentional activities [40%]. 

A deliberate effort is required to pursue happiness strategies; however, they can have a large impact on our happiness and are easy to put into practice.8 The important element here is discovering what strategies have the greatest impact on you personally, as each person is different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to achieving happiness.9 We will explore this topic more in the final article in this series.

Why does happiness matter?
As we’ve discovered that we do have the ability to increase our happiness level through intentional acts, why should we consider making a habit of being happy?  Is there a benefit to being happy?  The impact of happiness on a person’s life seems obvious - a happy life equals a good life.  Interesting correlation, similar percentages are seen in our determinants of health [chart #2].10 Research has solid proof that happiness has a direct impact on our health and well-being.  The positive impact of happiness on our life is extensive, from our social relationships, to our success, to our health, which has made the subject of happiness a pretty trendy topic. 


People who are happy tend to live longer, have stronger immune systems, and have better overall physical health.  Research has shown that happiness is associated with reduced chronic pain and other harmful health symptoms, lower likelihood of diabetes and fatal accidents, fewer strokes, better chances of survival from cancer, and better cardiovascular health.11   People with positive emotional styles are less stressed, heal better 12 and are more resistant to catching colds.13 As we will explore in the next article, stress isn’t a bad thing. People who understand that stress is a natural reaction to life’s challenges are able to bounce back in hard times and live a more resilient, longer life.14 Just as there’s a healthy dose of stress, there is also a healthy dose of happiness that we can intentionally strive for.

The impact of happiness reaches into many aspects of a person’s life beyond just health. There are social rewards for being happy.  Happiness can boost confidence, likability, and one’s ability to feel pleasure and find meaning in routine life events.  People who are happy tend to have more friends, lower odds of divorce, deeper relationships, and stronger, more trusting and supportive social networks.  In fact, rich friendships not only reduce our loneliness, which has a significant impact on our well-being, 15 they also reduce our stress levels.16  

People who are happy get better sleep, are more energetic, and typically more creative and innovative. This is likely to result in increased productivity, better work quality, higher academic performance, and better decision making and problem solving capabilities.17, 18 

Why all of the focus on happiness?
Similar to the transition the health industry has started to venture down, shifting from diagnosing and treating an illness towards wellness and prevention, the industry around happiness has made a similar move.  Happiness experts are working to uncover how we can optimize our life, or optimize our employees to be more productive or optimize our students to be more successful academically. In the upcoming articles in this series, as we reveal what the research shares about the positive impact of positive emotions, consider also what this constant quest for bliss is doing to our reality and ability to actually have a satisfying life. Lastly, we will review sources and character traits that are proven to elicit happiness, while we discover the importance of aligning the most appropriate qualities and actions to our needs to help us attain a healthy dose of happiness.


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  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (2004), ed. Hugh Treddenick. London: Penguin.

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  13. Cohen S, Alper CM, Doyle WJ, Treanor JJ, and Turner RB. (2006). Positive emotional style predicts resistance to illness after experimental exposure to rhinovirus or influenza a virus. Psychosom Med; 68:809–15. DOI: 10.1097/01.psy.0000245867.92364.3c

  14. McGonigal, Kelly. (2015) The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It. Avery, a member of Penguin Random House.

  15. de Jong Gierveld J, van Tilburg TG, and Dykstra PA. (2016). "Loneliness and Social Isolation" In Anita Vangelisti & Daniel Perlman (eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, second edition, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming) (pp. 1–30).

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  18. Fitzgerald CJ and Danner KM. (2012). Evolution in the Office: How Evolutionary Psychology Can Increase Employee Health, Happiness, and Productivity. Evolutionary Psychology. Volume 10 (5) 770-781. DOI: