‘The pursuit of happiness’ was so vital to our founding fathers that they included it in the very first paragraph of America’s Declaration of Independence, They thought it important enough to consider it one of the primary ‘unalienable rights’ endowed by the Creator and secured by government. Authors of classic texts from ancient Greek philosophy would likely smile in agreement; they stressed the importance of a reflective dialogue around the concept of happiness. Even modern psychologists and neuroscientists are becoming engaged in the greater conversation looking for keys to unlock the magic chemistry of happiness. We legalize, philosophize, theorize, conceptualize and otherwise cast happiness into the limelight of socially-engaged intellectual pursuits.

What’s all the buzz about? Before this semester, I must admit that my knowledge of classic theorists was limited. I had experience with Stoic philosophy and psychology. As the semester progressed, I began to make a connection between the past and present. I dug down to take a look at the classical and modern theoretical roots of happiness.

This article reveals patterns and root architecture for the concept of happiness that I discovered. I invite you to journey with me into the world of three Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – to understand their views of happiness. Then, time travel with me to present day psychology and neuroscience in search of the chemistry of happiness and pleasure and uncover the map to the location of happiness in our brains. From there, it’s a skip and hop to examine the relationship of happiness to wealth and altruism. We will end our trip with a brief stop in the field of economics and also visit researchers who are measuring happiness. It is my hope that through this adventure into classical and modern texts, the family tree of a pursuit of happiness as an intellectual practice will be revealed. Let the journey begin.


At the top of the happiness family tree sits the father for western ethics and moral philosophy: Socrates. He viewed happiness along with virtue, knowledge, goodness, and care of the soul. He believed that a life of virtue (arête) is paramount. No one can be happy, he argued, without some sort of moral goodness. In Apology, Socrates stated this fundamental belief clearly, “I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private” (Plato). In other words, wealth does not bring about happiness, but rather happiness brings about wealth.

Socrates’ views of happiness are not as overtly stated as are Aristotle’s. We can, however, infer specific meanings. Happiness, to Socrates, is not a specific virtue, per se. It is more closely aligned with man’s ‘good’. Through personal example and philosophical inquiry – often referred to as the Socratic Method - wisdom to Socrates appears to be one a primary ‘good’. He contributes to our understanding of the virtue of wisdom and knowledge by bringing light to the reasoning process. He claims that the unexamined life is not worth living. In his time, he challenged the implicit moral beliefs of people who professed to have some degree of knowledge. Through this process, definitions of concepts were fleshed out and inadequacies and inconsistencies in one’s beliefs brought to the surface, perhaps along with one’s ignorance. Socrates, himself, professed that what made him wiser than others was his awareness of his own ignorance. His arguments around ignorance shed light on the Greek paradox of learning, namely that learning embodies both knowledge and ignorance at the same time.

Socrates developed a unique way of critically disputing claims to absolute knowledge and certainty. The result was that a person was left more open-minded and flexible in his or her responses. Here we infer Socrates’ view of happiness. Happy people are ‘wise’ people, those who are open-minded and response-able, flexible in their abilities to respond to cross-examinations about their beliefs, assumptions, claims and presumptions. Nussbaum argues that Socratic self-examination and ‘rational autonomy’ are keys to a democratic society and thereby should be a major thrust of institutions of higher education, like Union. In essence, this may be one reason why a Ph.D. degree program and graduates from programs like this one profess and confer the title of Doctorate in Philosophy. Doctoral candidates are both knowledgeable and ignorant, but more importantly open-minded and able to respond flexibly to criticisms of absolute knowledge. Moreover, many doctoral candidates aspire to philosophize, which would probably make Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all proud.

If Socrates’ argument is taken to the extreme, he was basically saying that one’s essential happiness is his or her ability to philosophize. Happiness then might be defined as the peace and defused harm of open-mindedness and response-ability, even in the face of unjust execution, as Socrates demonstrated with his own courage in facing death. From what we can see, happiness to him appears to have more to do with one’s internal mental state and outlook on life than it does on external factors such as wealth, career paths, social status or success defined in material terms.

Regarding the importance of one’s mental state, Stoic philosopher Epictetus argued that if you want to raise your level of happiness, you must dispute and discontinue negative world views and interpretations. Epictetus taught that it is not the negative events in life - such as slavery; disease; loss of job, spouse or limb - that actually disturb you. Rather, it is the view you take of these events. If anyone knew the importance of negative events, Epictetus did. He was a Roman slave. In essence, what he is saying is that there are some things in life you can control and some you can’t. If you wish to be happiest, he suggests that you should focus your attention on the things over which you have control, like your mental state. He suggests that you stop giving attention to things beyond your control (Hendricks and Johncock).

The Greek word Socrates and other Greek philosophers frequently used when speaking about happiness was eudaimonia. According to Webster’s, eudaimonia comes from eudaimōn, meaning “having a good attendant spirit.” It also comes from eu- + daimōn (spirit). Socrates claimed that his daimōn was an inner voice or ‘oracle’, from which he determined right and wrong. It appeared to be his moral barometer. In Apology, he says, “You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician” (Plato).


Consider the next node of the happiness family tree, Socrates’ protégé Plato. True happiness, argued Plato, is a regular examination of one’s life. Here, he agrees with Socrates. He argues for the ideal republic, state and life where one lives in accordance with one’s purpose. Happiness is a reward for goodness of living in alignment with one’s purpose.

Socrates might ask, “How do you define ‘goodness’? Plato might reply, “Goodness is the harmonious functioning of all parts of a person’s soul in which the lower faculties like pride, envy, greed, and body pleasures are subordinated by higher ones like justice, virtues, peace, and reason.” Likewise, non-rational acts should be subordinated to rational ones. For Plato, happiness comes from spiritual freedom and peace. These two are natural consequences of subordinating lower faculties to higher ones and non-rational to rational acts, while living a virtuous life.

A healthy soul to Plato is ‘just’. Injustice is some sort of civil war between parts of the soul, a rebellion of one element against another, typically desire usurping reason as the dominant power. An example of this would be a tyrannical individual. If injustice is the ‘civil war’ of the soul, then inner peace and harmony - psychic harmony - is ‘just’; it is the pathway to happiness. Like Socrates’ end-of-life experience described by Plato in Crito, no matter what life throws at you, you remain centered and never lose your inner composure. Living a ‘good’ life means maintaining peace and tranquility throughout – inside and out - despite apparent tragic and terrible misfortune.


One level below Plato of the happiness family tree is Aristotle, Plato’s student. In Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that the best and happiest human life is one that is oriented towards contemplation and completion. It is one’s intellectual activity and life well-lived that contributed to one’s happiness, he claimed. Intellectual activities consist of learning, inquiring and contemplating. Whereas Socrates’ views of happiness are implied, happiness is described directly; it is the cornerstone of Aristotle’s ethical system.

Aristotle defines happiness as a complete, active life, lived according to reason. He identifies the necessary conditions for happiness: material goods, freedom, virtue, health, availability of friends, rest, and recreation. Key components of happiness are intellectual activity, active civic and political life, friendship, sports and athletics, and creating and enjoying art. While Plato thought that virtue and health are not ‘components’ of happiness, Aristotle disagreed. He believed that virtue and health are necessary ‘conditions’ of happiness.

Aristotle is interested in each human reaching his or her fullest potential in a lifetime. Accordingly, happiness is the highest good that can be achieved. Therefore, our true purpose in life is our highest good. All our actions should attempt to support this purpose. Even though not all action results in happiness, Aristotle claims that virtuous action does.

Happiness, to Aristotle, includes pleasure, but does not stop with hedonism. For happiness to be complete, it should be extended over an average life lived under moderately comfortable circumstances, and enriched by conversations with friends. The highest level of happiness is found through a contemplative or philosophic life of reflection in which virtues of understanding, science and wisdom are practiced. Happiness is a kind of emotional well-being that results from well-doing. Ultimate happiness is not the maximum sum of all pleasures experienced, but rather the demonstration of our highest faculties. As with Socrates, Aristotle focused on the lives of philosophers who might live a life like him.

According to Aristotle, we study ethics in order to improve our lives. Therefore, virtues are like a road map to a well-lived life. Here, he follows suit with Socrates and Plato. Like Plato, he regards ethical virtues – courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, friendliness, truthfulness, justice – as ideal social skills. He disagrees with Plato that sciences and metaphysics are necessary prerequisites for us to understand our greatest good. He argues that what is needed is to appreciate how virtues weave together into a whole, integral course of action. Practical wisdom, he believes, is acquired through practice.

Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s view that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the good of the community. The ideal life, from Aristotle’s view, would be when one gives himself or herself entirely to intellectual research and contemplation. Similar to Socrates, the idea life to Aristotle is that of a philosopher, removed from the normal, work-a-day world.

As we have seen, the fathers of Greek philosophy dialogued and wrote directly about happiness in the life of philosophers. The ethics of happiness was frequently linked to the Greek concept of eudaimonia and living a ‘good’ and virtuous life. Happiness to them meant a complete life, where one feels fulfilled, content. In other words, these Greek philosophers proposed a theory of happiness based on an end-of-life review.

I can’t help but think of some interesting questions that any person, not just philosophers, might ask themselves. What sort of person do I want to become? What leads to my ultimate contentment? If, at the end of my life, looking back, what would be the five-to-ten things that I would say made my life a complete success?

I use the later question in my classes to assist learners in flushing out where they want to focus their attention for the remainder of their lives. First, I ask them to identify how many days they have left in their lives, based on an average life span. Then, I ask them to visualize the end of their lives totally fulfilled, happy and celebratory. From a place of contentment at the end-of-their-lives, I ask them to imagine the five-to-ten things that made their lives a success. Some of mine are:

**To have played for a living and expand in outrageous fun with serious issues.

**To have experienced more vibrance and aliveness in every cell of my body.

**To have expressed my full creativity and genius.

**To have documented everything of significance that I have learned.

**To have connected with the planet in everything I do.

Once a learner comes up five-to-ten things, I invite him or her to write these down and create ways to focus attention on them. For example, I write these down and review them periodically. I typed them up and have a copy taped to the wall in my office. For a whole month, I read these aloud each day, even sang them to music on occasion. On a practical level, these death-bed goals guide my decisions about choosing projects with which I want to get involved.

Like the Greek philosophers, the concept of happiness has also shown up in the modern theories of psychology and neuroscience. In the next two sections, we will review several modern theories. First, we will explore the origin of the field of Positive Psychology as a ‘happy psychology’. Second, we will review recent happiness discoveries in fields of brain chemistry and several other fields of neuroscience.


Several humanistic psychologists—Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Erich Fromm—developed successful theories that focus primarily on human happiness. Historically, however, psychology has been more interested with what ails the human mind and emotions: anxiety, depression, neurosis, obsessions, paranoia, and delusions. The goal of therapy was often to bring people from a negative, ailing state to a neutral, normal one. It was as if patients were viewed as being at a ‘minus five’ and psychologists were trying to get them to ‘zero’.

Medicine and psychology have both primarily focused – and still do to some degree - primarily on the negative side of the equation. For example, doctors have known form many years that clinical depression – considered as the flip side of happiness - can increase rates of heart disease, diabetes and many illnesses. The neurochemistry of depression has been researched remarkably more than that of happiness. Up until about a decade ago, Psychologist Dacher Keltner points out that “90% of emotion research focused on the negative, so there still are all of these interesting questions about the positive state” of happiness (Lemonick A13).

Another psychologist, Martin Seligman, saw the limitations of focusing on the negative side of the equation. As one of the founders of the new field called Positive Psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, he chose to change the field of mental health. He wanted to explore the region north of zero and discover what made people feel fulfilled, engaged and meaningfully happy. He argued that mental health should be more than mental illness. It should include something “akin to vibrance and muscular fitness of mind and spirit. I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, ‘What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?’” (Wallis). Remember the Greek word for happiness: Eudaimonia? It may also be translated as ‘flourishing’ (Wilson).

Positive Psychology expanded Plato’s teachings about subordinating lower faculties to higher ones by focusing on positive emotions, such as gratification. Gratifications include full engagement, flow, and elimination of self-consciousness. When a gratification comes to fruition, positive emotions are felt. A person can obtain and increase gratifications by developing signature strengths and virtues. Here, we return to the work of Aristotle. To Aristotle, happiness consists of the exercise of virtues like courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, greatness of soul, friendliness, truthfulness, justice and friendship. Authenticity, as argued by Positive Psychology theorists, comes out of gratification and positive emotions resulting from signature strengths and exercised virtues like those proposed by Aristotle. The good life comes from exercising virtues and using signature strengths to reach the highest gratification in, for example, enjoying work and pursuing a meaningful life. Virtues, then, are the rocket fuel to boost happiness.

Davidson notes that happiness “is kind of a placeholder for a constellation of positive emotional states. It’s a state of well-being where individuals are typically not motivated to change their state. They’re motivated to preserve it (italics added for emphasis). It’s associated with an active embracing of the world …” (Lemonick A13).


Like the social sciences, studies around happiness are occurring in the hard sciences. For example, medical research has focused on specific aspects of happiness, such as optimism and heart-disease (Richman, Kubzansky, Maselko, Kawachi, Choo and Bauer); mental states of hopefulness and curiosity as protectors against diabetes, upper-respiratory infection and hypertension (Richman, Kubzansky, Maselko, Kawachi, Choo and Bauer); optimists and lower levels of cortisol and depression (Davidson, Pizzagalli, Nitschke and Kalin); and gratitude and preventative health (Emmons and Hill).

Recent brain research hints to a location of happiness in the brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalograms – which sense the electrical activity of neuronal circuits – researchers have found the location in the brain when subjects say they’re feeling good. Blood flood maps show that the happiness center of the brain is primarily in the left prefrontal cortex.

Happiness can be objectively measured from at least three biological perspectives: brain chemistry, smile anatomy, and laughter physiology. First, take brain chemistry. Dopamine is one of two key brain chemicals that regulate how happy the body feels. It is the neurotransmitter related to pleasure. It is released in the nucleus accubens and frontal cortex. It bathes neurons involved in memory and emotion, rewarding activities like eating and sex with pleasurable feelings. In the mesolimbic pathway projecting from the midbrain to structures such as the nucleus accumbrens, the dopamine system is activated by the brain’s own opioids. Mu-opioid neural systems are complexly interrelated with the mesolimbic dopamine system. Pleasure can be induced artificially with drugs, the most direct ones being opiates such as morphine (Klein).

Research has shown that dopamine pathways get activated in situations like a person moving toward some sort of goal. It also shows that during sensory pleasure of enjoying something, the opioid system gets activated. Moreover, when subjects look forward to something or receive a reward, such as the idea of making money, the left prefrontal cortex gets activated. Here, the neurophysiology of motivation and decision-making is helping us understand how emotion and reason work together when people make choices.

Endorphins are the second of the key brain chemicals associated with happiness. They are chemically similar to morphine, promoting pleasure by dampening pain and producing a high. During physical stress, such as a long run, pain signals get stimulated. In response, neurons release opioids such as endorphins, preventing the signals from reaching nearby cells and producing pleasure elsewhere in the body. Alcohol and nicotine affect both endorphin and dopamine circuits. Narcotics mimic opioids by binding to the same receptors, numbing pain and producing a feeling of euphoria.

A second biological measurement of happiness shows up literally in smile anatomy. Here we see subtle knowledge of the measurement of happiness. By focusing on the muscles involved in smiling, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has identified the voluntary muscles involved in certain smiles, like the forced grins of flight attendants. The smiles may be polite but not an indication of authentic happiness. The zygmaticus major muscles which pull the lip corners up get tightened. These muscles are activated in a feigned smile of polite engagement like when your boss or family member is telling a joke that you’ve heard a thousand times.

There is another batch of smile muscles that are generally out of your control. One is the orbicularis oculi, which surrounds the eye. Only about 5% of the population can willfully control it. Contract this muscle and it gives you crow’s-feet and a little gleam in your eye. It raises your cheek up and impouches the lower eyelid. There’s even a name for this smile: the ‘Duchenne smile’, named after the eighteenth century French physiologist who first described it. The Duchenne smile is linked to happiness, positive emotions and activation of the left side of the brain. Infants show a Duchenne smile when their moms approach. Research shows that when you see a Duchenne smile, even a photo, you want to smile in return and feel calmer and more relaxed.

A third measurement of happiness is laughter physiology. Laughter has often intuitively been associated with pleasure and happiness. Research shows that laughter actually reduces stress. Laughter has been found to lower the cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Laughter leads to lower blood pressure, fewer episodes of arrhythmia and fewer repeat heart attacks. It exercises the heart, increases the respiration rate, and oxygenates the system.

How much of our happiness is under our control? One researcher claims that 50% of one’s satisfaction with life comes from genetic programming. Some research suggests that some people are predisposed to being happy by the busy prefrontal cortexes. Infant research confirms this. Looking at brain scans, researchers are noting that babies with less activity in the left prefrontal cortex tend to cry when their mothers leave the room. In contrast, babies with more activity in the same region stay calm. Researchers are now able to predict which infants will cry.

So, is happiness genetic? Yes and no. Some parents might say that some babies are just born happy. For some, however, happiness may take practice. Davidson, Pizzagalli, Nitschke and Kalin discovered that electrical activity in the left prefrontal lobe of a Buddhist monk’s brain could be activated through practice deep meditation. Monks are able to create happiness, even bliss. In essence, they learn how to activate the left prefrontal cortex. They know how to grow happy brains. What’s remarkable is that our brains can be rewired to be happy.

Researchers are identifying mental states associated with happiness: hopefulness, optimism and contentment. They are showing that these states reduce the risk and limit the severity of health problems, such as diabetes, colds, upper-respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, and hypertension. Biologically, a happy brain as measured through psychological tests has been show to generate about 50% more antibodies than average in response to flue vaccines. One Dutch study showed happy brains can reduce one’s risk of death 50% over the nine-year duration of the study (Lemonick).

As the happiness research trickles in, so, too, does its credibility. The happiness field is no longer esoteric and needless. When happiness is linked with improving the immune system and helping people live longer, the field gains greater respectability in the health and medical fields. When it is associated with economics, as we will see, political and business leaders begin to pay attention.


As noted earlier, Socrates argued over two thousand years ago that wealth does not buy happiness. He does say that happiness, though, does seem to attract wealth. What does the current research on happiness say about money? Does wealth bring happiness? Does it support or refute Socrates’ contentions?

One study shows that 17 percent of Americans are ‘flourishing’ in mental health terms and 26 percent are ‘languishing’ or depressed (Keys). We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Yet, a significantly larger percentage is languishing than flourishing. What’s that about? More study is needed in this area. Nonetheless, there are some things that we do know.

First, let me ask this question: who do you think is actually happier, the richest people in America or the Pennsylvania Amish? The former group has all the resources at their fingertips. The later lives a simple life with few material vices. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Does wealth truly buy happiness? Up to a certain point, “Yes,” say some researchers (Mckibben). Studies are now showing that money consistently buys happiness right up to around $10,000 income per capita. It appears that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs holds true. On a basic human level, food, clothing and shelter are paramount.

In Calcutta, the life satisfaction of homeless people is among the lowest ever recorded. Their satisfaction almost doubles when they move into a slum, where their scores match a sampling of college students drawn from 47 nations. In Ireland, people make two-thirds as much as Americans; they report higher levels of satisfaction of living. The same is true for the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch. It appears that data around basic needs holds that there is a certain level of income that buys happiness. Past $10,000, the picture is muddied (Mckibben).

Diener (2007) argues that “although money is not on average a major source of the individual differences in well-being in wealthier nations, it can make a substantial difference in poor societies where basic needs are not fully met. Materialism, valuing money more than other things such as relationships, is usually a negative predictor of well-being. However, wealthy nations are considerably happier than very poor societies, although people in very poor cultures can be happy if their basic needs are met.”

Back to our question: who is actually happier? The richest people in America or the Pennsylvania Amish? Answer: they have identical happiness scores. If you’re thinking that winning the lottery will bring you happiness, though, think again. A study of lottery winners found that they did not wind up significantly happier than a control group (Wallis).


Beyond the $10,000 threshold, what does the recent literature tell us about what brings happiness? One proven ‘happy practice’ is to perform acts of kindness or altruism. Recent scholars have explored how altruistic acts relate to happiness. For example, visiting a nursing home, helping a friend’s child with her homework, or mowing a neighbor’s lawn. Researchers found that doing five acts of kindness a week gave a measurable boost in subjects’ happiness (Wallis).

Margolis (1982) developed a theory that people basically have two preferences: self-oriented and group-oriented. Konow and Early (2002) write about the ‘hedonistic paradox’ in which people achieve greater happiness by helping others than by being self-oriented. Ryan and Deci (2001) claim that this paradox has its roots in the two approaches: hedonism (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) and eudaimonism (non-material pursuits, such as those proposed by Aristotle). They argue that Aristotle supporters of hedonism to be slaves of their own desires. Similarly, Myers (2000) claims that one of the primary needs inherent in humans as social beings is the need to ‘belong’. Wallis (2005) asserts that religion faith leads to happiness, although it is tough to tell whether it is God or the ‘belonging’ aspect of community that does the trick.

James and Chymis (2004: 5) state that “People who value non-material goods relatively more than material goods may prefer to sacrifice income-generating activities in order to devote more time to social activities such as voluntarism, going to church, and so forth, that generate satisfaction for them.” After controlling for income and size of family, Phelps (2001) found that altruists who are married are happier than non-altruists who are married. The research of Frey and Stutzer (2002) suggests that people who are intrinsically motivated and define what they value for themselves are happier than those motivated by extrinsic incentives.

James and Chymis also assert that research on the relationship of ethical behaviors and happiness shows that there is a two-way or bicausal affect. Myers (1993) argues that the happier someone is, the more likely he or she would be to contribute to another’s well-being. Ingelehart (1999) discovered that greater satisfaction with life resulted in increased trust among the community. Kenow and Early (2002) noticed that happy people are more generous than unhappy people. Thoits and Hewitt (2001) and Meier and Stutzer (2004) found that higher levels of well-being increased the likelihood of volunteerism.


We also find happiness filtering into economic theory. Some studies have shown a trend that relates happiness to economic performance. One country today – Bhutan - is putting happiness at the heart of its government and economic decisions. Leaders in the remote Himalayan kingdom consider what they call the Gross National Happiness (GNH). It is their attempt to define quality of life in terms more holistic than Gross National Product (GNP). Based on its unique culture and Buddhist spiritual values, Bhutan uses GNH as a unifying vision for its economic and development plans for the country. Far from being a conclusive success, Bhutan is an exciting experiment to see how material and spiritual development can occur side-by-side to complement and reinforce each other.

Some economists support ideas like GNH. They say that we need to act as if people and the planet really matter in all of our economic decisions. One such movement is the use of The Happy Planet Index (HPI). It is an innovative new measure that shows the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered. According to the New Economics Foundation, the HPI “doesn’t reveal the ‘happiest’ country in the world. It shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.

The nations that top the Index aren’t necessarily the happiest places in the world, but the nations that score well show that achieving, long, happy lives without over-stretching the planet’s resources is possible. The HPI shows that around the world, high levels of resource consumption do not reliably produce high levels of well-being (life-satisfaction), and that it is possible to produce high levels of well-being without excessive consumption of the Earth’s resources. It also reveals that there are different routes to achieving comparable levels of well-being. The model followed by the West can provide widespread longevity and variable life satisfaction, but it does so only at a vast and ultimately counter-productive cost in terms of resource consumption.”


In happiness research, the methodology around measuring happiness is relatively new. There are four primary ways that current researchers are measuring happiness in individuals: 1) the Satisfaction with Life Scale, 2) experience sampling, 3) day-reconstruction, and 4) frequency of positive emotions. Here, let’s look at one of these, the Satisfaction with Life Scale, developed by Ed Diener of the University of Illinois.

The Satisfaction with Life Scale is a self-report that asks five basic questions to answer the question, “How satisfied are you?” A person reads five statements and uses a 1-7 scale to rate their level of agreement. A score of ‘1’ means “not at all true.” A score of ‘4’ means ‘moderately true’. A score of ‘7’ means ‘absolutely true’. The five statements are:

1. In most ways, my life is close to ideal.

2. The conditions of my life are excellent.

3. I am satisfied with my life.

4. So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

After totaling the score, 15 or below means that a person is ‘dissatisfied’ with his or her life. A score of 31 or higher means that a person is ‘extremely satisfied’ with his or her life. A score between 16 and 30 indicates that a person is in a good position to increase his or her happiness.

Regarding the validity of this measurement, Diener claims that “self-reports of subjective well-being have substantial validity, as demonstrated by their convergence with other types of measures such as informant reports and biological measures of well-being. Although certain response artifacts such as a respondent’s current mood can bias the reports, we have found that these usually pose little threat to validity.

We have used experience-sampling (the repeated recording of emotions at random moments over time) to assess well-being, and have developed additional measures based on memory for good versus bad events, and satisfaction of global versus specific aspects of life. We also created a 5-item scale to assess life satisfaction (the SWLS), and this measure has shown substantial validity” (Deiner).


From Socrates to Plato to Aristotle, the Greek philosophers have explored the concept of happiness. From them, we learn how happiness can come from philosophizing, self-examination, end-of-life reviews, and virtuous living. Jumping ahead in modern times, Positive Psychology gives us the glimpse of a new field that focuses specifically on happiness rather than ailments. We also get a unique bird’s eye view into the ‘happiness center’ in the brain: the left prefrontal cortex. Brain chemistry – specifically dopamine and endorphins – provides a chemical explanation to pleasure and happiness. Smile anatomy and laughter physiology links happiness with strengthening the immune system and longer living. We’ve seen that the myth that wealth brings happiness works up to around $10,000 but not necessarily after that. Altruism does work, though.

Happiness as a concept is even impacting the field of economics. In 2002, the Nobel Prize in economics was given to psychologist Daniel Kahneman for his book Well-Being and new field called ‘hedonics’. Today, we not only have GNP but GNH. Approaches like The Happy Planet Index are inviting us to consider the counter-productive cost of planetary resource consumption implicit in our efforts to produce high-levels of well-being.

As we have seen, the pursuit of happiness was important not only to our founding fathers but to philosophers, psychologists, economists, brain researchers and others. It appears that the classic and modern roots to the tree of happiness are indeed strong and deep! Historically and practically, happiness is more than just something relegated to children’s lives. More and more, as we have seen, interest in research and findings around happiness is growing and will continue to grow.

Copyright © 2007 Philip Johncock



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