Skip to main content

When the Desire for Happiness Became a Science


The desire for happiness has been a concept that has plagued the lives of mankind for centuries. There are a wide variety of definitions for the term happiness, but it is apparent that the main goal, in most peoples’ lives, is to be happy, but the understanding of the meaning of happiness can differ from one person to another with each desire representing ‘something’ that makes them happy. However, over time, and through the development of emotional and motivational psychology, a subfield began to arise that focused on both positive psychology and a psychology of happiness. These psychological fields have helped bring forth a better understanding of what happiness is and how to obtain it intrinsically.

While there are a wide variety of definitions for the term happiness, research in the field of positive psychology and the psychology of happiness often define a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, but also experience infrequent negative emotions (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). In other words, one cannot know happiness without also experiencing sadness. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, Norway is placed at number one for the happiest country in the world, while the United States sits at number 14, and the Central African Republic coming in last (“World Happiness Report,” 2017). The report is based on an annual survey of 1,000 people in 155 countries, which asks people to rank, on a scale of zero to 10, whether they are living their best life. These numbers are important to psychologists because it provides an inclination as to what environmental and economic circumstances can affect a person or a country’s well-being: happiness.


Observing happiness on a global scale could be considered a positive way of looking at the emotional state of people as a whole because it shows that there are still plenty of happy people around the world. However, what one does not see is the number of unhappy, or more importantly, depressed people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, there are more than 300 million people, worldwide, who suffer from depression (“World Health Organization,” 2017). This number is important to psychologist and their subfields like positive psychology and psychology of happiness because it shows the importance of their studies and why understanding happiness is of the essence. Without the understanding of what makes people truly happy, the field of psychology is left with the neurological, behavioral, and psychoanalytic methods of treating the increasing number of depression around the world. Happiness is something that must come from within an individual, and; therefore, must be studied at its root to teach people how to become happier in their lives. The purpose of this paper is to explore why the psychology of happiness is important to psychology as a field and the history behind it.

Religious Teachings

It is difficult to say for sure when humans began thinking about happiness as being something they want in their lives because written language has not always been accessible. However, some thoughts have been a part of religious teachings that have been passed on orally and have been written down by their followers. Among those religious figures were Siddhartha Guatama, or Buddha, Confucius, and Mencius.

Buddha believed that he had found a way that would lead people to happiness and end all suffering, which he called Nirvana, or enlightenment (Dhiman, 2008). Suffering is a common denominator that can be found within a depressed society today. There is no doubt that some type of suffering will affect one’s life at one point in time. Through enlightenment, one can gain a better understanding through the insight of oneself and/or of any given situation. Today’s psychology uses this type of method through psychoanalysis to help people understand where the root of their suffering arises from. In addition, realizing and understanding how and why suffering exists relates to the theories found within the psychology of happiness such that, optimism during times of suffering can be a positive approach.

Contrary to Buddha’s idea of how to lead people to happiness, Confucius believed that knowledge learned from books, social relationships, and what he believed was the great virtue of humanity (“The Pursuit of Happiness,” 2016). His idea of social relationships is a key concept found within the psychology of happiness today. There is strong need for people to feel the need to belong that consists of a lasting interpersonal relationship. This concept can be found in psychologist, Abraham Maslow’s, Theory of Human Motivation: Hierarchy of Needs, which argues that the need to be loved and belong is the third most important need after physiological and safety needs have been met (Maslow, 1943). Furthermore, Maslow argued that human have a desire to know and understand (Maslow, 1943). Therefore, Confucius’ ideas about happiness are an influential part in today’s psychological theories because without understanding one’s hierarchy of needs, one would struggle to live a satisfactory life


Contrary to Confucius, Mencius believed in quite the same way as Buddha when he spoke about suffering. Mencius believed that suffering was part of human nature. According to Mencius, “One is not human without feeling of sympathy. One is not a human without the feeling of shame. One is not a human without the feeling of reverence. One is not a human without the feeling of approval” (Sundararajan, 2005, p. 37). The understanding of why suffering exists is an important part of psychology because it teaches people how to change the way one reacts during certain situations that one will encounter sometime in their lives. Furthermore, it relates to the theories found within the psychology of happiness such that, optimism during times of suffering can be a positive approach.


Following the era of religious figures was the era of philosophical thinkers. Among those philosophers was Socrates. Socrates’ thoughts were also passed down orally through his students. Much of what Socrates taught are seen through the eyes of his student, Plato. Socrates lived in an era when people believed the gods controlled things such as one’s happiness. Socrates believed that all human beings have an innate desire for knowledge, which could be found the inductive methods that is much like we use in psychology today and that it can be found within the essence of things (Hunt, 2007). Furthermore, Socrates believed “all human beings naturally desire happiness; happiness is directive rather than additive: it depends not on external goods, but how we use these external goods (whether wisely or unwisely); happiness depends on the “education of desire” whereby the soul learns how to harmonize its desires, redirecting its gaze away from physical pleasures to the love of knowledge and virtue; virtue and happiness are inextricably linked, such that it would be impossible to have one without the other; the pleasures that result from pursuing virtue and knowledge are of a higher quality than the pleasures resulting from satisfying mere animal desires. Pleasure is not the goal of existence, however, but rather an integral aspect of the exercise of virtue in a fully human life” (“The Pursuit of Happiness,” 2016). When looking at Socrates’ ideas, one can see a striking resemblance to some of the core ideas behind positive psychology and the psychology of happiness: positive emotions, relationships, meaning, accomplishments, spirituality, and mindfulness, just to name a few.

Aristotle was among the students of Plato, whom had his own ideas about happiness. Aristotle was working on the idea of happiness as a purpose in life at the same time Zhuangzi was working on his thoughts of perfect happiness (“The Pursuit of Happiness,” 2016). In one of Aristotle’s books titled Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks about eudaimonia, which is Greek moral philosophy associated with the Greek era. In English, the term, eudaimonia, is translated into happiness (Waterman, 1990). Through using the term eudaimonia, Aristotle proposed that happiness is “activity expressing virtue” (Waterman, 1990). Aristotle believed that "Happiness depends on ourselves” (“The Pursuit of Happiness,” 2008). This view was against the view of hedonic happiness (Waterman, 1990). As most of psychology believe today, happiness does depend on ourselves by how we react to certain situations or the unbalanced chemicals one has in their brains. Either way, happiness does truly depend on ourselves because one must recognize the nature of one’s suffering to be enlightened with intrinsic value that may require an optimistic view that will allow one to accept the everyday happenings of suffering that may require an understanding of things such as, gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, hedonism, and altruism.


The pursuit of happiness is a phrase that has been engraved into the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. English philosopher, John Locke is most famous for his phrase, "pursuit of happiness" that was later incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. Although Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas, he believed that such ideas come from God and true inner spiritual ideas were more important than any type of religious practice (Hunt, 2007; Cassel, 2003). In addition, Locke believe that knowledge was important and gain through experiences such as, sensation and reflection (Hunt, 2007). As evident, thus far, both religious figures and philosophers have approached this idea of happiness and how one can either attain it or attempt to pursue it through methods of looking within, ending suffering, or reaching out to a higher power. In modern psychology, these key concepts have been at the forefront of the psychology of happiness.

A decade before John Locke’ attempt of describing happiness, William James was working on his own ideas of emotion and how it can influence ones’ happiness. James was a philosopher and psychologist that focused much of his time on the functions of the mind such as, consciousness, habits and instincts, and the self in connection to free will. His view of the self and free will consisted of three components: material, social, and spiritual, which are all concepts that are very similar to the ideas that were being passed along throughout the history. James believed that other psychologist was spending too much time focusing on the sensory and motor parts of the mind and that more understanding was need on the aesthetic sphere of the mind (James, 1884). While today we understand the importance of the sensory and motor functions of the mind and how those things can affect our emotions, James hypothesized that, “Our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression” (James, 1884, p. 189). James would later go on to create a theory of emotion with a physician named Carl Goerge Lange now known as the James-Lange Theory. They believed that a stimulus caused an arousal, which was presented with some type of emotion. James wrote, “If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristics bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no “mind-stuff” out of which can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains” (James, 1884, p. 190). James’ ideas about emotion would help later psychologists as they began to focus on human behavior and what makes human’s happy.

Humanistic Psychology

In addition to James’ thoughts about emotions paved the way for Humanistic psychology and psychologist, Abraham Maslow, is among the psychologists that had an interest in people that were happy and what it was that made them happy and ultimately termed the idea of positive psychology. Maslow conceptualized that happiness can come from a hierarchy of needs, spirituality, and peak-experiences. His theory of hierarchy of needs start with the most basic, which are the physiological needs one needs to survive. Next, going up the hierarchy, is safety, a need to be loved and/or belong, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow contends that self-actualization is not always accomplished in life, but is the ultimate goal (Maslow, 1943). That concept was seen in past religious figures that believed enlightenment would lead to a life of happiness and could only be found within oneself. Maslow’s ideas about spirituality are what he considered peak experiences. After seeking out the healthiest people he could find, he found that the happy individuals reported having “…mystical experiences moments of great awe, moments of the most intense happiness or even rapture, ecstasy or bliss (because the word happiness can be too weak to describe this experience)” (Malsow, 1962, p. 9). Maslow named these mystical experiences peak-experiences. He also believed that mental illness, or neurosis is "related to spiritual disorders, to loss of meaning, to doubts about the goals of life, to grief and anger over a lost love, to seeing life in a different way, to loss of courage or of hope, to despair over the future, to dislike for oneself, to recognition that one's life is being wasted, or that there is no possibility of joy or love, etc." (Maslow, 1971, 31). His focus in psychology can be seen as being more on the optimistic side of things and that helping people reach self-realization will help bring about happier people in the world. His theories are closely related to the ideas that Mencius preserved in his teachings about one needing to feel approval and that suffering is a part of life and should be approach with optimism.


Psychology of Happiness

Like Maslow, Mihaly Csikszentmihihalyi is among some of the more prominent psychologists that has focused his work on the psychology of happiness. His search for happiness after being deeply affected by World War II because he was placed in an Italian prison as a child. He began to wonder how some people could still feel happiness amid all the pain and misery surrounding them. He went on to study positive psychology in the search for what makes people happy when he discovered flow. Mihaly believed that “…chemically induced well-being lacks a vital ingredient of happiness: the knowledge that one is responsible for having achieved it. Happiness is not something that happens to people but that they make happen” (Csikszentmihihalyi, 1999, p. 824). His theory of flow is a phenomenon of intrinsic motivation and is an optimal psychological state that can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction. When one enters a state of flow that only focused and aware of the moment they are in forgetting all other things. It is an intense concentration on the task at hand. Mihaly found that people having an autotelic personality are people that do things for the sake of themselves and not to achieve some external goal, which, in turn, made them happy.

Positive Psychology

Another influential man in the field positive psychology is Martin Seligman. Seligman approached happiness from a scientific method. Mihaly and Seligman worked together to lay out the foundation for “positive psychology at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. At a group level, it is about the civic virtues and institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic” (Seligman & Csikszentmihihalyi, 2000, p. 5). Both men realized there was a strong need to understand more positive end of psychology instead of focusing on the negative and/or weakness found within the psychological field when assessing mental illness. With their hard work, they have been able to scientifically show how one can become a happier person intrinsically. Seligman later went on to write about the Theories of well-being with some of his other colleagues. They found that well-being can be broken down into three types: “(a) desire fulfillment theories, the satisfaction of revealed preferences; (b) objective list theories, the catalog of goods required for well-lived life; and (c) hedonistic theories; pleasurable mental states” (Jayawickreme, Forgeard, & Seligman, 2012, p. 329-330). With the foundations and theories of well-being laid out, it is easy to see where the thinking of happiness relates back to the beginning of this paper through the history of thought and the persistence to find what makes people happy.

Another influential researcher in positive psychology Ed Diener, aka “Dr. Happiness.” Diener has devoted at least 25 years to positive psychology and has studied happiness through the idea of subject well-being, which he has measure empirically. Earlier studies found that happy people recalled more happy events than unhappy people (Seidlitz & Diener, 1993). Diener and his colleague attempted to replicate those findings and found that an individual’s ability to recall memories for positive things versus the individuals that recall their negative life events. Through his scientific methods of studying happiness, Diener found he believed were essential for happiness. He argues that, “Psychological wealth is more than money. It is also your attitudes, goals and engaging activities at work. Happiness not only feels good, but is beneficial to relationships, work and health. It is helpful to set realistic expectations about happiness. No one is intensely happy all of the time. Furthermore, it is clear that finding happiness may be a lot more complicated that one would think when having to address all the different levels that one must understand about themselves in order to live a happier life.

Scroll to Continue


Although, positive psychology and the psychology of happiness is still a fairly new field the amount of information gained from our current methodological testing and understanding root for individual happiness is a huge leap into creating a future full of happier people. The direction this field has taken seems to revert back to the understandings that Buddha, Confucius, and Mencius were trying to convey all along in that happiness can only be found within. In addition, Seligman and Csikszentmihayli explain positive psychology as helping people make their life worth living by exploring “hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility” (Seligman & Csikszentmihayli, 2000). The future of positive psychology and the psychology of happiness are a glimpse of hope for those who suffer from depression.


Cassel, R. (2003). Critical incidents in the evolutionary history of personal freedom. College Student Journal, 37(2), 163.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). If we are so rich, why aren’t we happy? American Psychologist, 54(10), 821-827.

Dhiman, S. (2008). Beginner’s Guide to Happiness: A Buddhist perspective. Interbeing, 2(1), 654-664.

“History of Happiness.” The Pursuit of Happiness. (2016). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from

Hunt, M. (2007) The story of psychology. New York: A Division of Random House, Inc.

James, William. (1884). What is an emotion? Mind, 9, 188-205.

Jayawickreme, E., Forgeard, M., & Seligman, M. (2012). The engine of well-being. Review of General Psychology, 16(4), 327-342. doi: 10.1037/a0027990.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 1-47.

Maslow, A, (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Maslow, A. (1962). Lessons from the peak-experiences 1. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 2(9). doi: 10.1177/002216786200200102.

Maslow, A (1973). The farther reaches of human nature. Humanistic Psychology, New York: Viking.

Seidlitz, L. & Diener, E. (1993). Memory for positive versus negative life events: Theories for the differences between happy and unhappy persons. Journal of Personality and Psychology, 64(4), 654-664.

Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14. doi: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.5.

Sundararajan, L. (2005). Happiness donut: A Confucian critique of positive psychology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 25(1), 35-60.

Waterman, A. (1990). The relevance of Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia for the psychological study of happiness. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 10(1), 39-44.

World Health Organization. (2017, February). “Depression” Retrieved November 1, 2017, from

“World Happiness Report” (2017). Retrieved November 1, 2017, from

World Health Organization. (2017, February). Depression. Retrieved November 1, 2017, from


Jennifer Saxton-Sweet (author) on September 15, 2018:

Thank you, Mr. Happy, for reading my article. It was a paper that I wrote for my Psychology of Happiness class. I will have to go back and look at my notes to understand what I meant by "aesthetic sensibility." As for Freud, I had to add him in there because I was following the history of happiness and he thought about it as well.

I'm glad you enjoyed my article and I will check out the book you have recommended. Again, thank you for stopping by.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on September 15, 2018:

"In other words, one cannot know happiness without also experiencing sadness." - Very true. Mr. Happy agrees LOL : )

"Happiness is something that must come from within" - You nailed it here and I think many people do not fully grasp this. We cannot chase happiness by buying things, or trying to have others act in such a way that makes us happy. No, happiness is a state of mind. We are all responsible for our own state of mind. We cannot depend on others, or otherness for our happiness.

We split ways when You bring-up Mr. Freud and his psychoanalysis. Mr. Freud and I do not agree much. Haha!

"At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility" - "Aesthetic sensibility"? What exactly does this mean?

"Seligman and Csikszentmihayli explain positive psychology as helping people make their life worth living" - That's a worthy cause.

I appreciate your article. It is very well written and quite informative. I had to stop by, just because I've carried this nickname given to me by my friends, for almost two decades now. So, thank You for your writing.

I'll take this opportunity to share the title of a book: "Happiness is over-rated" by Angelo Belliotti. It's a fairly stright forward read. I for one enjoyed it.

That's about it. Thanks again and all the best!

Related Articles