What is Happiness?

In a society largely driven by a hyper-consumerist ideology, feelings of security, satisfaction and general happiness are often thought to be linked to material wealth.  

Having a beautiful home, a stylized vehicle, fashionable clothing or access to an affluent social group is sometimes believed to generate happiness. 

But what if such things do little to generate authentic happiness in our lives?

Students in the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television soon will present a production of "Love Song," a play about an oddball exile who transforms into a blissful individual after his apartment is burglarized.

Though not directly tied to the accumulation of material wealth, the production does question concepts around love, happiness and personal security within the context of normalized beliefs and habits. As such, "Love Song" begs us to ask: What is the source of happiness and satisfaction?

In considering these issues, we reached out to UA researchers Chris Segrin, a communication professor, and Wilson Bastos, a doctoral candidate in the UA's Eller College of Management studying marketing.

Bastos noted that research has shown that about 40 percent of the happiness people experience largely is due to genetics. But one's genetic origins does not completely lock an individual in a pleasant or abysmal emotional space.

"It is fortunate that in the last 15 years, researchers in the social sciences have put much effort into advancing our understanding of happiness, what drives it and what follows it," Bastos said. "There is much we can do in our daily lives to generate happiness for ourselves and for others."

We posed a number of related questions, to which Segrin and Bastos offered answers:

Q: What are some of the misconceptions people generally hold about happiness?

Segrin: Perhaps the biggest misconception is that happiness is associated with the accumulation of wealth, possessions and "success" in life. Research does not support this commonly held belief. Although this may sound true by definition, happiness really is a state of mind.

Bastos: In our pursuit of happiness, we often focus on acquiring material things, gaining status, earning a higher salary. Research has shown that because we have an amazing capacity to adapt, the potential of those things to advance our happiness is limited and short-lived. The good news is that adaptation also works to our advantage. Take for example people who live through unfortunate life events. Adaptation prevents some things from generating long-lasting happiness but also helps us face tough life conditions and remain happy.

Q: How should we conceive of happiness? 

Bastos: Happiness is a sense of subjective well-being. Because happiness tends to evidence itself in times of peace and safety, it is an emotion that gives us the green light to welcome new ventures. Put it another way, unhappiness signals that we should employ resources in the immediate situation in order to improve it. Happiness, on the other hand, indicates that life is well and we are ready and able to explore, discover, learn and grow.

Q: How is happiness attained and sustained?

Bastos: Recent research has shown that healthy social relationships, altruistic behavior and gratitude are powerful sources of happiness. Thus, the social realm is rich in happiness. When it comes to consumption, research indicates that experiential purchases (e.g., watching movie at the theater, going on a trip) advance more happiness than do material purchases (e.g., jewelry, electronic devices). In collaboration with UA marketing professor Merrie Brucks, I have found evidence that a reason why experiential purchases advance more happiness is that they have higher storytelling value. In other words, we tend to share about our experiences more than about our objects. The social activity of sharing, in turn, advances happiness.

Segrin: Hear this story. One day I heard an old man talking on the radio, reflecting back on his life. He said that he recalled as a teenager wanting to move out of his parents' house and live on his own. He felt that this freedom would bring him happiness. When he finally did that, while attending college, he recalled almost immediately thinking: "When I graduate from college, I'm going to get a good job, buy a car and a house, and then I'll really be happy." Eventually, the day came when he graduated, bought a car, et cetera, and then he thought: "When I get married and have kids, then I will be a happy man." This mind set, always looking to the next horizon where happiness will supposedly be found, persisted throughout his life. The man concluded with his last desire and a realization. He said that throughout his 50s and early 60s he felt that he'd find true happiness once he retired. After moving out of his parents' house as a teenager, going to college, buying a car, buying his first house, getting married, having kids, getting a good job and retiring as an elderly man, he finally realized something: Happiness is a journey, not a destination. This story within a story has a moral: Start appreciating the journey right now. Don't look back and don't look forward. Look around where you are standing right now and see all the good things that are worthy of your appreciation and happiness.

The UA production of "Love Song" premieres Feb. 3 and 4 with regular shows opening Feb. 6. Ticket information is available online.

Contact: Lisa Pierce, the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television, at 520-626-2686 or lisapierce@email.arizona.edu

BY: La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications

Published Date: 

02/04/2013 - 12:55pm