The Happiness Debate

Scientists are weighing what it really means to be happy—and their findings aren’t so straightforward.

Illustration by Mindful Staff

Over the past decade social scientists have taken a deep dive into what seems like a straightforward question: What makes us happy? The pursuit of pleasure? The absence of hardship and difficulty? Or, seen from a longer view, the feeling that your life has meant something?

The answer has proven less obvious, and largely depends on whom you talk to. When it comes to the science of happiness, researchers still don’t fully agree on how to measure it or, even, a clear definition of what “happiness” is.

Take, for example, the widely reported and controversial “happiness gap” finding that parents are less happy than people who don’t have children. One of many studies, a survey of 397 adults, found that parenting may provide meaning in life but not necessarily happiness.

But when researchers from the University of California, Riverside, measured both happiness and meaning together, parents, in general, came out happier and more satisfied in their lives than people without children. “When you feel happy, and you take out the meaning part of happiness, it’s not really happiness,” researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky told Greater Good Science Center.

Differences like this have spurred a new inquiry into what actually qualifies as happiness.