Happiness, Flow and Joy

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Happiness, Flow and Joy

A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy. (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, 1968)

Happiness is an imaginary condition. (Thomas Szasz, The Second Sin, 1974)

When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy. (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)

The word ’happiness’ means several different things, such as joy and satisfaction. Psychologists prefer the term ’subjective wellbeing’ (SWB) which is an umbrella term that includes the various types of evaluation of one’s life one might make.

It has also been suggested that there are three primary components of SWB: general satisfaction, the presence of pleasant affect and the absence of negative emotions including anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness and shame. These can be considered at the global level or with regard to very specific domains like work, friendship, recreation. More importantly, SWB covers a wide scale from ecstasy to agony: from extreme happiness to great gloom and despondency. It relates to long-term states, not just momentary moods. It is not sufficient but probably a necessary criterion for mental or psychological health.

All the early researchers in this field pointed out that psychologists had long neglected wellbeing, preferring to look at its opposites: anxiety, despair, depression. Just as the assumption that the absence of anxiety and depression suggests happiness, so it is true that not being happy does not necessarily mean unhappy.

Diener (2000) has defined subjective wellbeing as how people cognitively and emotionally evaluate their lives. It has an evaluative (good—bad) as well as a hedonic (pleasant—unpleasant) dimension.

The Positive Psychology Centre at Pennsylvania State University has a website dedicated to answering frequently asked questions like ’isn’t positive psychology just plain common sense?’. They note 13 points (abbreviated here) as an example:

• Wealth is only weakly related to happiness both within and across nations, particularly when income is above the poverty level.

• Activities that make people happy in small doses — such as shopping, good food and making money — do not lead to fulfilment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns.

• Engaging in an experience that produces ’flow’ is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate self-awareness disappearing, and sense of time is distorted.

• People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress towards goals, wellbeing and help others more.

• Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness.

• People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called ’elevation’ and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds.

• Optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness.

• People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further optimism can be measured and it can be learned.

• People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives.

• Physicians experiencing positive emotions tend to make more accurate diagnoses.

• Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary.

• Individuals who write about traumatic events are physically healthier than control groups that do not. Writing about life goals is significantly less distressing than writing about trauma, and is associated with enhanced wellbeing.

• People are unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following an important event.

Although aimed at adults, the advice of Myers (1992) can be applied to children. More importantly his ten points can clearly apply to adults who nurture and encourage children. In this sense, this is a checklist of important messages to give children. Myers’ suggestions for a happier life are:

1 Realize that enduring happiness doesn’t come from success.

2 Take control of your time.

3 Act happy.

4 Seek work and leisure that engages your skills.

5 Join the ’movement’ movement.

6 Give your body the sleep it wants.

7 Give priority to close relationships.

8 Focus beyond the self.

9 Keep a gratitude journal.

10 Nurture your spiritual self.


Argyle, M. (2001). The Psychology of Happiness. London: Routledge.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective wellbeing: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34—43.

Eysenck, M. (1990). Happiness: Facts and Myths. Hove: LEA.

Myers, D. (1992). The Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Avon Books.