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focus on may 2024

"The Practice of Happiness" by Ciro Conversano and Rebecca Ciacchini

Happiness is more likely a state of mind rather than a more intense emotion, culture-dependent, dependent on the relationship with others (whether an individual or something else), and essential to an inner journey of compassion and search, a choice, and also a certain awareness of one's needs.
MSA felicità Conversano Ciacchini
detailf of Runners (1924), Robert Delaunay (French, 1885-1941) artvee.com

How often are we asked if we are happy? Do we habitually ask ourselves this question? And above all, is it common to find ourselves unable to answer "yes" 95% of the time? Well, we believe so, because, as we will see, happiness is not exactly what it seems.
In this contribution, we will provide a definition of the construct, discuss its main characteristics, consider how and if it can be measured, and finally try to highlight which aspects might be crucial for achieving it.

Let's start by exploring what is meant by happiness.
According to the Treccani Encyclopedia, it is "the state of mind of someone who is serene, not troubled by pain or worries, and enjoys this state 1." Another definition sees it as "the positive state of mind (feeling) of someone who believes their desires 2 are satisfied." Its Latin origin, "felicitas," suggests a connection with the concept of luck and prosperity, deriving from the root "fe-" meaning abundance. We already notice some characteristics that can begin to guide us towards a more complete definition. First of all, happiness seems to have a lasting nature, less situational and acute, and would thus be attributable to the realm of feelings rather than emotions. Additionally, it seems linked to the recognition of having achieved a goal or satisfied a personal purpose/need. Finally, it appears to be related to the presence of abundance. We might wonder, abundance of what?

According to eudaimonism, a moral doctrine that places happiness as the goal or natural end of human life, happiness means having an abundance of goods (material) or positive states of mind. Plato found it in the search for beauty only to lose it again, as if it were a fleeting desire; Aristotle, fifty years later, believed that happiness was instead the result of rational behavior leading to moderation. Hedonism, shortly after, said that happiness means immediate pleasure; the Cynics aspired to abstinence from pleasure to achieve it, while the Cyrenaics said that it is not so much abstinence but our ability to control pleasure without being enslaved by it that grants happiness. In the East, about a hundred years earlier, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) introduced to the world the reflection on true happiness as a form of wisdom, compassion, and inner awareness, to be found in the absence of suffering, in the liberation from the chains of desire, and in the attainment of enlightenment, which allowed one to understand the true nature of reality.

There are numerous contributions from philosophy and spirituality to the definition of happiness, but this is not the place to delve into them, as doing so would risk treating the subject too superficially. Moreover, if we were to observe the construct through a sociocultural filter, we would discover that in American culture, being happy means personal success and having positive experiences, while, for example, the Japanese might refer to the transient nature of happiness and the social consequences of "feeling happy," such as provoking envy in others 3. Outside the U.S. context, some individuals express concern about an excess of happiness; this apprehension can be particularly marked in countries that promote values of conformity, interdependence, and hierarchical authority, as well as in non-Christian communities. Additionally, ambivalence towards happiness might be more common in cultural contexts that view it as the product of good fortune; in such traditions, there is a belief that a moment of happiness might be followed by an unfortunate event due to the capriciousness of luck.

What interests us here is understanding how these currents of thought have shaped the modern conception of happiness. To do this, it is also necessary to examine the definition provided by psychological science. For psychology, happiness is a complex concept that encompasses both momentary positive emotions and a sense of life satisfaction, personal achievement, and fulfillment in social relationships. It is related to a subjective sense of freedom, greater confidence in oneself and others, and an optimistic attitude.
This definition takes into account theories on subjective well-being (see studies by A. Maslow and Seligman), self-determination theory (E. Deci & R. Ryan), and the theory of flow, which describes a state of complete immersion in an engaging activity as a pillar for well-being and happiness (M. Csíkszentmihályi). Happiness would cover a 360-degree development, encompassing the intellectual, emotional, material, physical, and psychological aspects of the individual. Some behaviorists (P. Brickman & D.T. Campbell) describe life as an hedonic treadmill, where people react to pleasant and unpleasant situations only to return to a more "central" state of happiness. It would therefore seem more like a lasting state than a temporary one, confirming the initial hypothesis, and from these insights, its relational nature would also be confirmed. Feeling happy is possible only in relation to others, whether it is another individual or an "other" from us, an event, a thought, a need. The definition of happiness from the famous Sean Penn film "Into the Wild" comes to mind, where despite all the protagonist's efforts to demonstrate how it resides in man's relationship with himself, in the end (dramatically) it becomes evident that one cannot forget the interaction with others.

Genetic studies, neuroscience, and endocrinology add interesting information and insights to the definition. Genetic studies indicate that among the endogenous factors influencing happiness, biological ones are the most significant in determining its presence. Studies on twins have shown that genetic factors contribute between 35% and 50%; furthermore, some "responsible" genes have been identified in the complexity of human behavior, cognition, and emotion, specifically related to the sensation we call happiness (5-HTTLPR and MAO-A 4). Neuroscience informs us that there is a range of neurotransmitters involved in regulating mood and emotional well-being, including serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These neurotransmitters exert their influence on specific brain circuits that play a crucial role in modulating human emotional states. One of the most influential neurochemical theories on positive mood is presented by the studies of Ashby and colleagues 5. The two main elements of their theory are that positive mood is associated with (but not necessarily caused by) increased levels of dopamine in the brain. Other neurochemical agents associated with emotional states include serotonin, as well as norepinephrine, endorphins, and melatonin. Brain studies have not provided definitive conclusions on the localization of "happiness," but certain areas have been identified as emotional control centers: these include the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula. Finally, hormone studies suggest that some hormones released by the pituitary and adrenal glands, such as cortisol, adrenaline, and oxytocin, may play a fundamental role.

In summary, so far we have seen that happiness is more likely a state of mind rather than a more intense emotion, culture-dependent, dependent on the relationship with others (whether an individual or something else), and essential to an inner journey of compassion and search, a choice, and also a certain awareness of one's needs. We also know that there is a genetic predisposition and that certain substances produced in our bodies (which can be influenced by external behavioral agents, such as physical activity or medications) can be crucial in the pursuit of happiness.

Let us now see what tools are most commonly used for measuring happiness. Firstly, it must be said that, just as it was complex to define the concept, so too is it to observe the various methods of measurement. For example, some authors (such as C. Antaki and M. Rapley) contest the idea of measuring a construct they believe to be (inter)subjective or purely subjective, that is, one that occurs only between the protagonist and other parts (variables). Therefore, we assume that there will be as many tools as there are definitions of happiness, and each will have its limitations and advantages. Measurements can be made using two main methods: the first, through the use of self-administered or hetero-administered questionnaires, and the second, through observations of objective indices in controlled settings 6. For the latter, this means, for example, measuring facial expressions linked to joy (smiling, increased voice tone, laughter). Regarding questionnaires, we have said that there is always a degree of uncertainty linked to possible distortions and artifacts; for instance, someone could be "happy" and not know it, or could report being happy but not actually be so. In the World Database of Happiness (WDoH) 7, it is stated that measures can include a sense of overall happiness, a specific part for affective and cognitive components, and that they can be oriented towards the analysis of happiness at a given moment up to the general measurement. The most commonly used tools include, among others, the Subjective Happiness Scale by Lyubomirsky and Lepper (1999), the Goldberg Depression and Anxiety Scale by Goldberg and Williams (1988), the Subjective Well-Being Scale by Diener et al. (1985), the Life Satisfaction Scale by Diener et al. (1985), and the Oxford Happiness Index by Argyle, Martin, and Crossland (1989), which present significant similarities and differences. Certainly, these are somewhat dated tools. Commonly, they focus on assessing subjective emotional well-being, including questions related to life satisfaction, positive and negative emotions, and the sense of personal achievement. However, differences emerge in the specific design and scope of each scale.
For example, the Subjective Happiness Scale focuses on comparing one's happiness to that of others, whereas the Subjective Well-Being Scale considers various aspects of subjective emotional well-being. Additionally, some tools may be shorter and more focused on specific characteristics, while others may be broader and more inclusive, assessing different domains.

In conclusion, let us now see what factors seem to influence happiness. Ugo Foscolo spoke about the pleasure of being true to oneself (not exactly easy) and being able to freely pursue one's aspirations, both emotional and cognitive 8. Apart from what we can do with ourselves, social support, positive relationships, and a sense of belonging to a community are factors that influence subjective well-being. Some studies report that being extroverted is associated with a greater capacity for happiness, as an ease in relating to others represents a positive factor. These same studies 9 suggest that a greater ease in relying on others increases self-confidence and problem-solving abilities, thereby enhancing well-being. The presence of meaningful relationships and a social support network is also associated with higher levels of happiness, as is good physical and mental health. Consider the studies by Veenhoven 10, which found that happiness does not predict longevity in already ill populations, but it is correlated with greater longevity among healthy populations. Surprisingly, the effect of happiness on longevity in healthy populations is significant, comparable in impact to factors like quitting smoking. Finally, studies tell us that the perception of having meaningful and rewarding work contributes to emotional well-being and that a healthy lifestyle and habits (regular physical exercise, balanced diet, good sleep quality, and engaging in recreational activities) can positively influence happiness. These studies clearly show that promoting happiness at a social level can have a significant impact on public health: this finding underscores the importance of considering happiness not only as an individual goal but also as a collective good that can lead to significant improvements in quality of life and overall health.
Our point of view on this matter can be inferred from the title: the exercise of happiness for us means that there is no serenity, peace, and happiness without the daily commitment to dedicate oneself to others and to life with respect and compassion, understood as the aspiration that we all may be free, physically and mentally, from suffering. Happiness means giving the right weight to things, in an eternal balance (Mēdèn ágān, or the Yin and Yang of Taoism) between heart and mind—a mind that thinks but then forgets it has thought and lets go, like a blade of grass in the wind, allowing the events of life, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to pass by with a central awareness within oneself. We like to think of happiness as that sense of peace and fulfillment one feels when practicing mountain meditation and becoming the mountain; unshaken by the changes around us but content with ourselves and what we have. We seek happiness knowing that it is an art, and therefore, like all arts, an active process that involves creativity, dedication, and practice; reminding ourselves, with kindness, that the exercise of happiness is our right.

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1 https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/felicita/
2 Felicità, in Grande Dizionario di Italiano, Garzanti Linguistica.
3 Per una rassegna più approfondita: Oishi, S., & Gilbert, E. A. (2016). Current and future directions in culture and happiness research. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 54-58.
4 Dfarhud, D., Malmir, M., & Khanahmadi, M. (2014). Happiness & health: the biological factors-systematic review article. Iranian journal of public health, 43(11), 1468.
5 Ashby FG, Isen AM, Turken AU (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychol Rev, 106: 529–550.
6 Helm, D. T. (2000). The measurement of happiness. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 105(5), 326-335.
7 Veenhoven, R. (2017). Measures of happiness: Which to choose?. Metrics of subjective well-being: Limits and improvements, 65-84.

What is this World Database of Happiness?


8 [“Quel poco di felicità che si può sperar sulla terra consiste nel piacere a sé stessi; al che stimo indispensabili due cose: l’una, di seguire fedelmente i propri principi; l’altra, di potere liberamente esercitare le facoltà del cuore e dell’intelletto.”] Foscolo, U. (1807). “Dei sepolcri”.
9 Tan, C. S., Low, S. K., & Viapude, G. N. (2018). Extraversion and happiness: The mediating role of social support and hope. PsyCh journal, 7(3), 133-143.
10 Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: Effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. Journal of happiness studies, 9, 449-469.

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