What Is The Definition Of Happiness? The True Meaning Of Joy

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Happiness is often thought of as a state to spend our whole lives chasing. Some believe happiness involves a balance of positive emotions and negative emotions, while others state overall life satisfaction contributes to one's happiness. Happiness research in positive psychology suggests that subjective well-being and mental well-being are key factors in achieving happiness. Although happiness may be used as a catch-all term for satisfactory life experiences or states of being, happiness is an emotion, and emotions are often temporary.

When you feel happy, life might seem carefree or straightforward. There are many songs about seeking happiness and many about losing it. So, what does it mean to be happy? What makes you happy? The meaning of happiness may depend on your interpretation of what it means in your life, as well as factors like social relationships, self-esteem, and physical health.

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Are you struggling to find joy and happiness in life?

Happiness defined

The meaning and purpose of happiness have been explored in the science of positive psychology as a means of developing an approach to support people in their pursuit of happiness. Happy people tend to have improved physical health.

Depending on whom you ask, you may find that people have various definitions of happiness. Happiness can be defined in a few different ways. These include: 

  1. A state of well-being and contentment; joy
  2. A pleasurable or satisfying experience 
  3. Felicity or aptness 
  4. Good fortune 

Joy and happiness are often used interchangeably, as they tend to mean something similar. Using either word may get your point across. And, how often you experience happiness or joy may be related to how satisfied you are with your life.

The frequency of happiness as an emotion can look different for everyone, and what makes one person feel joy may upset someone else. In some cases, mental health conditions, like depression, may lessen your happiness, which is not your fault. The science of happiness and becoming a happier person can be complicated. The first step is to define happiness in your own terms.

Happiness in the small moments

You may hear individuals referring to happiness as a state of being. Although it is an emotion, it may be used interchangeably with similar terms like contentment, success, or life satisfaction. For some, contentment is found in the small moments, as one's life is filled with opportunities to achieve greater happiness.

Research suggests that gratitude is related to happiness. When you consistently recognize what you are grateful for, you might see the joy in minor events or positive outcomes in your life. These joys could include a traffic-free commute or an unexpectedly clear and sunny day. You could overlook these aspects of your day, but when you acknowledge them and feel grateful, you may boost happiness and positive feelings.

Try to slow down and be present for minor positive emotions. Although you may not always feel happy, increasing bursts of happiness and optimism could be beneficial for your own happiness and personal feelings.

Holding space for joy and sadness 

It can be difficult to find happiness when struggling in life. However, trusting the process may help you maintain a sense of joy through life's challenges. While happiness cannot exist at every moment, it may be possible to simultaneously feel hopeful, optimistic, grateful, and sad. While happiness may come and go, positivity can remain steady through the obstacles you face. 

Being optimistic may mean opening your heart to the good and the bad. Those who have struggled may appreciate the happy moments when they can. This appreciation may explain why people tend to appreciate their happiest days as they grow older. Older adults often have a lifetime of negative experiences that make it easier to appreciate the positive things in their lives.

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Finding happiness from within

While there are many aspects of happiness in the outside world, the most profound and long-lasting feelings of happiness may come from within oneself. When you learn new skills to make yourself happy, you might become more confident that the happy feelings will remain. 

Factors in the outside world are not always under your control. Life is ever-changing, and if your goal is never to feel stressed, upset, or angry, you might feel disappointed when happiness is not always present. Feeling content, practicing self-love, and increasing self-compassion might support you.   

Realizing happiness inside of yourself could allow you to feel good about and at one with your emotions, giving you a solid foundation on which to stand. Factors that impact you on the outside may not jeopardize your inner peace and happiness. You might not feel thrown off balance by inconveniences or disappointments. If you feel content within, your contentment could make you happy more often. 

Money may not buy happiness 

The well-known phrase "money can't buy happiness" may be accurate, according to research. If your basic needs are met, an increase in disposable income has been shown to have little impact on your life's happiness. However, money may bring happiness to a certain point if your basic needs are not met without it. 

It can seem easy to think that money will make you forever happy. However, many factors go into happiness. You may feel joy and excitement for a period after receiving money, but studies show that happiness may only last past a certain point, around the $100,000 mark per year. If you don't foster other methods to achieve happiness, the level of joy you feel may return to baseline.

Additionally, when you become accustomed to the amount of money you have, you might feel bored. You could find yourself on the search for the next biggest thing to bring back excitement or happiness. 

When you think, "I'm not happy," even though you have money in the bank, you may realize contentment doesn't include your financial situation entirely. You might still want to dedicate your time to other positive factors, such as relationships, appreciation, defining success, and achieving your goals. 

Understanding your own personal meaning and purpose in life may help you find happiness.

Optimism and happiness

A positive mindset is linked to happiness in many areas, such as productivity, creativity, and engagement. If you are always looking at the downside of things, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you can only focus on the negative and neglect to see the positive.

If your mindset doesn't align with what you are searching for, it may be challenging to find it. Being optimistic can keep your mind open to new possibilities, so you do not miss the positive things when they appear  

Fulfilling your dreams

Chasing after your goals in life may bring more feelings of happiness. Having aspirations could give you something to look forward to and a reason to get out of bed each morning. Happiness often comes to us when we feel whole. Not chasing your dreams may cause you to feel a void and lack of purpose. Setting short and long-term goals for yourself could help you enjoy the process of getting there while also giving you milestones to celebrate along the way. 

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Are you struggling to find joy and happiness in life?

Counseling to increase happiness 

If you are struggling with a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, it may be a roadblock on your path to happiness. Reaching out to a therapist could benefit you if you feel stuck and lacking joy. 

Mental health challenges may make it seem incredibly difficult to leave your bed in the morning. Interacting with friends or family may feel like a challenge, and you may not know whom you can turn to for support. If you relate, counseling online might be a rewarding choice. One study found that internet-delivered CBT successfully treated and controlled conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, and more. Further, researchers found that online therapy worked across different language and cultural barriers globally. They also discovered that it tended to be more cost-effective overall. 

If you're interested in trying online counseling, consider signing up for a platform such as BetterHelp. Online therapy is often hundreds of dollars less per month, and you can participate through phone calls, video calls, or live chat messaging. Building moments of happiness in your life may start with dedicating yourself to support. 


Happiness is a universal goal for human beings, and it's something we all strive to attain. However, what truly brings about greater happiness is a matter of human nature. It's been shown that obtaining happiness is not just about experiencing more positive emotions but also about finding ways to cope with a negative emotion when it happens. Subjective happiness is different for everyone and can be achieved by focusing on other positive emotions such as gratitude, love, and kindness. Counseling can help individuals obtain happiness by teaching them how to increase their positive affect and overall subjective happiness.

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