Personal well-being, also named subjective well-being, is the psychological term for happiness. Well-being or happiness is surely a key ingredient for the quality of our life, and can be studied from various viewpoints. For instance, in the social sciences, happiness is measured by questionnaires. From an evolutionary perspective, we try to understand why evolution gave us the capacity to have pleasant and unpleasant experiences. And neuroscientists attempt to locate and describe the neural networks involved in happiness.
In daily life, we are most interested in the why and how of happiness; why we are not happy and how we can be happier.
From an evolutionary perspective, we are apparently designed to be in a good mood; happy people are more willing to take the trouble of looking for food or a mate. In the literature, this is referred to as default contentment or positive mood offset. This default contentment does not even require any pleasurable stimuli! In order to be happy, retaining this state of mind is probably more important than pursuing typical pleasures.
So, why then, are we not always happy? Although we are designed to be in a good mood, at the same time, we are also designed to be on the lookout for problems and dangers, whereas it is very important to avoid threatening situations. This is even more important than to exploit a potential benefit. For example, you will react faster and more intensely to the sight of a snake than the sight of a fruit. This means that negative feelings are easily triggered.
The high amount of people experiencing anxiety and depression may reflect that the current way of life is full of – what we experience as – potential threats.
From Knowledge to Experience
Knowing how the brain is set-up, is an important step towards improved personal well-being (i.e. happiness). With our brain’s manual in hands, we can start implementing evidence-based applications to improve our experience of life on a daily basis. These applications include meditation, new rituals, and more.
Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology. (Springer International Publishing, 2015). doi:10.1007/978-3-319-12697-5
Diener, E., Kanazawa, S., Suh, E. M. & Oishi, S. Why People Are in a Generally Good Mood. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 19, 235–256 (2015).
Sato, W. et al. The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness. Sci. Rep. 5, 16891 (2015).
Stanford University. & Center for the Study of Language and Information (U.S.). Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. (Stanford University, 1997).