Happiness is the positive state of mind (emotion) of those who consider satisfied their desires. The etymology of the term happiness derives from: felicitas, derivative felix-icis, “happy”, whose root “fe-” means abundance, wealth, prosperity.

The notion of happiness understood as a condition (more or less stable) of total satisfaction, occupies a prominent place in the moral doctrines of classical antiquity, so much so that it is used to indicate them as ethical eudemonistic doctrines (from the greek eudaimonìa) usually translated as “happiness”. The subject of happiness has been deeply investigated not only by philosophers, but also by economists. This conception varies, of course, with the variation of the vision-conception of the world (Weltanschauung) and of life on it.

Its characteristics are variable according to the entity experiencing it (for example: serenity, contentment, excitement, optimism, distance from any need, etc.). When it is present it associates the perception of being eternal with the fear that it will end.

Mankind since its appearance seeks this state of well-being. Happiness is that set of emotions and sensations of the body and intellect that provide well-being and joy in a more or less long moment of our lives. If man is happy, satisfaction and fulfillment also take over. Man has primary, secondary and superstructured needs, usually the satisfaction of these needs and the achievement of the goal dictated by a need provides joy from which also derives happiness.

Happiness, studied under the profile of needs (primary, secondary, etc…), leads to evaluations and definitions not only psychological and philosophical different, but also material, and for this reason happiness has been and is a study of every humanistic science. It remains clear that the division is made to clarify the various components of the state of the person’s happiness, but since man is an indissoluble unity of psyche-body-spirit-mind and so on, it is clear that we are always talking about all the components that affect each other. If my foot hurts, it is much easier for me to be sad than cheerful and happy.

Biological profile

Happiness belongs to the sphere of the transcendent as far as its ultimate substance is concerned, the object of the individual’s search. However, it has in turn a fundamental cornerstone in the immanent condition of the self, the result of the satisfaction of primary needs due to biological instincts and impulses such as hunger, sleep, sexual gratification. They can be considered as an integral part of happiness, but not as its only constituent.

Biological needs create a condition of expectation and unhappiness that tends to be resolved when one’s primary need is satisfied: satisfaction obtains a condition of serenity and tranquility that produces biological happiness, identifiable with pleasure, which also influences other components such as psyche and spirit, however biological satisfaction is subject to an irrevocable temporariness, the result of the continuous reappearance of drives and instincts after the short period of fulfillment of the same.

Relegating happiness only to the biological level, means to depend only on biological needs and do not go beyond, this condition of a cyclical succession that returns on itself. At anatomical level, recent studies of electrophysiology and immunohistochemistry develop the concept introduced by Papez on the centrality of the limbic system in providing a reaction of chemical and electrical nature (equivalent according to Nernst’s law), causal of what is called perception of the psyche and mood swings.

Philosophical profile

Eudemonism is the moral doctrine that, placing the good in happiness, pursues it as a natural end of human life.

Epicurus, in his Letter to Meneceus, states that there is no age to know happiness: one is never old nor young to be concerned with the welfare of the soul (i.e. to “philosophize”, to love thought). For Epicurus, philosophy and knowledge of things make the state of happiness. In his natural life man removes from himself the pain both physical (aponia) and psychic (ataraxia) and the absence of these two causes leads to the achievement of happiness. Epicurus classifies pleasures by dividing them into three broad categories:

  1. “Natural and necessary” such as: friendship, freedom, shelter, food, love, clothing, care, etc.
  2. “Natural but not necessary” such as: abundance, luxury, huge houses beyond what is necessary, refined foods and in abundance beyond what is necessary.
  3. “Unnatural and unnecessary” such as success, power, glory, fame, etc.

Satisfying natural and necessary pleasures is very important for happiness, having access to natural but unnecessary pleasures can be positive if we do not make excessive sacrifices to obtain them, while unnatural and unnecessary pleasures are in the vast majority of cases a source of unhappiness rather than happiness. According to Epicurus, in fact, man should concentrate on living those aspects of life related to his nature and cultivate with commitment friendship, an absolutely positive element of our existence. Epicurean philosophy invites man to enjoy what he can get without excessive effort and to live life by establishing strong and lasting interpersonal relationships.

The concept is connected by the various philosophers to those of “virtue” and “pleasure”: for example J. S. Mill and B. Russell approach happiness and pleasure with a fundamentally identical analysis. Modern thought insists on the “social” character of pleasure and happiness: they never constitute an individualistic motive, but seek a satisfaction that can be shared as much as possible. Happiness therefore carries with it a reference to others. However, it remains uncertain, in this perspective, what real distinction remains between pleasure and happiness. Indeed, attempts are made to distinguish one from the other by hinting now at greater intensity, now at greater completeness. But neither of these characteristics seems to save the term happiness from being rendered meaningless.

Instead, a philosophical tradition has brought happiness and virtue closer together. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Christian thought, and Kant have brought the two terms closer together, at times identifying them (Stoics), at times making virtue the fundamental though not unique condition of happiness (Plato, Aristotle, medieval Christian thought), and at times defining virtue as that which makes one worthy of happiness (Kant). Even following this line of thought, however, the meaning of the term happiness, connected with the exercise of virtue or with the complete realization of virtue itself, ends up losing its individuality.

Happiness: how much it depends on life events

The human brain has evolved over time, reaching approximately in two million years to triple its mass. The interesting fact is not only the increase in size, but more the changes in structure and the generation of new connections.

Researchers show us that the frontal lobes (prefrontal cortex) are the “most recent” development of the human brain; one of their functions is to simulate experience. What distinguishes us from most other animals, then, is the ability to experience/imagine/figure out experiences without actually experiencing them. A very simple example: we can all imagine what an ice cream that tastes like “liver with onions” would taste like without actually experiencing it.

Beyond the evolutionary history of our brain, during the famous speech The surprising science of happiness, Daniel Gilbert puts the audience in front of two possible scenarios, asking which is preferable: winning the lottery, or becoming paraplegic. Well, what is surprising is the data from the experiments reported by Gilbert during the conference: one year after the accident or after winning the lottery, people experience the same level of happiness. In other words, events that we think of as satisfying in the immediate term may not have an effect on our happiness after six months.

Similarly, if we imagined, instead, one of the worst things that could happen to us, we would find that we would be unhappy only in the first few times, but despair would slowly fade (with great exceptions). This is because the “event simulator” with which we are endowed suffers from errors of assessment (the so-called bias), leading us to believe that two profoundly different events can have equally dichotomous results in terms of satisfaction.

Happiness: how our brain is able to help us

How is it possible, you may be wondering, to be satisfied (not to say happy), after a negative event? Well, Gilbert goes on to amaze us and suggest that our brain is able to synthesize happiness.

Humans, in fact, are equipped with what he calls “a psychological immune system”, a set of cognitive processes (mostly unconscious) that lead us to change our view of the world, so as to feel better within the context in which we end up finding ourselves.

The most interesting aspect, in my opinion, is the emphasis placed on a mechanism that we have “inside”: we are able to self-produce happiness, when in fact we are convinced that it depends mostly on external factors.

Gilbert isn’t talking about contentment, though. He’s not making a distinction between A-list happiness (I win the lottery) and B-list happiness (I didn’t win but I’m making peace with it, consoling myself with something else). The researcher argues that authentic happiness (what we might define as resulting from getting what we want, or believe we want) and “synthetic” happiness (resulting from not getting what we want) have the same quality.

In support of his thesis, Gilbert lays out a “classic” experiment, called the free choice paradigm. A group of subjects is asked to put in order of preference some objects (suppose, six Monet prints). After people have indicated on a scale of 1 to 6 their preferences, they are given a gift: a free copy of print number 3 or number 4. Subjects will tend to take home print number 3, as it is closer to the highest liking index on the scale.

Contacted at a later date, subjects are asked to re-scale their favorite paintings. The result is evidence, per Gilbert, of how our brains synthesize happiness: subjects will assign the painting they brought home a higher score than the previous time and the painting they didn’t to a lower score.

As if to say: the painting I managed to bring home is better than I thought! And up to this point, perhaps, we could still have the doubt of “he who contents himself enjoys”. Gilbert, however, takes it a step further, and replicates the same experiment with patients with anterograde amnesia, who cannot form new memories. They may remember their childhood, but if you introduce yourself to them and let them spend, say, 15 minutes, they will remember neither the face nor the experience.

The results of the experiment are the same as for the “healthy” control sample. It means that the subjects with amnesia, despite not being able to remember having received the print as a gift, in a second evaluation considered it better than they had previously done, just as the print they had not chosen was in the second analysis more unwelcome.


Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.

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