What is happiness?

Although happiness seems like a simple enough concept, it’s actually pretty difficult to define. (Think about it for a second – can you immediately come up with a complete definition?) There’s actually a whole field of psychology, known as positive psychology, that’s dedicated to defining and understanding happiness! Although there’s a lot of disagreement on the specifics, we’ll go with this: happiness is a state of being (not permanent, but not necessarily fleeting) characterized by contentment and general satisfaction with your current situation.

So, how do you get to “satisfaction with your current situation”? Well, you might say that winning the lottery would do that, or having some similarly life-altering event. But the truth is, life-altering events don’t actually often happiness in the long term.

A famous study compared a group of average people, a group of lottery winners, and a group of people who were recently in accidents that left them paralyzed. You can probably guess what their happiness was in the short term… but in the long term, all three groups had roughly the same levels of happiness, and the group of average people had the highest level of pleasure derived from everyday activities.

So no, you don’t need to win the lottery to achieve happiness. Anyone can do it.

How to be happy

I believe that there are three core pillars to happiness: purpose, control, and mundane pleasures. Being happy is about working to fulfill each one in your life. Let’s go through each of them.


Purpose is the feeling that you’re working towards something bigger than yourself. It’s the feeling that you’re making a difference in the world, and that the things you do day-to-day matter. Purpose is essential to happiness – if you don’t feel like you’re working towards something that matters, it’s hard to feel happy.


Control is, quite simply, feeling like you have control over your own life, and that you have the ability to make your own decisions and affect the course of your life. If you feel like you can’t control your own life, it’s hard to feel happy. This goes for everything from work, to relationships, to your health, and beyond.

Mundane pleasures

Mundane pleasures are the little things in life that make you happy. They can be anything from things you enjoy doing, to random happy occurrences, to spontaneous thrills. These mundane pleasures add variety and interest to our lives, and they’re essential to keeping us happy. They’re the opposite of winning the lottery – they’re the little things that make life worth living, and they build up to keep our baseline level of happiness high.

I use an app called baseline to track my happiness. In addition to overall reflection on purpose and control, they actually track how I’m experiencing mundane pleasure in my life through a metric called the “baseline”, which measures how I rate my mood when I’m just feeling “average”. By seeing how my average changes over time, I can see whether I need to bring more random happiness into my life – or if there’s a bigger problem.

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baseline is a 100% free, non-profit operated, journaling and mood tracking service that's designed to help people better understand their mental health by building a journaling habit.

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Can money buy happiness?

The short answer is no – but there is some nuance. Money can buy happiness, but only to a point. Once you have enough money to cover your basic needs, more money doesn’t actually make you happier, because as you get richer, your tastes and people you compare yourself to become more rich, and you’re stuck at the same baseline. Experts disagree on where this threshold is, but it’s not particularly high – estimates range from around $50,000 to $100,000 per year.

I hope this article has given you some food for thought about happiness. If you want to learn more, check out the rest of our blog!