Dialog Box

20 March 2019

What is happiness?

What is happiness? Everyone has an opinion.

Snoopy tells us that it is a warm blanket.

Dumbledore says that it can be found in the darkest place (if one only remembers to turn on the light).

In a 2015 marketing campaign, Coca Cola tried to convince us that happiness was inside bottles of sweet, black fizzy drink.

The Dalai Lama has said that “the very purpose of life is to seek happiness.”

And Aristotle tells us that “Happiness depends on ourselves”

What does it mean to you?


We might think of happiness as associated with pleasure or great experiences- a wonderful meal, a holiday or even getting the perfect parking space right outside the supermarket. These feelings of happiness, like any other emotion, can be fleeting and the relentless pursuit of those feel-good moments can, ironically, lead us to less happiness rather than more.

In his 2007 book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers another definition; “happiness is a rich, full, meaningful life”, one in which we “take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts and move in the direction of what we consider valuable and worthy”. He suggests that while living to the full, we will experience the full range of human emotions. If we measure happiness in terms of warm-fuzzies, then we’re in for some disappointment.

An 80 year-long Harvard study supports the idea of happiness being more than just great times. Rather, long lasting happiness is about prioritising our relationships.

Beginning in 1938 as part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the Grant and Glueck study is one of the longest running longitudinal studies and is aimed at understanding the keys to a happy and healthy life. The Grant study focused on 268 Harvard graduates while the Glueck study, the control group, focused on 456 Boston inner-city residents. Over the years, the many generations of researchers have collected enormous amounts of data from blood samples and brain scans, to surveys and personal interviews. The life trajectories of the participants have been tracked and the emerging lessons are as important to us as they are to the research team.

According to Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health”. Successful relationships have a stronger influence on our happiness, our life satisfaction, than money, possessions and acclaim. Strong relationships buffer us through life’s ups and downs, help to promote mental and physical wellbeing and are a more accurate predictor of a long, happy life than background, intelligence or even our DNA!

“When we gathered together everything we knew about (the participants) at age 50, it wasn’t their cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old”, says Waldinger. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships.”

So what does that mean for us? How do we prioritise and strengthen our relationships and increase our chances of long-term health and happiness?


John Gottman, the world renowned expert on marriage and relationships, tells us that relationships are strengthened not by the grand gesture but in many day-to-day actions, “Small things often” is his motto. Every time we act in the best interests of our relationship, we add to our emotional bank account- the store of positive perspective and good-will that allows us to weather the inevitable storms of life.

Adding to our emotional bank account is as easy as a text or a phone-call to our loved-one to let them know they’re in our thoughts and as difficult as asking for forgiveness when we’re in the wrong. It’s being curious about our loved-one’s likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and goals and keeping these things front of mind. It’s recalling with fondness all the things we value about our loved-one and finding ways of sharing to express your appreciation.

When we honour our partner or friend by listening and learning from their opinion or when we put down our phone to lavish some genuine attention on our child we are prioritising our relationship and our emotional bank balance grows.

Even in times of conflict when tempers flare and we feel our relationships are strained there are still opportunities to deposit into our account. Research from Gottman’s Seattle Love Lab shows that in 96% of cases “discussions end on the same note they begin”. What this means is, if we start an argument harshly with blame and criticism then this is where it will most likely end. If we can start softly then, in majority of cases, the argument will be resolved with both parties feeling respected and heard… and with a few more coins in the emotional bank account.

Really successful relationships have a life and culture of their own. This culture is characterised by shared values, special rituals, plans for the future, symbols and stories. These characteristics are all present in a “rich, full, meaningful life” which, as Russ Harris told us earlier and the Grant and Glueck study has shown, is the key to lasting health and happiness.

Now all we need is that warm blanket.


Rhyannon is the Acting Manager of Marriage and Relationship Education at CatholicCare. 



  • Gottman, J and Silver, N. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. 1999
  • Harris, R. The Happiness Trap. 2007
  • Study of Adult Development

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