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The pursuit of happiness

15 September 2023


Dr Raj Rattan, Dental Director at Dental Protection, looks at the science behind wellbeing.

Happiness has been described as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive wellbeing, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”. It is a complex, abstract social construct and because it is subjective in nature, it is difficult to measure, and desirable but often elusive. There is supporting evidence for the primacy of happiness and other goals are valued because it is believed that they add to human happiness.

References to the pursuit of happiness can be traced back nearly 2,500 years ago. Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Aristotle have all tackled some aspect of happiness and have many things in common. The Greek word that usually gets translated as ‘happiness’ is ‘eudaimonia’. It was Aristotle’s view that happiness was the ultimate purpose of human existence, and to lead a virtuous life and do what is worth doing. This is the exercise of virtue.

It is also important to distinguish between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure relies on external stimuli, which is why it is transitory, whereas happiness comes from within.

Professional mood

Our surveys suggest that our profession is not happy. Professional morale – how people are feeling as a collective whole – is low, work-related stress levels are high, and burnout is a growing concern.

The British Dental Association (BDA) reported that almost half of dentists surveyed experience burnout, and more than one in three reported symptoms of depression.

In contrast, people who report higher levels of happiness find their work satisfying, less stressful, and enjoyable. They are less likely to make mistakes, are characterised by a growth mindset, and are also likely to be more successful. The quest for happiness should therefore remain a high priority.


Science of happiness

The science of happiness is the study of the factors that contribute to wellbeing. It is a relatively new field of research that focuses on the biological/chemical processes that contribute to feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

The psychological, social, and biological factors that contribute to wellbeing include positive emotions and experiences, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, a sense of self-worth and autonomy, and control of one’s life.

The chemicals and neurotransmitters that affect mood and happiness include:

Serotonin - mood regulation and positive emotions.

Dopamine - motivation, pleasure, and reward.

Endorphins - pain relief and positive emotions – so called ‘feel-good’ chemicals.

Oxytocin - associated with social bonding and positive emotions.

Physical and environmental factors such as sunlight, exercise, and diet also affect neurotransmitter levels, which determine our mood and happiness. Additionally, researchers have identified some personality traits that are associated with greater happiness such as extroversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. It is a complex area of research, details of which are beyond the scope of this article.


Measuring subjective happiness

The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS) was one of the first developed by Lyubomirsky and Lepper (1999) to measure subjective happiness. It is short and reliable, and consists of four items indicating the degree of happiness scored on a 7-point Likert scale.

The SHS is a 4-item measure (Table 1) that asks respondents first to rate on 7-point Likert-type scales how generally happy they are (1 = not a very happy person, 7 = a very happy person) and how happy they are relative to their peers (1 = less happy, 7 = happier). The remaining two questions require participants to indicate the extent to which a description of a “very happy” and a “very unhappy” person, respectively, characterises them (1 = not at all, 7 = a great deal).

Table 1: The SHS scale  
In general, I consider myself …
Not a happy person              a very happy person
1      2    3       4      5      6       7
Compared with my peers, I consider myself …
Less happy                             more happy
1      2    3       4      5      6       7
Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything. To what extent does this characterisation describe you?
Not at all                            a great deal
1      2    3       4      5      6       7
Some people are generally not very happy. Although they are not depressed, they never seem as happy as they might be. To what extent does this characterisation describe you?
Not at all                               a great deal
1      2    3       4      5      6       7

To score the SHS, the values from the first three items are scored between 1-7, whilse the fourth item is reverse scored (ie, 7 is turned into 1, 6 into 2, 5 into 3, 3 into 5, 2 into 6, and 1 into 7). Then the scores for all four items are added together and averaged, to give the final score.

Most people score between 4.5 and 5.5.


A formula

In their model of happiness, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) proposed a framework in which three factors contribute to people’s sense of wellbeing and happiness. They suggest that genetics account for approximately 50% of the happiness equation, circumstances for approximately 10%, and intentional or volitional activity for the remaining 40% (see Figure 2). The strong association between happiness and personality may limit volitional activity, because personality traits are fixed and unlikely to change.