Over the years, there has been much debate over the true definition of what happiness is. In a recent Harvard Medical School article, Jessica Cerretani1 recaps some of the various parameters we have attempted to place around the concept.

George Vaillant, an HMS professor of psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who has studied the science of positive emotions says it this way, “Let’s say you’re speeding down the highway and your stomach is growling. You spot the Golden Arches, pull over, and order a Big Mac. That makes you ‘happy.’” But that satisfaction is fleeting—the resultant heartburn likely lasts longer than your gratification.

Joy, on the other hand, is more complex. It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you hear your child’s laughter, embrace your sweetheart, or cuddle a puppy. “Joy is all about our connection to others,” explains Vaillant. It’s a subconscious, almost visceral feeling that appears to stem from the brain’s limbic system, which is believed to control emotions, including pleasure. Unlike happiness, joy involves little cognitive awareness—you just feel good without thinking about it—but it’s more enduring.

So what we are really asking is what is the key to joy. Turns out, it’s simple human connection. As far back in history as we can trace, humans have sought out ways to live, work and thrive as a collective unit. Results of the long–running Grant Study of Adult Development, which Vaillant helps oversee, suggest that the emotional benefits of connectedness remain true today. Additionally, happiness may be contagious. According to Nicholas Christakis, an HMS professor of medical sociology and of medicine who has researched the contagion of emotions within the larger context of social networks. His findings have shown that happiness may be a collective phenomenon: Having a happy friend who lives within a mile of you, for example, appears to increase the probability that you will be happy as well.

“Just as some diseases are contagious,” Christakis says, “we’ve found that many emotions can pulse through social networks.” And unlike the flu, happiness is a gift you can actually enjoy.

“Happiness isn’t just one big event,” Etcoff says, “but the accrual of smaller, incremental steps, such as feeling gratitude and helping others.”

Christakis goes on to say, “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you.” One person’s happiness triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends’ friends, and beyond. The effect lasts for up to one year, according to the study.

So that is happiness and joy. But what about real meaning? Isn’t that what really matters in life?

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology and recapped in Stanford News2, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with colleagues, found answers about life in how people spend their time and what experiences they cultivate.

The researchers surveyed 397 people over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. They found five key differences between meaningfulness and happiness:

Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning.

Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning is about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.

Social life: Connections to other people are important both for meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.

Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness – and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.

Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.

One can find meaning in life and be unhappy at the same time. The unhappy but meaningful life involves difficult undertakings and can be characterized by stress, struggle and challenges. However, while sometimes unhappy in the moment, these people – connected to a larger sense of purpose and value – make positive contributions to society.

So does this mean we have to give up our careers or life savings for activism to have joyful, meaningful lives? No. But it does mean we should take advantage of small day-to-day moments that can make larger than anticipated contributions to the collective wellbeing.

In his groundbreaking book, Before you know it; The unconscious reasons we do what we do3, John Baugh uncovers the little recognized phenomenon of unconscious mind mimicry. Whether it is driven by social media celebrity posts, professional TV advertisements or your own peers and relatives, we are continuously adjusting our perceptions and preferences based on outside influences, even without consciously knowing it. Our daily emotions streaming from our unconscious mind can be triggered by background music playing in stores or the feel of a steaming cup of coffee in our hands. And more importantly, our moods and actions can affect others. Remember that ripple effect we discussed earlier? How we behave in traffic, the way we speak to the coffee shop barista, and our patience for the post office line are all likely to affect not only those directly around us, but rather become contagious and affect others you never even came in contact with.

So as we embark each day on our daily treks of work, kids, school, etc.; Lets pack our patience with our lunches, make smiles our currency, and allow kindness and civility to be contagious. Perhaps if we did, we could all experience life with little more meaning and a lot more happiness.


1 Cerretani, J. (2018) The Contagion of Happiness. Harvard Medicine; The science of emotion.
2 Parker, C. (2014) Stanford Research: The meaningful life is a road worth traveling. Stanford News.
3 Bargh, J. (2017) Before you know it; The unconscious reasons we do what we do. Simon and Schuster.

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