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Exploring the Meanings of Happiness and Wellbeing

As we’ve recently highlighted on our blog, the second United Nations (UN) International Day of Happiness is due to take place on Thursday 20th March 2014. Therefore, over the next few days we will be sharing posts on happiness, wellbeing, and different approaches to achieving high quality of life. In this post, NOW’s Larch Maxey explores the connections and distinctions between the terms “happiness” and “wellbeing”.

By Larch Maxey

In this post I would like to briefly explore the relationship between happiness and wellbeing as one way to stimulate our thoughts and actions around these two distinct, but related terms. I’ll begin by looking briefly at the history of the two words, before considering different current uses and potential future directions.


Happiness is an ancient idea which has probably existed in some form as long as humans have. There is clear written evidence of the ancient Greek term eudaimonia, for example, which is usually translated as ‘happiness’, whilst the USA’s Declaration of Independence highlighted the pursuit of happiness as one of the core human rights, together with life and liberty. This demonstrates an early example of happiness being considered so central to human life that legal and political systems were developed to protect it.

Wellbeing, in contrast, is a far more recent term. Whilst originating circa 1613, it only really began to gain more widespread usage around the 1990s. Unlike happiness, with its ancient pedigree, wellbeing is such a new term that it is still in the process of forming and gaining acceptance. Yet the term has become widely recognised as a meaninglful indicator of social value and success, as I explore below.

Current Uses

Insight into the relationship between these two terms - happiness and wellbeing - can be gained by considering their use in different spheres: for example, in popular everyday language and culture, in science and research, or by politicians and policy makers.

Popular Culture

With its tried and tested lineage, happiness is clearly a more widely used term in popular culture. As I write, in the lead up to the second International Happiness Day, musician Pharell Williams has a massive hit with a song and video called ‘Happy’ which forms the basis of his contribution to international events on the day. This shows the amazing potential of happiness to inspire people and bring them together in celebration. It is the shared inspiration around happiness that provides one major motivation for NOW getting involved in celebrations for International Day of Happiness.

Science and Research

The term ‘happy’ can often refer to a particular emotional state, and like all emotional states being ‘happy’ in this sense tends to be a transitory experience, prompted by an ever changing array of thoughts, feelings and sensations. If we each look at our own direct experience we can see that, try as we might, we can never consistently hold in place the state of being happy - or indeed any particular emotion - as our thoughts, feelings and emotions are always changing. Despite this, much human endeavour has been and remains focused on this goal; from the works of Jeremy Bentham to modern day ‘hedonist’ philosophers.

In popular use ‘happiness’ tends to have a similar short-term, limited meaning to ‘happy’. Yet in a range of scientific disciplines from psychology to philosophy, economics to politics, happiness is also given a broader meaning which considers an individual’s longer-term state or collection of experiences. Some economists use happiness and wellbeing interchangeably, for example. Some psychologists suggest the term subjective wellbeing equates with this broader view of happiness.

However, I would argue that perhaps more accurately happiness can be considered as one component (and certainly a vital one) of subjective wellbeing, which includes all ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions and a broader sense of life satisfaction. Importantly, subjective wellbeing can be interpreted as one approach to - and aspect of - wellbeing, which also includes objective wellbeing elements such as our physical health and other material conditions.


Wellbeing’s much broader meaning and its suitability to both objective and subjective measurement can make it a very effective basis for policies and laws: leading nations such as the UK and supra national bodies such as the EU and OECD currently seem to be looking into developing wellbeing policies and measurements to supplement or replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There are certainly some examples in which happiness is powerful at the policy level too though, such as Bhutan’s implementation of Gross National Happiness instead of GDP (a topic which we will be exploring in more depth on our blog later this week) and the Happy Planet Index developed by the New Economics Foundation (nef).

Future Directions

Overall, perhaps the most important difference between happiness and wellbeing for me is happiness’ focus on individual humans compared with wellbeing’s ability not only to encompass collections of humans, but also the wider non-human world. Research shows clearly that as individuals our wellbeing is inherently linked to the wellbeing of those around us and ultimately all of humanity and the natural world. That is why NOW defines wellbeing in a holistic way that includes promoting personal, social and planetary wellbeing.

Ultimately perhaps the two terms - happiness and wellbeing - can be used interchangeably using the holistic definition of wellbeing I outlined above. Indeed, the UN already does this in a sense, with International Day of Happiness explicitly focusing on the importance of both happiness and wellbeing.

Could a strategic approach be to use the terms ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’ to get popular attention, and then ‘wellbeing’ to follow this up with robust evidence and effective policies and interventions? There are pros and cons to such approaches and your ideas and comments on them are welcome. This is certainly a complex area, and I am not able to draw any ultimate conclusions in this brief overview, but hopefully I have provided you with some food for thought!

What this post highlights for me is that at the Network of Wellbeing we are taking on the challenge of getting wellbeing - with all the research and ideas behind it - directly out there into our communities and into people's consciousness, but we aspire to do this with the joyful celebratory approach that can come from a focus on happiness. So, with that in mind I'd like to wish everyone happiness and wellbeing for International Day of Happiness 2014!

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Thanks for taking the time to read this post. You can find out more about International Day of Happiness here, and stay updated with NOW’s activities by following us on Twitter and Facebook, and engaging with the #HappinessDay hash tag via social media too!  

Credits for images used in this post: Image 1: thephotographymuse, Image 2: John Fischer

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