What are the Overall Characteristics of Happiness?

This article (originally a workshop at Langara College entitled “The Science of Happiness“) is by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at the Langara College Counselling Department.


This article provides an overview of the latest research with respect to the characteristics of happiness, drawing upon recent research findings as reported in various editions of the Scientific American Mind (in 2015-2018) and other academic sources. The context of this article is focused on post Secondary students, however the findings discussed can also be applied to non-post Secondary learners of all age groups. Before proceeding to read write-up for the Happiness workshop, readers are encouraged to consult the below video discussing the balance between happiness and life’s daily challenges (lecture by Eckhart Tolle at New York State University in May 2020):

Eckhart Tolle addressing students at New York University by lecturing the balance between happiness and life’s challenges (Source: YouTube – Eckhart Tolle: Life is Here to Challenge All of Us).

Introduction: the role of our Thoughts

As stated by the Buddha (563 or 480 BCE – 483 or 480 BCE): “The mind is Everything. What you think, you become”. In like manner the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC –8 BC) stated: “Rule your mind or it will rule You”.

Tony Peng on Ted Talks lecturing on the power of our thoughts (Source: Tedx Talks ).

While these citations are literally thousands of years past, the implications of these remain profound in terms of happiness, given the large numbers of thoughts we can generate per day. While the common figure cited is “70,000 thoughts per day”, this claim has yet to be rigorously tested scientifically. Whatever the actual numbers, few would contest the fact that human beings do think a considerable number of thoughts per day. The question then is: how many of those thoughts are beneficial and how many are not?

When we speak of “mind”, it is possibly more helpful to think of “minds”, given the multi-facted nature of the brain. The neo-cortex for example is what is considered as the “higher brain” as it helps us engage in activities such as critical thinking, logical analysis, creativity, etc. with the limbic system as the “emotional mind. However, even this is overly simplistic given the multiplicity of functions that both the neocortex and limbic system engage in. For more on the functions of the various brain regions, download the handouts (pdf) for the “Your Brain, Your Emotions, Your Health” workshop (click each link below to download):

  1.        Frontal Lobes: Functions
  2.        Frontal Lobes: Upgrade & Improve
  3.        Temporal Lobes: Functions
  4.        Temporal Lobes: Upgrade & Improve
  5.        Limbic System: Functions
  6.        Limbic System: Upgrade & Improve
  7.        Limbic System: Emotions & Memory
  8.        Basal Ganglia: Functions
  9.        Basal Ganglia: Upgrade & Improve
  10.        Emotional IQ & Resiliency
  11.        Vagal Tone & A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

In the overall sense, it may be stated that the more our “higher brain” is able to manage our emotions and impulses from our “emotional brain”, the possibilities of elevating our (internal) happiness (independent of the ups-downs of the external world) are also enhanced. The following topic discusses the importance of adaptively managing our impulses.

Marshmallows and “True Grit”: A Predictor of Happiness?

Walter Mischel (Stanford University, Psychology Department) conducted an interesting longitudinal (long-term) study on impulse control. Children would be bought into a room and offered a marshmallow, but: they were told that if they could wait (not eat that marshmallow) for 15 minutes, they would get another marshmallow as a reward. Mischel’s study found two types of children: those who waited longer for the extra marshmallow and those who didn’t (just gobbled up the marshmallow and did not care to wait another 15 minutes for another marshmallow). These children were then followed over their life spans into adulthood to assess how well they coped later in life (i.e. how happy they were as adults).

The children who waited for 15 minutes for the extra marshmallow were found to have happy life outcomes, high university entrance cores, and successful careers as adults. They were also generally healthier in later life. More specifically, these “Wait for Another Marshmallow” kids had the following eight characteristics in their adulthood: (1) they managed their impulses well (2) were more willing to delay Gratification (3) were more adventurous (4) had more self-confidence (5) possessed more social skills (6) were more apt to be persistent and patient when faced with challenges (7) coped well with Stress and (8) often sought and enjoyed challenging tasks. As noted by Mischel:

Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.

Happiness can thus be argued to be linked to one’s will, especially with respect to impulse control, which is essentially self-control. This is the classic case of thinking before reacting or “impulsing”.

In contrast to the “Wait for Another Marshmallow” kids, the “Give the Marshmallow NOW!!!” children were found to be considerably maladapted in eleven ways during their adult life.

The first is the lack of patience – the tendency to become easily frustrated and to “lose it” more often. Central to this is anger, an especially toxic emotion. As noted by David Suzuki, in his book The Sacred Balance (Greystone Books & David Suzuki Foundation, 1997 & 2007):

“… condensed molecules from breath exhaled from verbal expressions of anger, hatred, and jealousy, contain toxins. Accumulated over 1 hour, these toxins are enough to kill 80 guinea pigs!

This is especially notable given that human beings are estimated to take (approx.) 20,000 breaths per day

The lack of patience and concomitant anger lead to the second problem: social maladaptation. These children (also as adults) are noticeably unpopular and experience social problems.

Not surprisingly these persons are also more prone to have a sense of entitlement, be stubborn, experience low self-esteem and lack self-confidence. These characteristics help explain why they also have poor stress management (especially in response to challenges), engage in procrastination, avoid challenging tasks, are often hasty and impulsive and experience more serious health problems during their lifespan.

Happiness, the “Relax” Response and Vagal Tone

One of the key elements of happiness is one’s ability to evoke the relaxation response.  This is tied to one’s vagal tone connecting the central nervous system to the cardiovascular system. Put simply this is the sense of calming one’s heart-cardio system in response to stressful situations and events. More colloquially, this is the case of “Hitting the Brakes” in order to “Chill-ax”.

Persons who are frequently impatient, angry and impulsive will often “run down” their vagal tone. Prolonged stress results in the decrease of vagal tone, negatively affecting mental and physical health. This in turn makes them less resilient when faced with stress and anxiety.

As vagal tone decreases, the person can increasingly acquire the following characteristics:

  • Become increasingly hostile and aggressive in the face of frustration.
  • Experience constant stress and worry loops.
  • Become more unforgiving and harsh.
  • Engage in “Poor Me” thinking (ex: WHY did this happen to Me?).
  • Engage in maladaptive social communication and/or behaviors.
  • Be in a constant hyper-vigilant state and scanning the environment for perceived “threats“.

What is the Vagal Nerve? (Source: The Art of Living – What Is The Vagus Nerve? | Vagus Nerve Explained | Brain, Mind Body Connect).

Central to the relaxation state is the relationship between one’s emotional state(s), brain neurotransmitters and blood flow in the body. When a person experiences boredom, anger, fear and anxiety, s/he will experience a progressive rise in their cortisol (the “stress” neurotransmitter) and adrenalin/noradrenalin (the “fight/flight” neurotransmitter). Blood flow changes as a result as well. Persons in a state of fear and anxiety typically witness an increase of blood flow to the legs, with the anger state resulting in increased blood flow to the arms and legs. Boredom often witnesses no significant blood flow, either to the extremities (arms and legs) or to the body/head regions.

When a person is in a state of serenity and happiness, they experience increasing levels of serotonin (sense of serenity, peacefulness and hope) and acetylcholine (plays role in muscle stimulation, learning and memory).

When a person is in a state of interest, there is increasing blood flow to the head region and the hands. With happiness, blood flow spreads throughout the body (arms, legs, torso, head). Studies in 2013 report of participants in the happiness state feeling that their entire body was vibrating or “glowing” with energy. In contrast, sad participants often reported being in an “emptiness” state with little or no energy sensations. Interestingly, the state of enthusiasm is very similar to that of happiness with respect to neurotransmitters, blood flow and the “glowing” sense of energy! It may thus be argued that enthusiasm is another expression of happiness.

Happiness and Humor

One of the greatest outcomes of humor is laughter which provides six distinct benefits:

  1. Pumping out of anti-bodies, increasing the body’s ability to fight infections.
  2. Increase in immune cells.
  3. Relaxing of muscles (up to forty-five minutes after deep laughter).
  4. Decrease in blood pressure as blood flow is enhanced in the blood vessels.
  5. Slight decrease in calories.
  6. Increase in endorphins which are associated with the state of flow, balancing euphoria with relaxation.

The end-result of the above is enhanced resistance against disease and an increase in one’s natural life span.

Surprising Health Benefits of Laughter (Source: Mayo Clinic-Surprising Benefits of Laughter).

Laughter and humor play a major role in lessening the heavy (cardiovascular and neurotransmitter) load imposed by anger. Laughter can also diffuse and lessen the negative impact of anger in conflict situations. By looking at the funny side of things, you see your problems from a fresh perspective. This then releases you from bitterness and resentment, which provides more creative options for solutions and resolutions.

When ensnared in anger scenarios, one has to also accept one’s responsibility in having contributed to the maladaptive situation. This is a challenge as it requires that we accept the fact that we are far from perfect and that we can make mistakes.

Happiness and being in “The Now”

Often our thoughts are about the past or about the future. Thoughts of the past could involve disappointment with respect to past events (e.g. “what could have happened if …”). Thoughts of the future may involve several possible outcomes, notably worries over “what could go wrong”. This type of thinking expends much time and energy. It also creates much anxiety due to our lack of control: we cannot change the past nor are we able to control every aspect of the future in ways that we prefer. Being locked in the past-future polarity results in us becoming locked into an external locus of control (being controlled by outside factors one cannot control).

Anne-Marie Reimert’s observations on being in the Here and Now (Source: Tedx Talks The Hague – Being In The Here And Now. | Anne-Marie Reimert).

Shifting into the “The Now” allows us to move from an external locus of control into an internal locus of control. Put simply we are in control of our present by the choices we make. Learning to become more aware (or mindful) of what is happening now provides a number of significant benefits. The first outcome is the enhancement of our ability to counter fear and worry. Especially noticeable with the power of “The Now” is the weakening of rumination (constant focus over issues, problems, thoughts without without closure or resolution). The end result of decreased fear, worry and rumination is significantly improved mental and physical health. Being in the state of Nowness for example, helps reduce stress symptoms such as fibromyalgia and psoriasis, etc. The state of “The Now” also weakens the hold of negative thoughts over time.

As we improve our ability to direct and monitor our attention to “The Now”, our performance improves in school, work, sports and relationships. Mindfulness Meditation is a great tool to achieve “Nowness”.

Confidence in one’s Abilities to Cope with Challenges

Having confidence in one’s own abilities to manage and cope with challenges, great and small, is one of the key traits of happiness as well as resilience. This confidence is consistent, even when the situation seems overwhelming, especially with respect to multiple everyday life challenges (e.g. rent is late, exams are coming up, lack of internet access at home, financial issues, etc.). Other situations can be scenarios such as job loss, break-up of a relationship, suspension from school due to low grade point average, etc. Even in such situations, one can consider the options: what is possible to be done and what cannot be done to then plot possible courses of action. As noted by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

You can’t stop the waves, but you can Learn to Surf

Interview with Jon Kabat-Zin “Mindfulness as a Love Affair with Life” (Source: UMNCSH on Youtube).

Happiness and the Ability to Bounce Back: The Kai-Zen Principle

Here is the case of how we choose to cope after failures and setbacks. An old adage is of relevance for our discussion here:

Failure doesn’t come from Falling Down – Failure comes from not Getting up

The Japanese Kai-Zen principle is very adaptive in this scenario. Kai-Zen essentially translates to “How can I do this Better?” Thus, even as one has failed in a task or has suffered from a setback, one can put these situations in perspective and ask oneself how can I “get back up”.

As noted by Justin Fajardo “Success is not being afraid to fail” (Source: Tedx Talks Christmas Hill Park – Want to succeed? Be Kaizen. | Justin Fajardo).

In Kai-Zen one’s joy derives from the task itself, even when the task is “getting back up”. Outcomes (positive or negative) come second. These are tools that help us learn how to improve ourselves and master the tasks we engage in. When negative events occur, we can reframe these constructively and objectively. As a result, when challenges do occur, we can even choose to celebrate them. Setbacks and disappointments become opportunities for learning and improvement. As noted by the late George Leonard (author of the book “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment”): “Take the Hit as a Gift”.

Happiness and Metacognition (Self-Understanding)

Self-understanding involves you studying yourself to learn about yourself.

Metacognition (which is our insight into our thoughts) has been described by Stephen Fleming (University College of London, 2018) as a major foundation for our success in virtually any domain we strive for: relationships, work, school, sports, etc.

Metacognition is our “Big Picture” self-appraisal about ourselves with respect to how we Think, Feel, Learn and Work. Fleming has examined recent research outlining the links between our Metacognition and how this is linked to Success and Happiness. As noted by Fleming (2018, p.31):

Ultimately Metacognition serves as a foundation for learning and success. When it is impaired, however, performance in school or at work may suffer.

Like all aspects of Happiness, Metacognition is a work in progress. It is a skill we always keep track of and nourish. This involves our enthusiasm for keeping track of who we are, how we grow and change, and how we can better ourselves regardless of the circumstances and the ups-downs of everyday life (Kai-Zen).

“Unplugging” for Happiness

There is now ample research evidence to demonstrate the relationship between excessive use of electronic devices (e.g. iPhones, iPads, laptops, PCs, etc.) and their negative impacts on mental and physical health.

It is thus ironic that the founders of such devices and technologies have been cited by major media outlets as follows:

Bill gates Limits His Children’s Use of Technology” (The Guardian, Aatif Sulleyman, April 21, 2017)

The Reason Steve Jobs Didn’t Let his Children Use an iPad” (The Independent, Doug Bolton, February 24, 2016)

The damaging impacts of microwaves (same technology used for WiFi) on mental and physical health were established decades ago. A 1971 Report by the American NMRA (Naval Medical Research Institute) discovered that excessive exposure to microwaves can have a variety of detrimental impacts on mental health including anxiety, irritability, depression and neurasthenia (general “bad” feeling). Physical symptoms of excessive WiFi exposure can include restlessness, insomnia and disrupted sleep, as well as fatigue and headaches. The NMRI study also found that student success type activities can be negatively impacted by excess WiFi exposure, notably deteriorating focus, concentration, learning and memory.

More recent studies have discovered the adverse impact of excessive device use on mental health. It is notable that these studies have not been looking at the impact of WiFi technology per se: these have been looking at the amount of device use. A look at the results of just a sample of these studies are of profound consequence. Findings reported by the Comprehensive Psychiatry Journal (Volume 55, Issue 2, February 2014, pages 342-348) and IEEE Pervasive Computing (Volume 14, no. 3, July-Sept. 2015, pages 10-13) have found significant links between excessive cell-phone use and serious mental health issues.

Excessive device use has also been linked to declining IQ scores (up to 10 points!) – For more on this topic see:

“Impact of Social Media and Internet Communications on Intelligence, Learning and Emotional Fitness”

Reporting in 2018, Jabr has summarized the most recent psychology research findings with respect to electronic (WiFi propelled) devices:

  • A large number of people report of the “Tele-pressure” phenomenon: this is the pressure to remain “connected”, even when one is on holidays and has times off.
  • Un-plugging enhances Mental and Physical health.
  • Stress is decreased by lessening one’s interaction with (WiFi propelled) devices.
  • Meditation and Yoga help to further reduce stress.
  • Un-plugging also increases productivity by up to 47-62 minutes per week!

For more on this topic consult Kaveh Farrokh’s article/workshop entitled: Your Smartphone, Your Health and Your IQ

Physical Exercise and Happiness

As reported in the 2018 Scientific American Mind, Benjamin Greenwood et al. (University of Colorado, Boulder) have discovered significant support for physical exercise’s efficacy in fending off Anxiety, Fear and Depression type symptoms.

Moderate intensity exercises found to be effective are typically swimming and running, although other types of cardiovascular workouts provided by exercise machines of various types can also be effective.

Exercise has been found to have the following three positive impacts on Neurotransmitters:

  • Exercise boosts Dopamine (the sense of intrinsic “reward” when enjoying various tasks) and Serotonin (promotes peacefulness, serenity, hopefulness).
  • Exercise suppresses Cortisol (the stress hormone).
  • Exercise enhances BNDF (Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor) which promotes the Growth and Repair of Neurons.

Arthur F. Kramer et al. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) have discovered that moderate intensity aerobic workouts (3 days/wk for a year) results in a slight increase in the size of the Hippocampus. The latter is critical for building memories during learning. The Hippocampus is also a integral part of the limbic system (or the “emotional brain”) which can promote effective Stress Management.

Exercise promotes key skills essential for student success, by enhancing Attention, Decision Making, Planning and Memory. The enhancement of these skills also helps to further reduce stress. Exercise can also help retain Memory and Learning as people age and may even be a tool against Alzheimer’s Disease. For more on this topic see:

“Impact of Exercise on Student Success and Mental Health”

Sleep is also critical for Mental Health and Happiness. For more on this topic see:

“Your Sleep and Your Brain Health”

Diet is also critical for Mental Health and Happiness. For more on this topic:

“Your Diet and Your Brain Health”

The Art of Self-Compassion

As noted by Krakowsky (2018), self-compassion is a vital part of our happiness. This is the willingness to be kind, compassionate and forgiving to oneself, especially when one makes mistakes or fails at tasks. Instead, many of us have the tendency to be overly self-critical and even “punish” ourselves in these situations. Krakowsky provides the following suggestions:

  • Self-flagellation is not helpful in terms of helping us achieve our goals and actually serves to hinder our progress. The task is to learn from our mistakes without engaging in self-flagellation.
  • If Self-Compassion is challenging for you, then it is suggested that you speak with a counsellor to explore what factors in your background and experience are acting to block you (from your Self-Compassion).

Psychologist Kristen D. Neff’s Self-Compassion Inventory provides examples of maladaptive thinking that reflects the lack of Self-Compassion:

  • When I fail at something important to me, I become consumed by feelings of inadequacy.
  • When I’m feeling down, I tend to feel like most other people are probably happier than I am.
  • I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies.

Neff’s inventory also provides examples of adaptive thinking strategies that promote Self-Compassion:

  • I try to see my failings as a part of my human condition.
  • When I’m going through a very hard time, I try to keep my emotions in balance.
  • I try to be understanding and patient toward those aspects of my personality that I don’t like.

The above examples are based on the fact that as human beings we are not perfect and that we can show self-compassion for our mistakes and failings. Self-compassion allows us to learn from our mistakes and to move closer towards our goals.

Video of Kristin Neff speaking about the components of Self-Compassion (Source: Kristin Neff at TEDx Centennial Park Women).

Readers are also referred to Kristin Neff’s Website on Self-compassion:  Exercises for Self-Compassion

Your Happiness and Managing A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

Psychiatrist and brain specialist, Daniel Amen has noted of the importance of diminishing our A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts) in order to enhance our happiness and brain health. Amen further avers that A.N.TS. are toxic as they downgrade our Mental Health and Physical Health. Like all thoughts, A.N.TS. are composed of Biochemical compounds and characterized by Bio-electrical transmissions in the brain. Below are some examples of A.N.T.s cited by Amen:

  • A sense of entitlement (Me! Me! Me!)
  • Always & Never Thinking
  • Too much Focusing on the Negative
  • Being Ruled by your Feelings
  • Labeling others
  • Blaming (one of the most poisonous A.N.T.S.)

Amen then suggests that we take charge by becoming A.N.T. Eaters (!) to then have those A.N.T.s for breakfast! He suggests that we ask the following questions to minimize and even delete the toxic effects of the A.N.T.s:

  • What do I choose to focus on NOW?
  • Who is in charge? I am!
  • Are A.N.T.s the final authority?
  • Do I even need the A.N.T.s?
  • Why am I so nice & polite to the A.N.T.s?
  • What is the point of A.N.T.s?
  • Are A.N.T.s of any use or purpose for my wellness?
  • Do I need A.N.T.s’ permission to be happy?

Eckhart Tolle talking about how life’s inevitable challenges become a pathway to awakening, and how to stay present amidst the continual challenges we encounter throughout our lives (Source: YouTube – Understanding That Life Has Its Challenges).

See also the handout (pdf): Vagal Tone & A.N.T.s (Automatic Negative Thoughts)


Amen, D. G. (2015, revised). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness. Harmony.

Bassuk, S.S., Church, T.S., & Manson, J.E. (2018). Why Exercise Works Magic. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 78-83.

Fleming, S.M. (2018). The Power of Reflection. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 29-35.

Hertzog, C., Kramer, A.F., Wilson, R.S., and Lindenberger, U. (2015). Fit Body, Fit Mind? Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.32-39.

Jabr, F. (2018). Give me a Break. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 22-27.

Krakovsky, M. (2018). The Self-Compassion Solution. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 48-53.

Oaklander, M. (2018). How to Bounce Back. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life: TIME Special Edition, pages 22-31.

Southwick, S.M., & Charney, D.S. (2018). Ready for Anything. Scientific American Mind, Volume 27, Number 1, April, pages 4-13.

Stetka, B. (2017). In Search of the Optimal Brain Diet. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.69-75.

Stickgold, R. (2017). Sleep on it! Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.54-59.

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