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Introducing happiness and wellbeing

Happiness and wellbeing
An image of an older man and woman smiling with their arms folded.

How can we define terms such as happiness, wellbeing and quality of life? These are often used interchangeably to talk about what it means to have good psychological or mental health.

Happiness is hard to define. It’s a state of mind, it’s an emotion you experience, and when you feel happy, you know it.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ as the song says, juxtaposes the negative emotion of worry and the positive feeling of being happy. This suggests that you need to remove worry from your life to be happy. However, feeling happy and being happy doesn’t just mean the absence of sadness, worry or poor health – although there’s no doubt that you’re more likely to feel happy when you’re not stressed or anxious and when you feel physically healthy.

There are certain activities and approaches that can help you feel happy or happier; one of these is exercise, which we will be talking about in Week 3. Exercise causes the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that can elevate mood and produce a feeling of happiness and wellbeing. Being generous, compassionate, optimistic and appreciating what you have in life may help people feel happier – but one size doesn’t fit all in the pursuit of happiness.

While there are pleasure spots in the brain, particularly the hypothalamus, that are activated when someone experiences pleasure, it’s hard to say if experiencing pleasure is the same as feeling happy or being happy. It’s likely that some individuals can experience happiness to a greater extent than others, and it may be that the brains of those are hardwired differently.


Wellbeing can be used to describe a broad range of factors, including objective factors like physical health or financial circumstances. Here, we are interested in subjective wellbeing – an individual’s own experience and perspective on their wellbeing.

Subjective wellbeing can be thought of as having three key parts to it:


How we feel day to day

Our experience of positive and negative emotions on a daily basis is a key part of wellbeing. Do we feel happy, sad, tired, anxious, worried or stressed out? Managing mental health problems (Step 2.7) such as depression or anxiety (Step 2.9) is important for emotional wellbeing, but so are positive emotional experiences such as enjoyment and pleasure in life.

What we think about our lives

What we think about and how we evaluate our lives are also important parts of wellbeing. How satisfied are we with the quality of our lives? Satisfaction may depend on our standards or expectations – how do things match up to what we wanted or expected from life? You live life going forward, but you make sense of it looking back. Life review often helps make sense of what went before, and can bring a feeling of contentment. In Week 4 we will be asking you to reflect, and do a life audit.

These expectations or ideas of what it means to have a good quality of life can vary from person to person, and can change as we age. We will talk more about this in Step 2.4 “What is quality of life?”

Having a worthwhile life

Increasingly, happiness, wellbeing and quality of life are seen as not just about feeling satisfied and happy, but also about having a purposeful life. This includes making a contribution to our family and community, and fulfilling our potential in terms of our own abilities and capacities. We will be looking at Being Engaged in Week 4, including volunteering, which can be a good way of contributing to society. Activities that are associated with reduced enjoyment or pleasure over the short-term, such as care-giving or working, may also be experienced as purposeful or worthwhile, and thus contribute to overall wellbeing.

Evidence also suggests that as we get older, our happiness and wellbeing may increase. Older people in general tend to report greater satisfaction with life, and a better quality of life (Netuveli, 2006; Blanchflower, 2008; Jivraj, 2014).

Thinking about happiness and wellbeing:

  • What do you think are the differences between happiness and wellbeing?
  • Are there areas which overlap between both?
  • Have you found your happiness and wellbeing increasing or decreasing as you get older?

Eithne Sexton is a Research Fellow based in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Brian Lawlor is Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.

© Trinity College Dublin
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