Osteopathic Journals and Research by Darren Chandler


Happiness & positivity

Posted on



Given the choice most people would say winning the lottery would improve their happiness but a year later these people adapt and return to previous levels of happiness (Delamothe et al 2005).

Whilst money can buy you happiness, it can’t buy much, and above a modest threshold, more money does not mean more happiness. This is exemplified by the fact that individuals usually get richer during their lifetime but not necessarily happier (Delamothe et al 2005).

Social capital is the ties that bind families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, communities and religious groups together. These social factors, as well as a state of authenticity (Lenton et al 2013), correlate strongly with subjective wellbeing (Delamothe 2005 & Lawrence et al 2015). In fact, the breadth and depth of an individuals' social connections are the best predictors of their happiness (Delamothe et al 2005).

O’Take et al (2006) found an individual's social capital is influenced by the value they place on gratefulness, kindness and life's simple pleasures.

Happy people place a high value on gratefulness and kindness. This is because happy people experience more happiness and therefore have more happy memories making them more grateful. To re-experience these memories and gratitude happy people not only desire to be kind and are more likely to be so, but are also more attuned to the recognition of kindnesses.

This leads to a reciprocal relationship between gratitude, kindness, subjective happiness, and good social relationships. Therefore, compared with unhappy people, happy people have close and satisfying relationships and feel more gratitude in their lives (O'Take et al 2006).

Consciously drawing people's attention to kind behaviour in daily life by 'counting kindnesses' makes their motivations, thoughts, and actions more positive. This can increase their wish to be kind to others, more strongly identify themselves as kind people and encourage kind behaviours toward others which will all increase happiness and promote enduring happier memories (O’Take et al 2006).

But is there a danger of 'chasing happiness' or pathologically pursuing 'whatever makes you happy'? Should the emphasis be on a self defining action or mindset with happiness or sadness being a less relevant by-product? Having too higher expectation of happiness in one's past, present or imagined future, or placing too much importance on the self-narrative associated with happiness or sadness makes people more brittle as they negatively evaluate their progress (Mauss et al 2011) resulting in self-blame (Cataline et al 2014) and less tolerant views (An et al 2017). This would imply it's the relationship with being happy that defines its positive or negative impact on life as opposed to merely experiencing happiness; this relationship with being happy also defines both the positive and negative impacts of experiencing sadness.

Happy people typically enjoy better health due to how it permeates through the different facets of their life (Laurence et a 2015). Therefore as well as adding years to your life happiness adds life to your years (Delamothe et al 2005). The health benefits attributed to happiness include:

  • Reduced stress and improved immune function (Strean 2009 & Bennett et al 2003)
  • More successful adaptation (Laurence et a 2015).
  • Better problem-solving skills and coping strategies (Laurence et a 2015).
  • More creative, imaginative, and integrative thinking (Laurence et a 2015).
  • Greater resilience (Laurence et a 2015).
  • Greater ability to deal with adversity (Laurence et a 2015).
  • Improved management of chronic pain through the use of humour (Pérez –Aranda et al 2019).

These attributes are thought to improve health through socioeconomic and social resources as happy people have more friends (i.e. increased social capital) and increased earnings. However the effect of happiness on self-rated health is largely independent of marital status, education, income, and socioeconomic resources (Lawrence et al 2015).

What is happiness? There are three different forms of happiness:

  • Hedonic happiness. Hedonic happiness is achieved through experiencing pleasure and enjoyment. It is more of a reflex pleasure that doesn’t require much cognitive appraisal (Medvedev & Landhuis 2018).
  • Eudemonic happiness. This is also called psychological well-being or positive functioning. It comprises six dimensions: purpose in life; personal growth; environmental mastery; autonomy; positive self-regard; and social connections. Note the eudemonic model does not include emotions and life satisfaction (Medvedev & Landhuis 2018).
  • Psychological flourishing. Psychological flourishing includes social relationships; purposeful life; engagement in activities; self-esteem; and optimism (Medvedev & Landhuis 2018).

A purposeful life elicits positive emotions which positively shapes an individual's perception of their life satisfaction; this contributes to improved emotional well-being and happiness. Lenton et al (2013) argued this must be accompanied by a sense of authenticity without conforming to the expectations of others. This makes the individual feel they are fully self-aware in upholding their values.

These positive emotions can involve mixed happy and sad emotions that are registered at a level centred around the individual flourishing. Therefore a transient sad emotion e.g. stress and fatigue may lead on to personal growth in a field that leads to a happy emotion e.g. satisfaction, fulfillment and self esteem.

This is how positive emotions broadens an individual's confidence to build on their abilities to adapt to life's challenges (O’Take et al 2006) which defines their appraisal of themselves, their circumstances and function in society. This self appraisal should be positively balanced between one’s relationships with others and comparing oneself with others (Delamothe et al 2005).

Obviously this process has to be performed in a genuine way. If at a moment in time an individual follows the path of least resistance for convenience but later on would rather reflect on it to draw a more premeditated desirable conclusion there will be a mismatch between an individual's perception of themselves, their circumstances and function in society and what really is.

The pursuit of happiness

“Life’s too short to pursue happiness”

Whereas some view being happy as a nice thing to have every now and then, others see it as absolutely necessary to their existence (Mauss et al 2011). People with an obsession of pursuing happiness to excess tend to be more depressed, miserable, and unhappy (An et al 2017). Mauss et al (2011) also found the more people valued happiness, the lower were their hedonic balance, psychological well-being, life satisfaction and experience of happiness in situations that should give rise to it. 

Relating to one’s happiness in an obsessive manner may chase happiness away (Cataline et al 2014) as people negatively evaluate their progress from setting too higher expectations that inadvertently result in them setting themselves up for disappointment (Mauss et al 2011). This can result in self-blame (Cataline et al 2014) and a more extreme less tolerant view of experiencing sadness (An et al 2017). Whilst this is true generally with life or when under low stress people react more positively to valuing happiness when feeling sad (Mauss et al 2011).

People placing a high importance on pursuing happiness (An et al 2017) and who excessively value happiness as a gauge for determining how worthwhile life is (Cataline et al 2014) experience significantly more loneliness, selfishness and poorer well-being compared to those who are more neutral in pursuing happiness (An et al 2017).

This is especially true depending on the emotional context. In relatively negative situations people can attribute their unhappiness to the circumstances e.g people are unlikely to be disappointed if they fail to be happy after hearing of a personal loss. In contrast, in relatively positive situations, people have every reason to feel happy, and are likely to feel disappointed when they do not. For instance, people who value happiness may feel disappointed if they fail to feel happy at an event or in a situation where they deem themselves to be entitled. Therefore the more people value happiness, and have a higher expectation of it, the less likely they may be to obtain it (Mauss et al 2011).

This result of this unhappiness, be it reasonable or from failing to reach an unrealistic expectation of how happy one thought they were entitled to be, is that people are inclined to rely on a negative social comparison. This negative comparison is because their self-concepts are less stable, less clear and less certain; they also perceive, interpret and think about events and circumstances in a more negative way than happy people (O'Take et al 2006).

This is in contrast to positive emotions that predict higher quality relationships, improved physical health, and better work performance. However, much like excessively valuing and pursuing happiness, a pathological pursuit of positivity or trying to upregulate positivity during a pleasant experience make people feel worse (Cataline et al 2014).

Prioritizing positivity

"To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life. Many wants are suffered, which might once have been supplied; and much time is lost in regretting the time which had been lost before." Samuel Johnson

An individual’s self-perceived success, is an aspect of life satisfaction. It requires social relationships, a purposeful life, engagement in activities, self-esteem and optimism (Medvedez & Landhuis 2018).

These positive emotions include a component of positive affect which prompts individuals to flourish and engage with their environments and partake in activities, many of which are adaptive for the individual, society or both (Fredrickson 2001).

Positive situations involve mixed emotions of happiness and sadness. For instance, an individual may make a positive lifestyle choice to train for a marathon.

In such a situation meeting milestones in their training to gauge improvement may boost self esteem and self confidence and make them happy and experience pleasant feelings.

On the other hand, inconvenient training times, lack of motivation on certain days, injuries and other set backs may make them feel sad and experience unpleasant feelings.

How an individual evaluates their current state, how introspective they are of short term momentary happy (pleasant) and sad (unpleasant) feelings and how they relate to the need to experience or avoid these feelings is a defining feature of their well-being. It determines if the original positive situation the individual planned i.e. running the marathon, leads to a more positive mind-set and well being or negative mind-set and ill health.

Medvedev & Landhuis (2018) identified this as the difference between feeling happy as a momentary state of pleasure and being happy as an enduring condition that can come about from positive situations.

Therefore positive emotions are not solely comprised of happy hedonic emotions eliciting reflex pleasant feelings. For instance, the benefits to experiencing emotions that typically elicit transient unpleasant feelings e.g. anger, can, when reflected upon productively, result in better performance in a confrontational task (An et al 2017). 

In this example whether experiencing anger makes the individual feel momentarily happy or sad is not the defining feature or of primary importance, it is largely irrelevant; what is relevant, and should act as the primary self-narrative is the deliberate attempt to pre-plan and utilise whatever pleasant or unpleasemt emotions for a positive result. Mauss et al (2011) hypothesised that when people pursue non-emotion-regulatory goals, the limited emotional context means that the goals and how people feel about their progress toward their goals are not in conflict with one another and therefore the individual will experience more happiness.

Therefore, unpleasant feelings and emotions that may elicit some fleeting level of apprehension, anxiety or sadness, can lead to the successful completion of a positively self defining task. The completion of this positively self defining task through mixed momentary emotions leads to increase life satisfaction (Medvedev & Landhuis 2018). Increased life satisfaction contributes to the self appraisal of the individual's skills and abilities; this broadens their range of thought-action repertories to strengthen their enduring personal resources to continually adapt and progress through life (O'Take et al 2006).

Obviously not everything has to be about ‘prioritizng positivity’ enduring the ups and downs to experience life satisfaction and self-perceived success. In balance reflex momentary hedonic happiness such as pleasure and enjoyment should be savoured in people's life. Conversley not being in touch with some immediate sad emotions in certain scenarios can have unhealthy negative supressive effects.

However, when taken to the extreme, an unhealthy linear thinking that craves momentary positive emotions and avoidance of momentary negative emotions creates an entrenched mindset that expects stability with extreme perspectives that are less tolerant to contradictions (An et al 2017).

This acute introspective awareness of momentary emotions has a place in life-threatening situations. Here a linear thinking narrowed thought–action repertoire promotes quick and decisive action that carries an immediate benefit e.g. momentary emotion: extreme fear - action: run away (Fredrickson 2001). Any contradicting thoughts or actions in this scenario could be life threatening and therefore not tolerated. Day to day such an intense awareness of momentary emotions and a narrow-linear interpretation of these emotions is not needed. To be aware of ourselves engaging, adapting and flourishing in our environment we need a less introspective approach to our momentary emotions in order to elicit a broader more tolerant and lateral thinking though-action repertoire.

This tolerant, lateral thinking more broader thought-action repertoire builds personal resources that broaden habitual ways of thinking or acting. This ranges from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources; they allow the individual to play, explore, savor, integrate and envision future achievement (Fredrickson 2001) without getting bogged down with transient emotions.

When thinking about, and valuing momentary happy and sad emotions is less extreme, as when prioritizing positivity, there is a greater expectation and acceptance of change for better or worse. This leads to a more malleable thought process allowing for a greater tolerance of contradictions (An et al 2017).

Therefore prioritizing positivity is defined by how an individual seeks out positivity by making decisions in how to organize their day-to-day lives. It is associated with a host of beneficial well-being indicators such as (Cataline et al 2014):

  • Experiencing more frequent positive emotions and less depressive symptomology.
  • Access to greater resources such as self-compassion and ego-resilience.

The danger of jumping from positive situation to positive situation is that we loose sight of the fundamental purpose of enjoyment. Realising one set of aspirations, can immediately lead to more ambitious aspirations, to which we transfer our hopes for happiness. As Samuel Johnson observed human traits seem to dictate that “life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment”  (Delamothe et al 2005).

Positive emotions can be promoted through the use of humour. Using humour to cognitively reappraise a situation helps to distance oneself from the negative emotions and promotes resilience. This helps the individual view the negative situation as a challenge rather than a threat and refocus and reappraise the situation using positive emotions (Pérez –Aranda et al 2019) that may, as a side effect, induce temporary feelings of happiness or sadness.

Happiness through humour

Appropriate humour creates an environment that promotes learning and is a vital communication tool. Palliative care experts believe that the value of humour should not be trivialized, even in the end-of-life setting (Samant et al 2020). The value of humour is:

  • Attracts and sustains attention (Savage et al 2017) and improves energy levels (Fu et al 2020).
  • Produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment (Savage et al 2017) by dispersing tension (Fu et al 2020).
  • Reduces stress and anxiety by improving coping mechanisms (Samant et al 2020), shifting perspectives (Fu et al 2020) allowing for cognitive reappraisal (Pérez –Aranda et al 2019) and dealing with misfortune (Wilkins et al 2009).
  • Enhances participation and increases motivation (Savage et al 2017)
  • Facilitates interpersonal communication and attraction (Pérez –Aranda et al 2019) whilst improving trusting relationships (Samant et al 2020).
  • Builds bonds with others (Wilkins et al 2009). Laughing can signal to others our intentions of using humor to play out and practice certain kinds of social interactions (Libera 2020). The strength of a student-teacher relationships has a greater impact on student success than socioeconomic status (Savage et al 2017).
  • Improves quality of life for patients (Samant et al 2020) by strengthening an individual’s physical, psychological, and spiritual abilities (Fu et al 2020).
  • Makes sense of rule violations (Wilkins et al 2009).

Awareness of negative types of humour that are best avoided, include mocking, sarcasm, and criticism (Samant et al 2020).

Some patients report humour to be the quality that they most valued in their cancer care to decrease anxiety to help cope and deal with their disease with 86% declarimg it "some what important” or “very important” (Samant et al 2020).

One cancer patient described:

“The other reactions; anger, depression, suppression, denial, took a little piece of me with them. Each made me feel just a little less human. Yet laughter made me more open to ideas, more inviting to others, and even a little stronger inside. It proved to me that, even as my body was devastated and my spirit challenged, I was still a vital human” (Strean 2009).

Humour also has positive physiological effects, such as decreasing stress hormones like epinephrine and cortisol and increasing the activation of the mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system (Brandon et al 2017). This decrease in stress hormones may explain the connection between laughter and enhanced immune function (Strean 2009 & Lawrence et al 2015) including improving NK cell activity (Bennett et al 2003). This is proposed to increases morbidity in the population as a whole (Lawrence et al 2015) and in patients with cancer and HIV (Bennett et al 2003).

Pérez –Aranda et al (2019) also associated humor with reductions in growth hormones.

Happiness as a meeting of minds (Tenney et al 2009)

Individuals with similar personality patterns like each other more than individuals with dissimilar patterns. However, this was more prevalent for similarities of undesirable traits rather than desirable traits.

This can be in contrast to the fundamental principle of liking that states people like others to whom they attribute generically desirable personality traits (e.g. generosity, kindness) and dislike others to whom they attribute undesirable traits (e.g. arrogance, rudeness).

This attraction of people who exhibit the same personality traits was thought to be because people automatically like whatever reminds them of themselves. This familiarity is easier to perceive and interpret and is experienced as pleasurable.

The stronger association individuals have with others that share their negative, as opposed to positive personality traits are thought to be from:

  • Positive traits are often encountered and rarely hidden. They are clearly advertised so are easy for everyone to perceive and understand. Therefore, there is no personal intimate benefit to being familiar with someone’s positive traits because everyone would be familiar with them.
  • Negative traits are viewed in multiple degrees of negativity; positive traits are viewed as generically positive with less fluctuation therefore it is more difficult to ally yourself with a comparable score. This makes it more easy to accurately associate yourself with someone else’s negative personality traits as there’s a more accurate measure.
  • People with similar patterns of positive traits understand each other better and see their own positive traits in others in an especially positive light. This can breed a competitiveness as the individual is no longer unique and indispensable negating any added benefit to their encounter.

Humour and chronic pain (Pérez –Aranda et al 2019)

Humour is a behavioural endurance strategy described as one of the possible ways to react to pain. It can modify emotion related temperament i.e. cheerfulness, seriousness and bad mood and influence motivational states.

In chronic pain, i.e. persisting for more than three months, this can be associated with mental and emotional problems or disabilities in daily functioning, as well as difficulties participating in social activities.

In the fear avoidance model of chronic pain the meaning associated with the pain experience is a key aspect in the development of fear of pain and, therefore, avoidance behaviours. The process by which chronic pain leads to disability seems to be mediated by variables such as sensitivity to anxiety, depression, distress, fear of pain, catastrophism, and body vigilance.

Humorous stimuli or tasks may impact on health due to distraction and cognitive reappraisal. However, the humorous stimuli needs to match the individual’s preferences and that being able to choose the humour is an important part of the phenomenon. Therefore ‘imposing’ an ego or comedy style upon a patient may not work. Using humour to manage chronic pain can work through two forms:

  • Distraction has been shown to be an effective strategy for dealing with pain. This is because the perception of pain is suppressed by consciously focusing attention on the nonpainful, humorous, stimulus.
  • Cognitive reappraisal of stressful events promotes resilience and well being. Using humour enables individuals to view stressful situations as challenges rather than threats to gain a sense of mastery over the situation. It also helps distance oneself from the emotional impact of an event and refocus on its positive aspect. This would help individuals reappraise pain in retrospect as less negative and stressful.

Developing social support through the use of appropriate humour may initiate and sustain friendships more easily enabling the patient to achieve more satisfying social relationships which can help cope with chronic pain.

Happiness through situations and comedy

“Until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!” Robert Provine, Laugh Out Loud

Pérez –Aranda et al (2019) identified four general types of humour style:

  • Affiliative humour uses humour to affirm oneself and others.
  • Aggressive humour is impulsive and derisive toward others such as sarcasm, teasing, and ridicule.
  • Self-enhancing humour maintains an optimistic outlook on life when stressful events arise, so it could also be considered as the coping type of humour.
  • Self-defeating humour which consists of allowing oneself to be the butt of jokes to gain others’ approval.

Affiliative and self-enhancing humour are associated with positive outcomes such as cheerfulness, self-esteem, intimacy, relationship satisfaction and predominant positive moods. This may have analgesic effect.

Aggressive and self-defeating humour have been associated with neuroticism, stress, anger, depression and anxiety, low self-esteem and negative moods.

However even though self-defeating humour was associated with more pain with low level of daily stresses, both self-defeating humour and aggressive humour were found to play an adaptive role when daily stresses were high. Both self-enhancing and self defeating humour has been associated more with happiness than the other humour styles.

How these different humour styles are vocalised and played out involves four theories of their delivery:

  • Incongruity theory.
  • Superiority theory.
  • Arousal theory.
  • Combination theory.

Incongruity theory

Incongruity theory states humour results when our brains perceive two things as coexisting in a manner that does not at first appear to make logical sense. Laughter or humour occurs when the discomfort caused by this incongruity is resolved in some way. A simple example of this is a pun (Libera 2020). 

For this to occur people must be aware of appropriate or inappropriate behaviour in social situations (Savage et al 2017).

Libera (2020) found variations in incongruity theory to include:

  • When social roles are reversed: the powerful are taken down or the powerless become powerful, as occurred during medieval carnivals when a peasant became a carnival king for the day.
  • When there is a simultaneously violation of norms seen as being benign

Superiority theory

Superiority theory dates back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle and suggests that the primary motivator for humour is triumph or pleasure at the pain, flaws, or indignities of others. It requires ridicule, disparaging or belittling others. This involves laugh “at” something or someone because that person is seen as being genuinely less than ourselves (Libera 2020).

Arousal theory

Defines humour as a complex interaction between emotion and cognition.

Individuals will describe the humour as appropriate and possibly funny or inappropriate based on whether the targeted subject is associated with them personally or not.

Combination theory

Libera (2020) combined these three models as well as the tension-release theory. She broke this combined theory into three elements:

  • Recognition: describe something familiar. This shared observation supports or reflects the audience’s experiences of the world creating a bond through mutual understanding.
  • Pain: what would the world’s worst version of a particular occupations do or say? For example describing the worst first date.

This generates tension, cognitive dissonance (contradictory thoughts, beliefs and values), and embarrassment or shame. For example: The Office.

Releasing tension and recognizing awkwardness or discomfort without making any kind of formal joke can lead to laughter. Laughter is inherently social and shared laughter creates more points of connection.

  • Distance: this allows us to reflect on these experiences with some degree of objectivity, equanimity, or sense of safety, perhaps making them benign. Very painful or highly taboo subjects require a great deal of distance in order to feel funny.


Wilkins J, Eisenbraun A (2009). Humor theories and the physiological benefits of laughter

Fu X, Wu L, and Shan L (2020). Review of possible psychological impacts of COVID-19 on frontline medical staff and reduction strategies  

Pérez-Aranda A, Hofmann J, Feliu-Soler A, Ramírez-Maestre C, Andrés-Rodríguez L , Ruch W, Luciano J  (2019). Laughing away the pain: A narrative review of humour, sense of humour and pain

Bennett M, Zeller J, Rosenberg L, McCann J (2003). The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity

An S, Ji L, Marks M and Zhang Z (2017).Two Sides of Emotion: Exploring Positivity and Negativity in Six Basic Emotions across Cultures

Savage B, Lujan H, Thipparthi R, and DiCaHumor S (2017). Laughter, learning, and health! A brief review  

Anne Libera A (2020). The Science of Comedy (Sort of)

Samant R, Balchin K, Cisa-Paré E, Renaud J, Bunch L, McNeil A, Murray S, and Meng J (2020). The importance of humour in oncology: a survey of patients undergoing radiotherapy

Tenney E, Turkheimer E, and Oltmanns T (2009). Being Liked is More than Having a Good Personality: The Role of Matching

Catalino L, Algoe S, and Fredrickson B (2014). Prioritizing Positivity: An Effective Approach to Pursuing Happiness 

Strean W (2009). Laughter prescription


B. Mauss I, Tamir M, Anderson C, Savino N (2011). Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness

Delamothe T (2005). Happiness. Get happy—it's good for you

Medvedev O and Landhuis E (2018). Exploring constructs of well-being, happiness and quality of life

Lawrence E, Rogers RWadsworth T (2015). Happiness and longevity in the United States

Fredrickson B (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Lenton ABruder MSlabu LSedikides C (2013). How does "being real" feel? The experience of state authenticity

Add a comment:

Leave a comment:


Add a comment