Happiness with all the expressions that characterize it is an emotion, it is a good social encompassment, reducing tension, derived from a conservative tendency of the individual and is, therefore, a high inhibitor of aggression. It is an emotion that is very sensitive to external stimuli, (signal stimuli), as Konrad Lorenz called them, which are rather stable such as those related to a physiological state when we are in a certain moment. Happiness is a set of chemical and hormonal responses which characterize this emotional state. This is a positive and strong assessment of a situation in which the organism finds itself in the inanimate or animated environment. It is a spontaneous response and is expressed in the same way in all human cultures, taking place at any time and can be short-lived or protracted. It is not dependent on the context in which we are or by our social conditions. Rich and poor can be happy in the same way. It is no coincidence that emotions in primitive peoples were equal to ours.

Happiness has a universal function. Some scientists believe that a nerve center of happiness, or pleasure, can exist and can be controlled by the dorsal area of the hypothalamus. Some experiments have shown that stimulating this area in animals increases food and sexual desire. However, the first scientist who devoted a great deal of time studying human emotions comparing them with animal emotions was Charles Darwin. He did so from an evolutionary perspective, which is, emphasizing the natural adaptive aspect and predisposition of emotions and therefore also of happiness. Happiness can be "read" on the face of those who feel this emotion. Even children, who are born blind and therefore have never seen how a human face displays happiness, react in the same way as normal children.

Happiness should not be confused with other and individual experiences such as sensory, perceptual, motivational and sentimental ones. For example, there is no motivation that can trigger an emotion, although emotions, therefore also happiness, can have consequences on the motivation that drives an individual, man or animal, to behave in one way rather than another. In addition, happiness has a biological origin and has little to do with the culture of the individual. Happiness can be codified differently from one population to another (eastern or western), without affecting the biological nature of this emotion, but of any emotion, because alongside happiness there are other fundamental or primary emotions that we all experience every day such as fear, anger, sadness, surprise and disgust.

But how can we read happiness on another person’s face and understand its meaning? Some psychologists of evolutionary extraction have argued that happiness and all emotions can be scientifically decoded. They created a system, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), identifying about 40 units of action based on face modification. This is why happiness takes on typical connotations of this emotional state: the breadth of the smile (not the laughter), the depth of wrinkles due to some facial and specific muscle contractions, the dynamics of the eyes, eyelash, eyebrow movements, etc. We should clarify a fundamental point that is often mistakenly considered as a model on which psychologists, at least some, often work on, as in the so-called happiness therapy (positive psychology), as if happiness were a tool to standardize and homologate people's behavior in society, which would be very dangerous. There is no social technique of happiness, otherwise with everything we have at our disposal (goods, health, etc.) today we should be happy, but as a matter of fact, we are not, in fact, many of us are rather dissatisfied.

Commodification of Happiness

There is no formula for happiness and those who support it do so in bad faith or for personal interest. Happiness is not acquired. You can’t master or teach it. Happiness is not a normative model. It is not even part of the personality of each one of us. Those who want to argue otherwise do so in order to market it, but happiness is not a commodity. Happiness, true happiness, like all the other emotions mentioned above, makes man free to conform only to himself and not to others, although everyone, men and animals can live the same emotional states. If this were not the case, we would be in a bad way and if it were then possible to manipulate happiness, for who knows what purpose (or rather the purposes are easily identifiable), we would have no escape.

We would be forced to conform to cultural models imposed from above, by those who have an interest in managing our lives. This should not surprise us because, for example, the whole world of advertising and politics, especially economic and financial policy, operates subliminally in this direction or have we not noticed? It is a commodification of happiness that fuels very strong individualism in society and which is very dangerous, a massification of human thought and logic.

As Don Draper (the fictional character of the American television series Mad Men) says, happiness, the moment that gives us advertising, is the moment that precedes the need for more happiness, essentially an infernal vortex that never ends and that then ultimately makes us unhappy forever. Surprisingly, despite scientific, technological progress and the rise in human rights, happiness instead of increasing, as was to be expected, has remained rather stable and in advanced societies, such as western societies, it has even declined. Men demand the right to be happy (this is even written in the American Constitution), and demand respect for human dignity, but the positive results are few. There is a lot of disappointment. We can only aspire to happiness, avoiding pain, but it is not easy.

But it is not of this happiness (or unhappiness) that we want to talk about, but of happiness as a natural and spontaneous emotion, as a human and above all an animal biological entity.

Happiness in animals

If animals can feel emotions like we do, they too can experience our own emotions and therefore also that of happiness. In fact, happiness involves not only humans but also animals, especially the “superior” ones, because as animals move further away from the evolutionary branch so it becomes more difficult for man to read happiness in their faces. That is why it is easier for a man to read this emotional state on a chimpanzee's face than on a hamster!

Humans often experience happiness in animals, especially domestic ones, such as dogs and cats: i.e. the dog that wags its tail in front of the food we provide him, he is not happy because of the food itself, but for the fact that we are going to give it to him, when we proffer food with a certain rituality it is often always the same reaction. It is the preparatory act that triggers this emotion in the animal when we are going to open the refrigerator or stand up to go and open a box of tasty pieces of meat or a bag of cat food.

Does this work the same with wild animals? They are not that different from pets. As an example consider monkeys which are the animals closest to us. In monkeys, it is very evident the association of happiness during social play and also with that with objects. When these animals play, they are happy. Monkeys, for example, subjected to puzzles without any reward, have been shown to solve them just for pleasure and feel happy similar to children playing Indians (as we used to do a long time ago), or video games. In these situations, how does our organism operate?

Physiology of happiness

The efficiency of performance requires a physiological level of activation, which must be neither too high nor too low. In essence, we are happy when we reach intermediate levels, that is, when we are rather relaxed with the right arousal, this can be evaluated mainly through the level of muscle tension and electrical activity of the brain. Happiness corresponds to a very different physiological state, for example, from that of disgust or even worse fear. Happiness corresponds to an increase in skin temperature and an increase in heartbeat, but not as much as when we are in a state of anger or fear. For example, in the football game, it is not in fact a case that emotionally, immediately after scoring a goal, the player’s heartbeat increases, but not as much as when it is related to the sadness experienced for not having achieved a goal. Those who play sport know very well, or should, that good results are obtained with intermediate physiological states, the right arousal. The emotional signal of the happiness of the player who scored a goal is followed by a feeling of conscience, the awareness of having been determined for the final victory. Being lucid, at the moment, is better than being too excited. Of course it also takes a lot of talent, but this is another story!

Recommended readings

Lorenz, K.,1963. On aggression. London, Methuen.
Darwin, C., 1965. The expression of the emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago, Chicago University Press.
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W.V. 1978. Facial action coding system. Palo Alto, (CA), Consulting Psychologist Press.
Veenhoven, R. 1984. Conditions of Happiness. D. Reidel Publ. Co., Dordrecht (NL).
Boros, L.I., 2014. “The role of Human function in defining happiness”. Universal Journal of Psychology, 2(7): 218-223.
Feldman Barrett, L. 2018. How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. London, Pan Macmillan.
Cabanas, E. & Illouz, E. 2018. Happycracy. How the science of happiness controls our lives. Paris, Premier Parallèle.
Tartabini, A. 2020. La coscienza negli animali. Milan, Mimesis.