Sustainability & CSR

International Day of Happiness: measuring emotional well-being

International Day of Happiness

On March 20 the International Day of Happiness is celebrated. It’s an opportunity to thoroughly analyse a concept that has always fascinated philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists, and which is rapidly establishing itself as a new frontier of well-being also for scientists, economists and politicians.

Never fully understood, happiness is considered one of the key elements of emotional well-being. Being happy not only leads to a state of full psychological satisfaction, but scientific research increasingly confirms a strong physical impact as well. The transition from the state of happiness to the state of sadness can in fact be observed on a chemical level, since those who are less happy have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Happiness is therefore implied, but not entirely counted. The definition by WHO itself is the starting point for ours exploration into the science of happiness.

Understanding the relationship between health, well-being and happiness is very complex. Investigating these aspects with a rigorous methodology is a challenge for IBSA Foundation for scientific research, which promotes science, sharing principles and knowledge with a language accessible to all and encouraging the public to delve deeper into topics related to health and well-being.

So, let’s explore the relationship between science and happiness in this interview with Silvia Misiti, endocrinologist and Director of IBSA Foundation, e Laura Marciano, member of the Advisory Board of the IBSA Foundation and Associate Researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, Boston (USA).

Why is there so much talk about happiness and well-being right now?

International Day of Happiness

How can we define happiness and what is the difference with well-being?

LM: This is a rather complex definition. We talk about well-being when a person is healthy, enjoys a good quality of life and a general positive state of happiness and joy, and when they have low levels of stress and negative emotions. Happiness must instead resort to philosophy to find a definition that carves out a perimeter suitable for carrying out studies and observations. Aristotle helps us better understand the differences, distinguishing between hedonic and eudemonic well-being. In the first case there are three domains affecting the state of well-being: positive emotions, the absence of negative emotions and satisfaction with life. On the contrary, the philosophical foundation of eudemonia opposes the idea of ​​the “good life” with the pleasant one and shows us well-being starting from the analysis of positive indicators of functioning, such as autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance of our positive and negative sides, awareness, the meaning of life, the sense of competence and social connection. This last point, in particular, is very important since the quality of social relationships and the sharing of experiences – including cultural ones – combine all the elements that make us feel good.

Let’s talk about evidence. What is needed for the scientific accreditation of happiness?

International Day of Happiness


For IBSA Foundation, addressing and sharing these issues means starting from scientific evidence. To state that there is a direct relationship between the quality of social relations, culture and health it is necessary to make use of rigorous, internationally shared methods and measurements.

Methods, measurements, scientific evidence... How, then, is happiness measured?

LM: So far, the main method is based on the self-reported questionnaire, which however highlights only part of the experience, and not the biological connection. What the research is trying to do is to go beyond the “static” response from the questionnaire and explore how the person experiences moods at different times of the day. Digital technologies and apps, designed to submit questionnaires in real time, allow for a live reading of the experience. Looking at these variations with a magnifying glass helps to better understand the “momentum” that generates happiness. Another method is that of biological analysis: cortisol levels measured in hair, for example, are an excellent indicator for analysing stress. Cortisol is in fact one of the most reliable markers, as it is correlated to the level of general well-being. Furthermore, the immune system, anti-inflammatory markers and, recently, also the intestinal microbiome are being investigated.

Well-being, happiness, longevity, culture, health. Is it all related?

SM: Among the primary objectives of the IBSA Foundation is to delve into the factors that impact a person’s well-being and health. Happiness, well-being, longevity are all interconnected, and offer different levels of benefit. In this scenario, also culture has a social role. During the Zurich Longevity Forum, last September, for example, a fact emerged that made us reflect: older people with an active mind, interested, eager to have cultural experiences and able to share them, live better and longer. There is still much to be studied, but if we want to know the mechanisms that generate well-being in a scientific way, we must learn to evaluate the impact of cultural stimuli and the quality of social relationships. The opportunity will be offered by the first Forum on Happiness – organised in Lugano in June by IBSA Foundation in collaboration with Harvard University and the City of Lugano: an international event where the leading experts in the field will be able to discuss and try to translate the results of this research into public policies that can improve collective health.