The Science of Joy

Marcel Hofeditz
Apr 23, 2015 · 5 min read

Two Things That Make Us Feel Good!

Happines science has come a long way to our doorsteps. Life hacks easily guide us through the happiness industry. However, in this iterating process, the science part has become smaller and smaller. We are close to get back to the start where life hacks sound like grandmother’s recommendations. Although these recommendations might not be wrong, they are build on experience and less and less build on research data and, particularly, theory.

Why is theory important? Theory is the central idea that gives data purpose. Let’s take bigdata driven companies as an example. If these companies have no theory. They could basically misinterprete cause and effect of their data since their data is just based on correlations. Without theory you may increase your social media advertising investments because you feel that this has increased your customer base. However, the increased customer base may be due to multiple other reasons, such as unrelated word-of-mouth or being featured in some media channels, you are not aware of at the moment.

It has been, therefore, my goal at this point to write some understandable science and back all that happiness research with particular one theory from the literature, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to some comfy classic research-backed writing first.

Now, if you are at work, writing your thesis, in a relationship or during a hobby, what can you do to experience joy? What are the feelings (i.e. emotions) that make us feel good? To explain this, let’s quickly explain what emotions actually are. Emotions are the foundation of what makes us human. During the past decades scholars have produced a multitude of studies that investigate emotions from a cognitive (Lazarus 1991; Schachter 1971), affective (Hirschman, 1983) and evolutionary perspective (Plutchik, 1991, 2003). From a cognitive and affective perspective, emotions arise as impulses about the individual’s perceived environment. An emotion occurs when relevant stimuli are perceived in the environment and are interpreted subjectively as impulses of this emotion. From an evolutionary perspective emotions are adaptive processes. Evolutionists state that emotions have a purpose in the lives of each individual. There are impulses that do not need to be interpreted subjectively in order to be experienced emotionally.

Retailers, for instance, are able to stimulate emotions via the social environment, the service interface, the retail atmosphere, the assortment, the price, and the retail brand. Particularly, hedonic consumption is a subjective and experiential activity, like web surfing, shopping or watching movies. These activities involve emotions like playfulness, excitement, increased involvement, spontaneity, arousal or even joy. Now, what is joy?

Joy has been widely studied by many happiness researchers (e.g. Frey & Stutzer, 2002). Joy refers to the emotion people experience when they break through the limits of homeostatic — when they do something that stretches them beyond what they were — in an athletic event, a good movie or a stimulating shopping trip. Happiness advocates argue that happiness might stimulate short-term affective states such as joy depending on the consumer’s personal values and life circumstances.

Joy is distinct from pleasure and arousal: Pleasure and arousal are emotions that come from satisfying homeostatic needs such as hunger, sex, and bodily comfort, whereas the concept of joy requires the consumer to break through their homeostatic limits. Addressing this gap, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) developed the so-called flow theory. The theory of flow gives a completely new angle to the emotional aspects of joy. The theory of flow describes all the positive feelings that generate a flow state in the human’s mind. In a consumption context this flow state may particularly emphasise the relevant affects to take action, namely making a decision and finally dare to say yes to something you wouldn’t have without joy. Now, what can we do to experience flow?

In short, there are two things you can do to feel a state of flow and, hence, joy.

1 Devote yourself completely to what you do, no matter what!

In flow, people have a feeling of themselves working perfectly (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Their focus shifts from themselves to the on-going task until their entire attention is absorbed by the task. Absolute devotion and intensive concentration on the action temporarily create a world without the typical problems and worries of everyday life. In this state of being, results do not matter. It is assumed intuitively that the right decisions are being made.

2 Reward yourself, because extrinsic rewards disrupt joy

Csikszentmihalyi (1993) argues that every human can experience flow independent of age, gender, cultural origin or social and socio-economical position. Money and alternative positive external attributes can provide comfort for flow but extrinsic stimuli are not essential. Instead, intrinsic rewards drive flow.

If you are at work, in a relationship or just doing your hobby, devoting yourself completely to it and reward yourself afterwards is the best thing you can do to feel joy. So, take a deep breath think about what are the things that really matter, devote yourself to them completely because you can’t devote yourself to everyting and, finally, be careful with your own evaluation of success. Ideally free yourself from extrinsic rewards because, first, you can’t control them and, second, do they actually matter?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: Harper Collins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Frey, B. S., & Stutzer, A. (2002). Happiness and Economics, Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Hirschman, E. C. (1983). Aesthetics, Ideologies and the Limits of the Marketing Concept. Journal of Marketing, 47(3), 45–55.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaption. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plutchik, R. (1991). The Emotions. New York: University Press of America.

Plutchik, R. (2003). Emotions and life: Perspectives from psychology, biology, and evolution. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schachter, S. (1971). Emotion, obesity, and crime. New York: Geniza.

Originally published at on November 9, 2014.


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Marcel Hofeditz

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My name is Marcel Hofeditz and I am doing my #phd at the University of Münster in management. I love #statistics #psychology #philosophy. Check out my blog: