Is happiness a destination, or a journey? Is it a fleeting moment in time, or a permanent state of being? Is it internal or external? Is it mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual? Is it about being, doing, or having?
The Elusive Definition of Happiness
Most of us would simply say that we know happiness when we feel it. How, then, would you define it?
The answer to that question has been debated by great thinkers for centuries, beginning with the ancient philosophers who deemed that the most fundamental human goal is to be happy. In the modern era happiness has been researched by scientists and written about by countless authors. Today, on Amazon alone there are currently over 90,000 books available on the subject.
In addition to all the books you can read, there are college courses on happiness and organizations you can join. And of course, there’s a Facebook page.
March 20 has been declared the official International Day of Happiness. Thanks to a resolution adopted by the United Nations in 2011, we also now have the annual World Happiness Report.
With all that attention to the subject, surely there is one precise answer, right? Maybe, or maybe not.
Meaning of Happiness
For thousands of years happiness was viewed as having two main aspects, hedonia and eudaimonia.
The former is about experiencing pleasure, or the presence of positive effects and the absence of negative effects. Eudaimonia is about a well-lived life in the sense of well-being or human flourishing.
Hedonism: You know the stereotype of a hedonist, someone who pursues personal pleasure at the exclusion of all else and with reckless disregard of the consequences to anyone, including her/himself. Philosophers discuss hedonism in terms of numerous theories, with few defenders and much criticism. One of the main objections is that instead of identifying the desires to encounter pleasure and avoid pain as two elements important to human well-being, hedonism claims that pleasure and pain are the only things of ultimate importance.
Eudaimonism: The literal translation of this word is “having a good guardian spirit”, yet ancient Greek philosophers often discussed it without any association to divine or supernatural significance. Eudaimonia is an ethical theory that claims happiness can only be achieved through virtue”. Aristotle wrote of it in terms of living well and doing well:
“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.”
Needless to say, this is an oversimplification. Throughout the ages, it seems that there have been almost as many theories about happiness as there have been great thinkers to philosophize about it.
Contemporary schools of thought seem to be equally as diverse. Just as individuals have varying definitions of the word, so do professionals from different fields of science and the humanities.
Behaviorists would attribute it to basic cause and effect, that feeling we get as a reward for doing something good.
Neurologists would explain it in terms of neurotransmitters of the brain, dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
From a religious or spiritual standpoint, happiness might be defined as feeling the presence of God, or as being aligned with His will and His purpose for our lives.
Yet another perspective is that of the scientists who are conducting research through studies and experiments.
The Science of Happiness
The relatively new field of positive psychology has adopted the phrase “subjective well-being” (SWB) as its term for happiness. It encompasses three major types of happiness: life satisfaction, frequent positive feelings, and infrequent negative feelings.
In this case, happiness is defined as thinking and feeling that your life is going well. We can be influenced by both internal factors such as our inborn temperament, and external factors such as the society in which we live.
Contrary to what you might assume, it is equally as possible to be poor and happy as it is to be wealthy and unhappy. Some individuals can be very ill and very happy, while others can be very healthy and very unhappy. Our level of happiness will depend on how we experience and judge our quality of life.
That is one of the difficulties in trying to measure happiness in terms of well-being. It requires value judgments, which can differ drastically between individuals, cultures, and countries. Consider the citizens of an impoverished third world country versus those of a prosperous developed nation. People in the prospering country are far more likely to have all their basic needs met, but are they happier? In fact, they may have the bar set so high that they are quite unhappy, while those living in abject poverty have such low expectations that they judge their own well-being as very good.
This is also the reason that most scientists who do happiness research try to avoid using that exact word. Instead, they design strategies that first define what they intend to measure, and then construct questions that refer to the topic unambiguously. (See more about these studies below.)
One well-known researcher in the field of positive psychology is Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky. In her book The How of Happiness she defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile”.
Dr. Lyubomirsky explains more in this short video:
Here’s what some famous people from past and present have said on the meaning of happiness:
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
“Happiness is something that you are and it comes from the way you think.” ~ Dr. Wayne Dyer
“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” ~ Denis Waitley
“Happiness is not being pained in body or troubled in mind.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.” ~ Zhuangzi
“Happiness consists of living each day as if it were the first day of your honeymoon and the last day of your vacation.” ~ Leo Tolstoy
“Happiness is a place between too much and too little.” ~ Finnish Proverb
What is Happiness To You?
When scientists study happiness, much of their data is gathered through self-reporting surveys in which people are asked to rate their own level of happiness. Three self-evaluations that are free for anyone to take online are:
- Happiness Test, Psychology Today – This quiz consists of 47 questions and should require about 20 minutes to answer. The questions are interesting, and you may learn a lot about yourself by just taking the test. At the end you will immediately receive a personalized interpretation of one of your test scores. If you want the full results, you’ll have the option to purchase them for $4.95.
- The Skills-Based Happiness Quiz, The Pursuit Of Happiness website – This test has only about 12 questions and is very quick to take. Results are free, but to obtain them you must provide your email address (i.e., sign up for their mailing list).
- Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, via The Guardian – This one is great because both the test questions and results are all on one page, and it’s free with no obligation. After answering the questions you click submit and instantly see your score, an interpretation of it, and in some cases suggestions for steps you might be interested in taking.
Chances are that some of the typical questions asked will resonate with you more than others, and some not at all. In any case, looking through them may help you come up with your very own personal meaning.
People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.” ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
In his book The Charge, Brendon Burchard tells of a near fatal accident that led him to rethink how he was living his life. Because of this experience, he concluded that when death does come, there are three questions we are all forced to answer:
- Did I live?
- Did I love?
- Did I matter?
Mr. Burchard explains that he then made a decision to consciously create a better life for himself so that at the end of each day, he will be happy with his answers to those 3 questions. Whether he intended it or not, he has in effect defined what happiness means to him. (* See more about this book below.)
What Happiness Means to Me
Lots of little things in life make me happy in the moment – sharing a good laugh with a friend, finally finishing a chore I’ve been putting off, enjoying a delicious meal (especially dessert, and especially if it’s chocolate!).
Like everyone else I also derive happiness from my relationships, surroundings and circumstances. I’m deeply grateful for all the precious people in my life, for having a nice home to live in and a dependable vehicle to drive, for all the situations and opportunities that make my life so comfortable and enjoyable. All those things are wonderful, but they’re also temporary.
For me, true happiness is in my faith as a Christian. A good definition of that comes from Christianity.com:
“Christian happiness is the grace of loving and being loved by Jesus, who gave his life for me.”
The beautiful thing about Christian happiness is that it doesn’t depend on circumstances. I’m talking about that true, inner joy that can’t be shaken by anything in this world. It’s the peace that passes all understanding.
“The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water.” ~ C. S. Lewis
Certainly, God wants us all to enjoy life and enjoy it to the fullest. That includes our temporary pleasures as long as we remember they are temporary and don’t look to them as any kind of permanent answer to anything. It may seem counterintuitive, but for Christians the way to find happiness is to stop making it top priority in your life. Instead, it’s when we put God’s will first that we find the kind of true happiness that we’re really searching for.
“Happy are the people who are in such a state; Happy are the people whose God is the Lord!” Psalm 144: 15, NKJV
So, Are You Happy?
Now, thinking back over all of the above, what comes to your mind? By now it’s obvious that happiness can have different meanings to different people, as well as different meanings to the same individual at different times.
Thankfully, we don’t all have to experience tragedy before we can determine what is truly meaningful to us. By simply reading this article you have already raised your awareness. Though much of the above may be oversimplified by professional standards, it will still (hopefully) give you food for serious thought.
Are you happy? Before you can answer that question, you have to know what it actually means, and only you can define what happiness is to you.
* The Charge, by Brendon Burchard – To clarify, this is not a self-help book about happiness. However, it is a very worthwhile read (as evidenced by its subtitle), and it’s available in numerous formats from Amazon: The Charge: Activating the 10 Human Drives That Make You Feel Alive
- Haybron, Dan, “Happiness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/happiness/