What is happiness?

How would you define happiness? Is it an emotion? A state of mind? A decision? Is it a reaction to things that happen to us, like pain, or is it something we can create ourselves? It’s tough to define happiness, because it’s a very abstract, subjective concept. Whatever it is though, it’s a powerful motivator – almost everything we do is motivated by how much happiness we think we’ll get from it.

Even though happiness has such a big role in our lives, we don’t seem to spend much time thinking about what it is. Most people just take it for granted, but others haven’t been satisfied with that; philosophers have been pondering on happiness for thousands of years, and in the last couple of decades, scientists have been studying it too. All of this work has given new insight into what happiness is, why it’s there, and most importantly, how to get
it.

Everyone intuitively knows what happiness feels like, and people are also quite good at telling you what will make them happy. Try asking them. You’ll probably get responses involving money or the opposite sex, but if you’re lucky you might get a more thoughtful response. If you’re very lucky, you might get some good ideas for future Christmas presents. If you ask what happiness actually is, however, you get less detailed replies and the occasional blank face. People don’t ponder this, because it doesn’t seem like useful information for everyday life.

So what is it?

Well for starters, there’s a strong element of subjectivity to happiness. Different things elicit it for different people. Listening to 80s power ballads might make me happy, but not you. OK bad example, everybody loves power ballads. But you get my point. So when trying to form a definition of happiness, it’s best not to focus on the specifics of what causes it in different people – there’d be too much information to make sense of any of it. Instead, we have to look at what all these different things have in common. The most obvious commonality is pleasure. If you find bike rides, massages or films pleasurable, then you’d probably agree that these things make you happy. Also if you think of the last time you were really happy, you’d probably say it was pleasurable. But
despite what my ex-girlfriend might claim, pleasure isn’t always a short-lived thing. You could distinguish between short-term but intense pleasure, like elation or excitement, and more enduring but less intense feelings, like contentedness, relaxation, or the feeling that you are part of something meaningful, bigger than yourself.

And what’s the hidden commonality behind short-term and long-term pleasure? It’s that something, or things in general, are going better than might be expected – or better than some alternative. So it seems reasonable to include pleasant feelings somewhere in the definition of happiness. I mean, it’s hard to imagine the opposite, pain, being part of it. Or is it? Can you think of an example of when a person could be in pain but be happy? (That doesn’t involve PVC and whips, thank you very much…). What about if a climber fell off a cliff but survived? He might be in great pain while he recovered in hospital, but at the same time be happy to be alive.

Happiness is more than just a feeling

The man who survives falling off a cliff can’t feel happiness at the same time as the agonising pain, but on judgement, comparing his situation to a grim alternative, he might be happy with it. There are many other examples and counter-examples you might think of, but one thing seems clear; it’s possible to be happy without feeling happy. Look at it this way; if I say ‘I am happy to see you!’, I’m talking about a feeling (well, either that or I’m lying). If I say ‘I am happy with my life’, I’m not talking about a feeling, I’m making a judgement.

Why? Because I can completely experience the event ‘seeing you’, whereas I can’t experience ‘all my life’ at once. All I can do is compare all the positive feelings I tend to have with all the negative feelings I experience. Or maybe I’d compare my current situation with some expectation I hold. Either way, my happiness when seeing you is something, it exists in some physical way. My happiness with my life does not exist as such; it only reflects things that do exist (or did).

So there’s something else to happiness beyond mere feelings, something cognitive. It’s not really a valid question to say which one of these two things – positive feelings or positive judgements – ‘is’ happiness; they are different levels of the same thing. If you define happiness as a feeling, you would conclude that happiness is erratic; shifting up and down, minute-by-minute, in response to whatever is going on (or not going on). Your conclusion would be correct, but limited, because you would not know whether a person is happy with all the ups and downs.

For example, one couple in a volatile relationship might like the drama. Another couple might enjoy a relatively boring but stress-free life. But on balance, both couples might be equally happy with their relationship (although each will not understand how the other can be!).

Because feelings and judgements are two levels of the same thing you would expect there to be some overlap. And there is. This is why you get people saying ‘happiness is a decision’ or a ‘happiness is a state of mind’. By deliberately altering judgements, the part of feelings that overlaps with it will start to change too. You see this in people who take cognitive-behavioural therapy; they learn judge situations in a different way, and it’s about as effective as prozac at making people happier, given enough time. Likewise, it’s natural that if you do a lot of things that result in the feelings of happiness, then over time this will affect your judgements of how happy you are. That’s quite obvious; when you sit and reflect you’ll have more happy memories on which to base your judgement.

Scientists have focused their work mostly on the judgement definition. They prefer to study things that are stable over time: if feelings were used, the research would be all over the place. Also, judgements are a higher-level definition; judgements can tell you about feelings, but feelings can’t necessarily tell you about judgements.
Psychologists have termed judgements ‘Subjective Well Being’, or ‘life-satisfaction.’ They’ve also come up with other definitions and explanations for happiness, but this subjective well being is the one with the most research behind it. So I’ll focus on that one in this book, but I’ll continue to just call it happiness for consistency.
The real advantage defining happiness in this way is that it gets around the subjectivity problem. When you judge your life, you take into account the things that make you happy, and when I judge my life, I take the things that make me happy into account. If we are able to use our own judging criteria, we could compare our happiness, if there was some way to measure it. Well there is, and in the next section we’ll look at how it is been possible to quantify happiness.

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