What is happiness?
For as long as there have been Homo sapiens people have been motivated by the desire to be happy, whatever that might mean. In many ways, it’s the foundation of civilization. Oddly enough though, somehow humans seem to have an uncanny knack of making themselves miserable. Still, most people have a deeply profound drive toward the pursuit of happiness in their own lives as well as that of others. Yet, many would struggle to define what “happiness” is, with connotations ranging from cheerfulness to contentment and beyond.
Ultimately, the true nature of happiness is about so much more than just being glad, rather than getting mad or being sad. In regards to this, the term is most commonly used in relation to two main factors. That is to say, happiness can be examined in both experiential and evaluative contexts. The former of these is one’s current experience of the feeling of a positive sensation or emotion, such as pleasure or joy, respectively. Whereas, the latter of these is an appraisal of satisfaction. More importantly, many usages can include both of these factors, simultaneously.
As a consequence of this, when scoring people’s happiness, differing uses of the term can give different results. As a specific example of what I mean by this, the correlation of income levels has been shown to be substantial with life satisfaction measures, but to be far weaker, at least above a certain threshold, with current experience measures. This is why people in South American countries tend to score higher on affect-based surveys of their current mood, while those in Nordic countries often score highest on their overall satisfaction in life.
In addition to this, there are different kinds of happy experiences, like that of hedonic versus eudaimonic delights, for instance. This notion traces back to the ancient Greeks who didn’t believe that the purpose of life was to be happy. The thing is that the belief that we have a right to happiness is actually a very modern idea. Whereas, classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle proposed that the purpose of life is to achieve “eudaimonia”, which is to say “fulfillment”. It’s all about striving for excellence and success. To add to this, Epicurus believed that happiness requires friendship, self-sufficiency, and self-analysis.
In essence, the original Western academics defined happiness as a state that can only be achieved by living a virtuous life and doing good things. However, the Stoics went on to contend that true happiness comes from not expecting very much, rather than striving for excellence. Seneca taught his followers to hope for the best, but to expect the worst. Still, the traditional European societies that were inherited from the ancient Greeks and Christians often linked happiness with morality, which was concerned with a certain kind of role in specific kinds of settings. Then, with the rise of individualism, through Protestantism and capitalism, the links between duty in society and happiness were broken.
In the modern world, happiness is no longer being defined in relation to one’s social life, but in terms of their individual personal psychology. Plus, even though everyone knows that money can’t buy happiness, people still think that it can. As a consequence of this, when most people try to articulate the purpose of their lives, they often turn to the word happiness, which connotatively implies financial freedom. Thus, those who become slavishly enraptured in consumerist culture believe that the ultimate rationale for the way to conduct their day to day lives is that of the pursuit of happiness through material gain. The founding fathers even included “the pursuit of happiness” in the US Constitution.
Furthermore, since the pursuit of happiness is something that determines the quality of every instant of your life, knowing how to avoid suffering is essential to a life well-lived. That’s why it’s so very important to understand what it means to be happy. For starters, happiness is more than just pleasure. The latter is contingent upon certain circumstances. That is to say, something has to be there to be enjoyed. In contrast to this, happiness is a state of mind. True happiness doesn’t get used up or change in any way, whereas the pleasure derived from an orgasm is fleeting. Even your favorite thing can bring disgust if you over-indulge, like eating way too much chocolate.
Happiness is the result of choosing to feel good about things, regardless of whatever they might be. This is the key to unlocking the definition and finding satisfaction. After all, happiness isn’t just a mere sensation. Happiness is a deep sense of serenity that comes from personal fulfillment. It’s an underlying perspective from which to approach the world. This is why you can’t accumulate happiness. It’s a positive framework to live your life from. Happiness is the result of faith and optimism, which leads to subjective wellbeing. As such, happiness is something very different from but quite similar to hopefulness.
Although instant gratification can be nice, hedonic experiences don’t necessarily bring about happiness. Some even lead to depression. In sharp contrast to this, the eudaimonic experiences associated with selfless generosity are far more akin to what happiness is. Therefore, the more you pursue happiness, the less likely it is to come to you. There is one exception to this rule though. The best way to get happiness is to give it. By making others happy, we become happy ourselves. This is one of the most remarkable aspects of the human condition.
Unfortunately, most people have negative tendencies. Fortunately, these can be overcome. In fact, this was the great revelation of the Buddha. Plus, the scientific evidence to back it up is mounting all the time. This time-honored process requires tremendous familiarization with a novel way of being and of perceiving things through their continuous transformation. Thus, the overall plasticity of the brain and general resilience of the mind allows a shift of perspective to happen in anyone at any time, with the right amount of effort. This means, with enough patience and practice, everyone has the ability to be happy, including you.