What is happiness?
If you ask ten different people that question, you might get ten different answers. You might ask, if we can’t even agree on what happiness is, how can we make suggestions about increasing it? Is it even possible to measure something that is entirely subjective?
Let’s answer that last question first. It is, indeed, possible to measure something that is entirely subjective. Recall your last visit to the optometrist: “Which is more clear…A? (click)…or B?” The optometrist asked about your own visual experience, then compared it to a change you experienced. In the same way, our own subjective comparisons can be used to judge your levels of happiness. But in order to know your level of happiness, that question must be asked AND answered…even if you only of yourself.
The term ‘happiness’ can refer to moment-to-moment (daily) happiness, or it can refer to long-term happiness (how you describe yourself or your life). The distinction is important because it’s possible to have a ‘bad’, or ‘unhappy’, day, but still be able to describe your life or yourself as overall ‘happy’. And the reverse is also true! But since it’s many daily experiences that add up to how we view our life, both views of happiness are important. But what IS it?
Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” In other words, we need to experience pleasure to be happy, but we also need a sense of meaning in our lives.
In addition, Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, emphasizes the additional importance of ‘engagement’ to happiness, which means the connections we have to family and friends.
Putting that all together, ‘happiness’ is a sense of pleasure, joy and contentment during our daily experiences, combined with a sense that our life has meaning. And to be happy we must share our life and our experiences with a network of friends or family. Now let’s look at those pieces separately.
Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness, and it usually refers to the daily, moment-to-moment experiences. Recent research indicates that it is healthier psychologically to have an ‘even-keel’ daily experience, rather than to experience great heights of happy mood, which then must always dissipate. When you think about it, people rarely refer to that day’s mood when asked about how happy their life is! But daily experiences do add up to a lifetime, so they are an important part of the equation. That’s why the small, daily habits that ‘feel good’ are more important to overall well-being that ‘big events’ like a promotion that give us a single boost that soon fades. Once they become habits, these activities actually change our brain chemistry) and help keep us on that ‘even keel’.
The goal then, of increasing happiness, is to work on long-term happiness…the overall way you view or describe yourself and your life. As discussed earlier, our genetics play a big part in where we start, but we have significant control of where we go from there. Think of this like another physical attribute many of us end up needing to work on: our weight. We all have genetic set points for weight, but very few of us win the genetic weight lottery with a set point that is perfect. Some of us tend toward heavy and some of us tend towards skinny, but nearly all of us need to learn habits (diet and exercise) that push us in the direction we need to go from there. Habits of good diet and exercise can take us to a healthy weight, but if we return to old habits, our weight will return to its genetic set point. Our levels of happiness respond in a similar way. We each need to develop, and maintain, habits that push us towards a more psychologically happy endpoint, and some of us have more work to do in that regard.
The sense of connection and meaning in our lives is also an important part of how we experience happiness in our lives, and that will be the subject of the next post.