What is happiness anyway?

The quality or state of being happy: delighted, pleased, or glad as over a particular thing; characterized or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy; favored by fortune – fortunate or lucky


Defining “happiness” isn’t as simple as looking up the word in the dictionary. Even the dictionary uses the words: “pleasure,” “contentment,” “joy.” What are those? Asking “What is happiness?” is like asking, “What is truth, love, freedom or justice?” It’s an ideal. Intangible. Something we understand when we experience it, and also know when we are missing it. Everyone has their own understanding and definition of it.

In science, psychiatry defines happiness as distinct types. First, there is an hedonic type of happiness. Hedonic happiness basically refers to the emotions we feel while in a state of happiness. This is where all those other words come in. If we feel happiness, it might be pleasure, joy, contentment, relief, gratitude – a whole gamut of emotions.

Others in psychiatry view this type of happiness instead as “drive reduction.” For example, we want and even need a new pair of shoes, so we get the pair on sale we’ve wanted for a while, and we no longer need shoes, and we’re happy about it. We are hungry as we drive by Taco Bell, so we grab a couple of tacos, and we’re no longer hungry, and we are happy about that. But, those instant gratifying feelings are generally fleeting. The credit card bill and calories tend to be more lasting than our happy feelings.

Drive reduction is a way of satisfying the stimuli your brain sends to you. “I’m hungry.” “My feet hurt.” We buy the shoes and the Taco Bell, and our brain tells us, “This is good. Goodness is happiness.” This is the second classification of happiness: cognitive happiness. Optimism and positive attitudes can affect our cognition of happiness, but cognitive “happiness is a conscious state of mind, rooted in the neocortex, the region of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, and decision–making: You eat a hamburger and think, “I feel good.”” (George Valliant, https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/science-emotion/contagion-happiness)

Psychiatry defines the last category of happiness as a way of being, a life’s philosophy. We just are happy. Being happy this way does not mean there are not moments of sadness or anger, but people who describe themselves as happy exhibit more optimism and positivity in their daily lives. Joie de vivre. Joy of life. Using the word “joy” opens up another can of metaphorical worms. It has all the fuzziness of happiness and is probably even more difficult to quantify. Suffice it to say, happiness as a way of being, living joyfully, comes from our connection to others. It has nothing to do with how we think. Why would our brain be sending us signals to give our puppy a zerbert? That makes zero sense in a cognitive way. We give the dog a zerbert, because it makes us feel joy, happiness without thinking, and that happiness tends to stick around throughout our days, years, lifetimes. Our brain, of course, still controls the feelings we derive from giving the dog a zerbert. It sends signals to our limbic system, and we get flooded with feel good hormones, but that’s all on a subconscious, non-cognitive level. It’s like a compulsion. A compulsion to blow strawberries on that little pink belly, because you want to feel happy, and because you already feel happy.

We can gain a sense of joy, feel happiness, as a way of life through another type of happiness, eudaimonia: happiness that is obtained from seeking meaning and pursuing virtue. While some in scientific circles consider this another distinct type of happiness, I argue this is the happiness that leads to the happiness-as-lifestyle above. So, if we strive to find purpose and meaning, we look outside ourselves and strive to improve others’ lives, we form more connections, and then are rewarded with that joy and pleasure that results in our just being happy.

Clear as mud, eh? Happiness is a subjective concept. In fact, psychiatry also defines happiness as “subjective well-being:” a balance of emotions and life satisfaction. But, ugh, that’s so boring. Maybe we can describe happiness better by drawing a picture. What does happiness look like?

  • You are satisfied with your life, confident it has meaning and value and it will be satisfying and fulfilling in the future.
  • You are generally more positive than negative, more optimistic than pessimistic, and generally believe that life is good.
  • You are open to new ideas, new people, and new experiences.
  • You enjoy meeting people, helping people, and spreading joy and happiness.
  • You have meaningful and close relationships.

(Credit to a very recent article on verywellmind.com by Kendra Cherry)

Friends, it’s a whole lotta rough and tough out there right now. Achieving this eudaimonia type of happiness does not just happen. It takes practice and hard work. But it is vitally important to do it for yourself and the planet.

Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you? Let me know in the comments.

I’ll talk about why happiness is so important in my next post.

Published by MKChurchman

Certified Care Consultant and End of Life Doula Specialist. I offer assistance with end of life planning, elder care, end of life and after death care through my practice Shoji Bridge Departure Doula. My passion is to bring death into the light and inspire my community to be more comfortable with and compassionate to people who are dying. My mission is to be a guide to help people pass through the final barrier on this plane of existence and move gently onto the path to the next.

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