Comparing happiness to other viable alternatives helps us understand the importance of happiness on an intuitive level. But knowing what happiness is, confirms its importance even more. Thus, what is happiness? How can we define it?
Here we run into a problem. A problem that may partially explain why most people ignore happiness. It is the problem of defining happiness.
Few people know what happiness is, and even fewer can define it.
Do you know what is happiness? Can you define it?
Very few people can answer such questions, so if you’re having a rough time with them, you’re not alone. To paraphrase The psychologist ( 69 ) noted long ago, “everyone knows what happiness is, but no one can define it.”
It’s ironical. People talk about how happy (or unhappy) they’re feeling all the time. Happiness (in terms of how well life is going) is one of the most common themes of social conversation. How happy we’re feeling is the implied part of every social greeting (“Good day,” “How are you?” “How you’ve been?” etc.). Our happiness plays an integral part of our daily lives. Its presence (or absence) effects every aspect of our lives. Happiness, to some degree or another, surrounds us everywhere we go — even in our dreams. It’s pervasive and omnipresent, so why don’t we know what it is?
It’s not so much that people don’t try to define happiness, it’s just that most of them are wrong. Everyone has an opinion, and when psychologists ask people to define happiness, they get everything under the sun — and none of the definitions are right.
Let’s look at the two types of answers that are the most common.
The first — and most popular, by far — is what we have named “the happiness is a warm puppy definition.” Ask the average individual to define happiness, and he or she will reply that “happiness is….”, and then go on to describe happiness in a thousand different ways. According to this definition, “happiness is….” just about everything you could imagine. Happiness is: “a good job,” “enough income,” “achieving my goal,” “getting married, at last,” “finding meaning in life,” “being loved,” “graduating form high school,” “becoming self-confident,” “”good health,” “a new car,” “winning a million dollars,” “a hot shower and a cold beer,” and so on. “Happiness is,” according to this popular definition, just about anything, anyone, anywhere might think of as making themselves happy.
Obviously, this “happiness is a warm puppy” definition is flawed. Although most people might accept it, happiness cannot be a thousand different things. The flaw lies in confusing causes verses effects: the many things people claim “happiness is…” are actually the things that cause happiness. They are not what happiness is. Even though such things as money, health, success, and love can make us happy, those “things” are not happiness itself.
Imagine for a moment that you’re the one person out there that was accidentally sold, through some fluke, my own, personal copy of this book — in which, as is my custom, I use a hundred-thousand dollar bill as a book-mark. Now don’t feel guilty (I’m sure you’ll return it to me promptly). But for the moment just savor it.
One hundred thousand dollars. In your hands!
Now, I ask you, “is that happiness?” Not really.
Oh, having the money might make deliriously happy for a while, and the things you might buy with it could make you happy even longer. But actually all you’re holding is a simple piece of paper with some printing and writing on it, nothing more. It’s not happiness. That dream-house you’ve always wanted is not happiness either. It’s just wood, stone, and plaster. Status isn’t happiness; it’s just your name on the door and plush carpet on the floor. These are just things.
Things may make us happy, but happiness isn’t things.
The “happiness is a warm puppy” idea of happiness is closer to the more ancient and archaic definition of happiness; that of “good or fortunate circumstance ” (Websters). Modern usage distinguishes between the feeling and the object, yet nevertheless, there is truth to the idea that good fortune brings happiness. Still, happiness is something quite different than good circumstance.
The second popular definition people give for happiness is much more psychologically sophisticated. And though this second definition is closer to the mark, it too is incorrect.
The second definition goes like this: “happiness is satisfaction,” “happiness is fulfillment,” “happiness is contentment,” etc.. In other words, people often use synonyms of the word “happiness” to define it. The definition, however, falls victim to a fallacy of circular logic. It doesn’t define “happiness,” it merely describes it using other words that mean essentially the same thing.
Basically, people who use this second, popular definition of happiness, are describing it in terms of how it’s experienced.
How, for example, would you describe your experience of happiness? How In our polling, dozens of terms are reported. Words like “contentment,” “peace of mind,” and “satisfaction,” head the list, but other words like “joy,” fulfillment,” “ecstasy,” “bliss,” “security,” “elation,” “well-being,” “tranquility, “feeling successful,” “a sense of harmony,” “euphoria,” “excitement,” “pleasure,” and a “carefree attitude” are often mentioned, as are scores of other terms. But, these words do not really bring us any closer to the definition of happiness, since these words are simply synonymous of happiness. They all describe the same, basic thing.
Yes, there are hundreds of words that describe happiness, and though their precise connotations may be different, studies in psychology suggest that all these states are practically identical on a physiological and experiential level. The particular term we select, is based more on the situation we’re in. If we’re really excited and happy, we might call the experience “elation.” If we’re relaxed and happy, we might call it “contentment.” If we’ve happy following the accomplishment of an important goal, we might refer to it as “satisfaction.” And, if we experience happiness around a person we care for dearly, we might call it “love.” But, on a basic, psychological level, it’s all fundamentally the same thing. As one of the original researchers, Alden Wessman, put it, researchers have always defined happiness as being synonymous with such
“… classic terms of joy, felicity, elation, pleasure, and contentment in mind.” (130)
In a sense, then, the researchers could just as well have named our field “the psychology of contentment” or “the psychology of fulfillment” — or any of the other happiness synonyms given above. But “happiness” is the word that is most commonly understood and most widely used for this highly desired thing, and we researchers have, historically, simply followed suit (21, 50, 55, 130).
In recent years, as the research in this area has progressed, many researchers have decided to rename “happiness” using newer scientific labels like “life- satisfaction” or “subjective well-being.” Yet no matter what you name it, the essential element in all such scientific definitions is the same thing we commonly know as “happiness” (321, 406).
We still haven’t defined happiness, but the two popular definitions we’ve examined have moved us closer to it. Apparently, things like money, success, and love cause this thingwe call “happiness.” Words like contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment describe this thing we call “happiness.”
But what is this thing? Here are a few, give-away clues…
First, where is happiness located in time and space?
Is it outside in the parking lot? Is it waiting for you at home? Is is down at the corner tavern? Not really.
Happiness lives exclusively within!
As much as we might like to find it waiting around the corner, happiness occurs only within us. It is not an outside thing — happiness is an internal experience. It is totally subjective. It is completely psychological.
Second, if it occurs inside us, where exactly does this happen? Is it in your heart? No. In your soul? Closer. In your mind? Closer still.
Actually, psychologists can be quite exact: happiness occurs in the human brain!
Recent advances in neuropsychology have begun to map the actual portions of the human brain which create happiness. Areas in an around the limbic system (one of the more primitive brain formations) appear to be the seat of happy experience. Stimulation in these areas appear to make complex interactions with higher areas of the brain (most notably the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex) to generate what we humans experience as “happiness.”
Our current understanding of brain design cannot provide an exact definition of the intricate biochemical processes which actually create happiness, but there is no dispute that happiness is generated from specific areas of the human brain.
Neurosurgeons have identified these areas and have found that direct chemical or electrical stimulation to these areas produce happiness in its most elated and pure form. Other medical evidence shows conclusively that damage (through accident or disease) or the surgical removal of these areas result in a permanent loss in the capacity to experience happiness. Whatever happiness is, there’s little doubt that it is generated in the biochemical workings of our human brain.
Third, how are we aware of happiness when it occurs?
The most simple answer is: we feel it!
Yet, where exactly do we feel it? The experience of happiness is not quite like the feeling we get when we accidentally touch a burning stove. Nor is it like the the feeling we sense when we’re caught in a driving rain storm. These “feelings” come from the outside.
Happiness, however, is an internal experience. It is like a thought, a dream, or an idea. We “feel” it in our consciousness. The experience of happiness is a conscious experience. It is part of our awareness — a state of mind, so to speak.
Our mind is continuously absorbed with a never-ending parade of memories, ideas, sensations, words, and perceptions. Indeed, the conscious awareness of ourselves, our bodies, our mind, our past learning, the world we live in all combine to provide us with a sense of self as an individual person. Our consciousness creates personal existence itself. The famous dictum of Rene Descart, “Cogito Ergo Sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), means, in essence, that withought consciousness there is no sense of even being alive.
Finally, the last clue. If happiness is just a state of mind, what kind of state of mind is it?
There are many states of mind, and happiness is just one of them. For example: is happiness a thought? Not exactly. Is it a memory? Not always. Is it something we see or touch? Definitely not. Is it an idea or a concept? No, not really. However, we can be certain that happiness can accompany any of these other mental states. Certain thoughts, memories, or things we see can make us happy, it’s true. But not all do. Thus happiness is something a little different. But what?
In fact, happiness is part of a very special category of mental experiences that includes such positive things as joy, pleasure, satisfaction, and contentment. This special category also includes some rather unpleasant things like fear, anger, jealousy, bitterness, sadness, melancholy, anxiety, loneliness, and frustration. This special type of consciousness is the only one that adds any color or flavoring to life. There is a word for this special category of mental experiences. That word is emotion (or feelings).
Thus happiness occurs inside each of us. It is specifically located in the brain. We experience it consciously — it is a state of mind. But it is a special type of mental state, the one we call emotion.