What Is Happiness?

What makes you happy?

It's such a simple question, isn't it?

Well, I don't like that question. It presupposes that there's a promised land called "happy." Unlike a car or a house, happy can't be owned. Unlike a beloved pet, happy can't be held (as much as you would like to hold onto it).

Happy can only be experienced. Or not, given your mood at the moment.

Let me ask this seemingly simple question in a slightly different way: What makes you happy(er)? Because happy is not a fixed state. No matter what state you're in now, it is not fixed or permanent. We can cultivate the capacity and capability to lift our emotional landscape.

If we're going to answer the question of what makes us happy(er), we first have to ask a much more basic question: What is happiness? 

Happiness is such a ubiquitous word. It's familiar. Let’s look at what we think we already know, to explore for ourselves the concept of happiness. To see it anew. To be curious. To greet happiness as an intriguing guest you want to get to know.

As I was writing this, I did what I always do with big, philosophical questions—I Googled it! The definition of happiness, according to the first Google result, is "the state of being happy."

My third-grade teacher would not be happy with that. Doesn't Google know that you can't use the word you're trying to define in the definition itself?

Happiness goes by a different name in the fields that track such things. It's called "subjective well-being." To measure it, the the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD for short) has set international guidelines. The OECD is a forum of more than 34 democracies that work on policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

The OECD recommends three, interrelated ways for measuring and defining this happiness thing.

The first is what researchers refer to as "affect." You and I would call it feelings or emotions. We have both negative or positive feelings, of course. Happiness falls into the positive category. This is called "hedonic well-being."

The second way to define happiness goes beyond a fleeting emotion or feeling. That layer of happiness is life evaluation, a reflective assessment of how you view your overall life satisfaction.

The third way to look at happiness is as a sense of meaning and purpose. This is the bigger perspective of happiness, which can both ground and motivate. It's the reason, the "why" behind what we do. This is called "eudaimonic well-being," eudaemonic being a word that Aristotle used to convey the central importance of purpose and meaning in the well-lived life.

Together, these three things give us a more nuanced understanding of how to define happiness.

  1. Happiness is a feeling, a pleasant emotion.
  2. Happiness is satisfaction with life.
  3. Happiness is a sense of purpose and meaning.

Let me give you a personal example of how these three aspects play out in a very real way. I consider myself lucky. My work affords me the opportunity to teach, and live into, the science of human flourishing. How great is that? This is meaningful and fulfilling.

And ... sometimes it doesn't make me feel very happy! It’s not all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. It’s hard, demanding work. If I focused only on happiness as an emotion to judge my well-being, well, I’d be sipping pina coladas poolside instead of writing these words.

Feeling the emotion of happiness can be at odds with happiness as meaning. I mean, really, parenting is very meaningful work, but does your teenager always make you feel happy? 

Here’s how Positive Psychology Coach Lynda Wallace reconciles the two:

“We often think of goal pursuit as a tradeoff in which we willingly reduce our happiness in the short term in exchange for greater happiness in the end. But, in fact, when we pursue well-chosen goals, progressing toward them actually increases our happiness at least as much as achieving them does. Even when the work involved is difficult, uncomfortable, or inconvenient, the knowledge that we’re making progress toward goals that genuinely matter to us can dramatically increase our current sense of well-being, in addition to bringing us closer to whatever other benefits we gain when we actually achieve our goals.”

Picking the right goal—one that is meaningful—helps you experience the journey itself with more enjoyment. What’s the goal of parenting your teenager? How can naming that goal help you navigate the crankiness with more ease? My goal as CEO is to ignite the best in people for the greatest good. That goal reminds me this challenge is worth it. You know you have picked the right goal when you choose the hard work over the pina coladas. 

Find out about upcoming programs with Megan McDonough and Lynda Wallace at Kripalu.

Megan McDonough is the chair and cofounder of Wholebeing Institute. Her work is to harness the highest and best in people for the greatest good.

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