“There is no path to happiness; Happiness is the path.” – Buddha.
As part of a group discussion, I was recently asked to ponder two questions. What does happiness mean to me AND what gets in the way of me experiencing it? When I first heard the questions I remember thinking, sheesh…this is way too simple. The word and concept of happiness track all the way back to some of my earliest childhood memories.
But what surprised me, and even concerned me a little, was that when I thought about what happiness meant to me…I drew a blank. I suspected I was happy when I was experiencing a good time and laughing, you know…having fun. But was that really happiness? Or was it something else? Was I always happy when laughing and having fun, or have I been masking painful thoughts and memories with activities and humour, and putting on a brave face?
I began to ask myself…have I ever been truly happy? I think so, but can I really be sure when I don’t seem to know what it means to me? Cursing my friend under my breath for the question, I did what any self-respecting, modern human would do when faced with a dilemma of this depth… I googled it!
Hey Google…what is happiness?
Goggles’ top-line definition of happiness is: the state of being happy. I am not sure this helped me in any way Google, but thanks! Not feeling any closer to understanding happiness, and potentially even a little more confused than when I started, I decided to dig a little deeper.
This may shock you but according to Google there are 527 million results on the topic of what happiness means, so I decided to investigate the first couple of website hits. My feeling was that these are likely the most popular and thus widely accepted definitions of happiness. To be on the top five searches among half a billion worldwide results is no small feat, so these should be noteworthy.
Ranked at the top, verywellmind.com defines happiness as an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. This lines up with Google’s definition of happiness being a “state”, but with some more interesting details. Happiness is a state of being with some big feelings at its core.
At this point, the word “state” had come up twice now and I hate to admit, but I wasn’t sure I understood what it meant in this context. In the spirit of digging deeper, I decided to search for the definition. State, according to Merriam-Webster is: the manner or condition of being and they give the example of: a state of readiness. For the topic I am exploring, we would be referring to being in a state of happiness. I liked this idea of being in a state that is made possible by one or more positive emotions and felt like I was on track to defining happiness.
I must say, I really liked the explanation of happiness from verywellmind.com, and frankly could have stopped my search feeling fairly complete and able to face my friends with an intelligent definition. But I am an analyst by nature and wanted some supporting data, so I kept searching to see if some of the other top sites agreed with this point of view.
‘The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” – Dalai Lama
On the next site, positivepsychology.com, the definition of happiness is: happiness is equated with feelings of pleasure or contentment and then they go on to say…not to be confused with joy, ecstasy, bliss or other more intense feelings. So according to this site, happiness equals the good feelings of pleasure and contentment, but they seem to make a distinction between these being calm feelings and the more intense feelings of joy, ecstasy and bliss. This is very interesting, as for me joy, ecstasy and bliss are feelings that I desire and I imagine would leave me feeling very happy.
Although at this point I was a bit confused, I could see that the folks at postivepsycology.com seemed to agree on some aspects of happiness. Happiness is made possible by positive emotions (check) but the more intense ones create something else. The similarities encouraged me that I was on the right track, but the emotional distinction put me off a little, so I got motivated to keep digging.
The next site I looked at was the very popular psycologytoday.com. They define happiness as both a mixture of positive emotions and having a deeper sense of meaning in our lives. The mixture of positive emotions part tracks very well with the other definitions, but shut the front door… now in order to be happy I need to have a deep sense of meaning in my life?
I almost gave up at this point; achieving happiness is clearly far more complicated than I thought at first. But as I re-read the definition it started to make sense. If being in a state of happiness depends on positive emotions for fuel, then where is this spectrum of great emotions coming from? I can see clearly that having a deep sense of meaning in my life would allow these positive emotions to be plentiful, flow freely and be consistently available.
I could have confidently stopped my search here as my knowledge and understanding of happiness had already grown exponentially. But this new “deep sense of meaning” wrinkle that is linked to happiness was new data and, of course, I needed to validate this piece of the happiness puzzle., So the search continued.
Next up on the Google hit parade was berkeleywellbeing.com. They define happiness as: including both momentary positive emotions and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life. They expand further to say that the parts of happiness are split into two parts, pleasure and thriving or flourishing.
Here it is again living a life with meaning, I must say I was becoming a believer. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think that if we are thriving/flourishing by living a life of meaning, our positive emotions would flow, giving us easy access to a genuine and consistent state of happiness.
This brought me back to the more intense emotions stated by positivepsychology.com, of joy, ecstasy, and bliss that were not included in their happiness definition. It was making more sense to me that being in a consistent state of happiness would reduce or even eliminate craving some of the more intense emotions, as these cravings happen when we are in the opposite state of emotions such as unhappiness or even downright depression.
“Happiness is not a goal….it’s a by-product of a life well-lived.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Not only is happiness a state we all want to feel as frequently as possible, but also the pursuit of this elusive state has become an industry in itself. According to an article on huffpost.com, there are more than 23,000 books published with the word happiness in the title. On top of that mind-boggling number, Lyrics.com shows that there are over 36,600 songs on the record that contain the word happiness. What this confidently tells me is that my initial brain’s blank reaction to the question…what is happiness is not just unique to me, but a common phenomenon around the world.
My hope is that this article will help shine a light of clarity on both what happiness is (a desired state caused by positive emotions) and that happiness can be sustained long-term by consistently living a life of meaning and purpose. I strongly believe that every human on the planet deserves daily happiness and as the article title states…happiness never goes out of style!
Stay tuned for happiness part two –What gets in the way of living consistently in a state of happiness. I will give you a hint….it’s not your ex.