What Is Happiness?
We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a
result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of
recognizing and appreciating what we do have.
What is the definition of happiness? In my search for this slippery answer, I decided to start the old-fashioned way—with the dictionary.
n 1: a state of well-being and contentment; also: a
Sounds reasonable. But if you line up one hundred psychologists and social scientists and ask them to give their definition, you’re likely to get one hundred different answers. And while we tend to like for things to fall into neat little boxes, the definition of happiness certainly doesn’t accommodate our desire for neatness. Despite all the research, especially that of the last ten years, and all the advances of those acclaimed positive psychologists who are churning out groundbreaking research, there is no unanimous or correct definition of happiness.
What about my own definition of happiness? I know what it feels like, but it takes more effort than I expected to be able to put it into words. I think of different moments of happiness in my life, starting in my early childhood. The first experience that comes to mind is the annual pilgrimage my family made to the Danbury State Fair, an event that always brought great anticipation and joy. Located on more than 130 acres in the southwestern part of Danbury, Connecticut, the fair came to life for seven days every October, and for that one magical week every kid thought our small town was the center of the universe. The fair attracted hundreds of thousands of people from all over Connecticut, New York, and even Massachusetts. Whether it was a chance to ride the giant Ferris wheel, to ogle a 320-pound squash, to watch the sweaty and snorting ox pull, or to fill up on sweet potato pie and cotton candy, the fair was a dream come true for the entire town. In fact, the fair was so important that school was offcially closed for one day during that week, and every student was given a free pass to walk through those big gates and explore the rambling grounds. The Danbury State Fair made me not just happy but extremely happy.
Things You’d Assume Would Bring Happiness
Winning the lottery
Success at work
Time away from work
Reading a good book
Acknowledgment from others of your success
As I tried to understand the source of my happiness, I couldn’t help but think about the simple and nonmaterialistic events that made my life growing up feel meaningful and engaged. Performing the lead in my Sunday school Christmas and Easter plays, having a perfect attendance record in elementary school, bringing in cans of soup to donate to the holiday food drives, graduating at the top of my class from high school, spending long holidays with my extended family crammed into one house—these were the things that made me happy. Sure, I always wanted to own a fancy house and a luxury car and be able to purchase expensive designer clothes, but as my family’s financial position improved through the years and I was able to realize some of these materialistic dreams, one thing became surprisingly clear: The happiness I derived from a coveted sports car and designer clothes was explosive, but the fire burned out relatively quickly. In contrast, nonmaterialistic sources of happiness, such as the plays, family holidays, and soup-can donations, stayed with me for many years. To this day when I think of those times, a warmth overtakes me.
Why did holidays with my family in a cramped house with little in the way of material gifts but lots in the way of love and fun have a more lasting impact on my happiness than the gorgeous and expensive M3 BMW my brother and I were given in our late teens when our family’s financial condition improved dramatically? I wanted that car so badly, and when I got to drive it off the lot, I could barely feel my feet on the pedals because I was so full of adrenaline. Not only did I love the muscular look of the car, but I yearned for the groan of the engine and the stares it brought from drivers and pedestrians alike. But something strange happened about seven months later. It was still a lot of fun to open up the engine on the highway at speeds that were decidedly illegal and unsafe, but I wouldn’t say the car was adding to my happiness. Surprisingly, the love affair had cooled.
I wouldn’t have been so surprised had I seen the research, which has consistently shown that material-based happiness is transient at best. One famous study looked at lottery jackpot winners and found that their level of happiness five years after receiving their windfall had returned to the same level it had been prior to their winning. If on a scale zero to ten someone’s happiness level before the big lottery win was a six, the study showed that for a few years that number jumped, but at the fifth year, regardless of how great the increase, the happiness level returned to a six. An even more revealing study of lottery winners was conducted by Dr. Richard Tunney of the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology in England.2 Lottery winners were asked how satisfied they were in relation to different parts of their life, how often they treated themselves, and what types of treats they enjoyed. Much to everyone’s surprise, it turned out that flashy cars and diamond jewelry weren’t responsible for the increased happiness of the jackpot winners, but listening to music, reading a book, or enjoying a good bottle of wine really made a difference. These winners liked rather inexpensive treats: long baths, going swimming, enjoying their hobbies, and having fun playing games.
So what does this say about happiness? The experts suggest that happiness becomes more sustained and impactful because of the characteristics surrounding the experience—meaning, pleasure, and engagement. Martin Seligman, one of the father of positive psychology, defines happiness this way:
I believe happiness dissolves into three different ideas, each of which is separately buildable and measurable. The first is the (i) pleasant life (having as much positive emotion and as little negative emotion as possible), (ii) the engaged life (being completely absorbed by the challenges you face at work, love, play, etc.), (iii) the meaningful life (knowing what your highest strengths are and using them to belong to and serve something that is bigger than you are).3
Seligman’s definition—in whole or at least in part—appears to be widely accepted by many leading researchers and thinkers in the field. Former Harvard lecturer, Tal Ben-Shahar, a noted positive psychologist, had this to say on the highly sought-after definition:
I define happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. This definition does not pertain to a single moment, but to a generalized aggregate of one’s experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy overall.4
Ben-Shahar’s definition, taken along with Seligman’s, appears to imply a type of philosophical sophistication. Does it mean that if your life isn’t Zen-like and purposeful, you can’t be happy? Do you have to embark on a mission to do good for mankind or the environment in order to qualify as a happy person? Is there some ranking of what endeavors have the most meaning, thus giving us a guide to the missions that will make us happiest?
Happiness Is a Crowded Dinner Table
Socializing with friends and family is one of the most effective ways to boost happiness. Gathering over a meal is one of the most popular group activities. It makes sense that a good time can be had at a table crowded with loved ones who are sharing stories, laughs, opinions, and even disagreements. In my family it has always been Sunday dinner; regardless of how busy we are, we return home to enjoy not only great food but equally compelling company. Sunday dinners are so important that everyone is careful to schedule activities around them and avoid any conflicts. An empty chair—even in a house full of people—doesn’t go unnoticed.
In many ways a crowded dinner table is one big support group with the bonus of good food. In my family there were times when someone was having a tough week. What helped get the person through it was knowing that at the end of the week we’d all be together again, surrounded by love and those who would support us rather than judge us. Equally exciting was sharing good news—a job promotion, academic accomplishment, pregnancy—with those who knew us best and took pride in our successes.
Our Sunday family dinners were so popular that friends would stop by the house unannounced, knowing that there was always an extra seat available at the table and plenty of laughs and warm smiles to make them forget about their troubles or the tough week ahead. Happiness studies have universally shown the power of a strong social network and the positive impact of making our time together meaningful and engaging. Fill up your table and have fun.
In seeking a working definition of happiness, I reexamined the various stages of my life when sadness was rare and happiness and a strong positive attitude really defined who I was. As much as my mother struggled to pay for athletic uniforms, new basketball sneakers, and one book a week from the Weekly Reader, I was every bit as happy as my classmate David Rubin. His father was a doctor, and the Rubin family lived in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen. David had so many toys he could’ve opened his own store. As I grew older, I met others who had struggled with adversities as children, but these adversities impacted them differently. Some had developed low self-esteem, were constantly depressed, and walked around with a chip on their shoulder. Why did some who were raised in similar circumstances turn out happy while others labored through gloom and pessimism? It wasn’t until I started digging into the research on the origins of happiness that I stumbled on part of the answer.
Things That Really Make People Happy
Family, friends, and social companionship
Appreciating what you have and not feeling wistful about what you don’t have
Making a difference in someone else’s life
Pursuing a passion
Taking pride in one’s work
Forgiving someone for an offense and moving on
Not trying to keep up with the Joneses
The Happiness Thermostat
Why do some people grow to be only five feet while others grow to be seven feet? Why does one brother have blond hair while the other has red? Why are some children born with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes while others are not? Genes! The DNA in our cells is unique and makes us different from everyone else. What we’re going to look like and much of who we have the capacity to become in life has already been scripted in those microscopic genes that we inherit from our parents. And researchers found something similar when they searched for the origins of happiness. A large part of how happy we are or will be is determined by our genetic makeup—something we have no control over.
Excerpted from Happy by .
Copyright © 2010 by Ian K. Smith.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.