What is Happiness?
I’d like to introduce the topic of happiness to the blog and just float out that question and look at it for a while. Though it’s one of the first things mentioned on this site and one of the main goals of coaching, to “discover your authentic self and learn to lead your life in ways that bring you the most happiness and fulfillment”, what does happiness really mean?
I’ll tell you upfront that I don’t offer a definitive answer to this ageless question but only different views and opinions on happiness. The main message being, look within for your own answers. Future articles will explore the topic more closely and help you find ways to create more happiness (whatever it means to you) in your life.
I believe that happiness, or at least feeling good, is the underlying goal of every other goal or achievement we desire. When people say they want something (e.g. I want a new car, I want to go on vacation, I want a relationship, I want more money) or want to accomplish something (I want to get my degree, I want a better job, I want to lose weight) I ask them what that will give them. What’s important about having that or achieving that? The deeper answer is often that they believe it will make them happy.
Then I take it a step further and ask, so, when you have it or achieve it, how will you know you’re happy? What does ‘happy’ mean to you? And, what’s important about happiness?
These seem like silly questions don’t they? Childish and simple, but they give people something to reflect on, and the answers aren’t as simple to articulate.
As a coach, I get the opportunity to let go of the need to have all the answers (a far stretch from my life as a consultant where I am depended on for answers). As a coach, it’s better to have a lot of simple but powerful questions and the intuitive guidance to know what to ask and when. It puts the responsibility on the client to do their own work and generate their own responses and ultimately their own self-generated and personally meaningful solutions.
One of the prime reasons why I ask people those simple questions about happiness (how will they know they’re happy – what it means to them and what’s important about happiness) is because of this: if you know what you’re looking for or better yet why, you’re much more likely to find it. And, if you know what you really want, you may be able to find it in other ways, expanding the realm of possibilities and approaches that can lead you to your ultimate goal, happiness.
A lot of people are on the pursuit of possessions, goals and achievements, thinking ‘something’ will make them happy but they’re not quite sure what that experience is really like. And, when things don’t make them happy, or at least not for very long, they keep trying to get or do more things. So defining happiness, or at least knowing how to recognize it and appreciate it when you have it, is important.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I was on a roll writing two to three articles every month until I decided I wanted to write about happiness. I thought it would be easy because I know how important it is for me to have happiness in my life personally (for many reasons). But as a coach, I wanted to dig deeper into the subject and learn what it really is so I could help more people, and down the rabbit hole I went.
From dictionary definitions to philosophy to ancient texts to brain science and positive psychology I went. I discovered some similarities here and there but also some interesting differences and even some hot debates between different fields of psychology.
Some of the theories on happiness discussed the positive emotions and the pleasures and the avoidance or absence of pain (hedonics). Others believed there was more to happiness than just the sum of all pleasurable moments minus the painful ones. Take Aristotle for instance, who believed it was more than just a matter of momentary pleasures strung together. That happiness was in the doing of things over the long term that gave a person’s life meaning, being virtuous (eudaimonic theory).
Buddhism indicates that ultimate happiness comes from overcoming all forms of craving but also encourages people to show loving kindness and compassion, which meshes well with Aristotle’s views. So it would seem that happiness is in the doing of things that give one’s life meaning, virtuous activities, making a difference to others, and in the process, making a difference in our own lives.
When talking about happiness with a variety of people, at first they tended to talk about the things, events, situations or even other people that make them happy. On the surface they believe happiness is a positive emotion one experiences when ‘something makes them happy’. They’re indicating that happiness is a momentary feeling that’s contingent on something else happening. As if happiness were an involuntary reaction to an event – simply a response to a stimulus and they really had no choice or control in the matter:
- Happiness is Friday at 5pm
- Happiness is a puppy licking your face
- Happiness is hearing the sound of children laughing
- Happiness is a warm sunny day
- Happiness is finding the pair of shoes you wanted on sale
- Happiness = sex or better yet, chocolate
Quotes on Happiness
On this month long journey I read books, articles, journals and hundreds of quotes, some of famous thinkers, writers and philosophers expressing their opinions of happiness. I’d like to share some of these with you but not because I think they’re right or wrong – only to demonstrate the breadth and variety of opinions on happiness. Perhaps some will resonate with you. Take note of which ones spark a note of truth within you.
“Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” ~ Robert Frost
“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.” ~ Albert Camus
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung
“Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.” ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
“One is happy as a result of one’s own efforts once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness: simple tastes, a certain degree of courage, self denial to a point, love of work, and above all, a clear conscience.” ~ George Sand
“Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness.” ~ Don Marquis
“The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.” and;
“I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. I’m not talking about the short-term gratification of pleasures like sex, drugs or gambling (though I’m not knocking them), but something that will bring true and lasting happiness. The kind that sticks.” ~ The 14th Dalai Lama
“Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot.” ~ Aristotle
“The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase: if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.” ~ C.P. Snow
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.” ~ Margaret Young
“When a man has lost all happiness, he’s not alive. Call him a breathing corpse.” ~ Sophocles
“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” ~ Andrew Carnegie
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” ~ Graham Greene
“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
“Happiness consists in frequent repetition of pleasure.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer
“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.” ~ Frederick Keonig
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” ~ Buddha
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
“The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“A man’s as miserable as he thinks he is.” ~ Seneca
“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” ~ Margaret Lee Runbeck
“Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.” ~ Immanuel Kant
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
“If you deliberately set out to be less than you are capable, you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life.” ~ Abraham H. Maslow
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” ~ Marcus Aurelius
“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” ~ Epictetus
“Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” ~ William Feather
“Happiness is a conscious choice, not an automatic response.” ~ Mildred Barthel
So we can see that although happiness means different things to different people, most of us want more of it in our lives, whatever it is. If we look closely enough we can see some important themes stand out. I’ll leave it up to you to find the themes that mean the most to you. Perhaps you will open your mind to new ways of thinking of happiness that make it easier for you to be happy right now.
So for now, just think about happiness – your own personal happiness – and if you wish, reflect on these questions. The next few articles will look more closely into happiness from a positive psychology and coaching perspective and what you can do to enjoy more happiness in your life.
- What does happiness mean to you?
- Are you generally a happy person? Do you wake up happy?
- Is happiness a fleeting emotion? A long term state? A goal? A journey?
- Is your happiness contingent or dependant on other things? If so, how?
- What stops you from being happy?
- Do you stop yourself from being happy? If so, how?
- Could you be doing more to be happy? Could you be doing less to be happy?
And I will leave it at that for now. Remember, we’re just looking at the question of happiness. If happiness is important to you, then spending some time reflecting on it and understanding what it really means is an important first step in achieving, maintaining, or even increasing it.