One of the trickiest questions in the happiness project is: “What is ‘happiness’?”
Scientific texts use various terms, such as utility, hedonic tone, subjective well-being, positive emotionality, and positive affect. One study identified 15 different academic definitions of “happiness.”
Several kinds of tests measure various concepts of “happiness.” Some studies focus on “life satisfaction,” by asking people how satisfied they feel with their lives, all things considered. (Interesting side note: when asked “How happy are you these days in your life?” the Pew Research Center Study 2006 reports that 50% of Americans report themselves as “pretty happy” and 34% are “very happy”—that’s 84% who say they’re happy.)
Other tests get at different measures, by asking participants how they feel at random moments throughout their days, or by asking them the next day to reconstruct their feelings from the day before.
To put it crudely, there’s the “happiness” of how you feel moment to moment, and the “happiness” you feel when you evaluate your life overall. And these two very well might not match up. Positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction are separate constructs, and move independently from one another.
Now, in what might be a worthless dodge on my part, I decided that instead of spending a lot of time debating the various terminology (and whether satisfaction was more important than gratification, and whether pleasure mattered to happiness, etc., etc.), I would think of it this way:
I would think about being happier. Can you and I become happier?
This way, I can have my own working definition of happiness, and you can have your definition of happiness. What matters is what we do to be happier.
So, this question, “What is happiness?” became for me “What are the elements of a happy life?”
I anticipated—rightly, I think—that the proper formula would make the need for a precise definition less pressing.
After a huge amount of thought and false starts, I arrived at my formula: to be happier, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
Therefore, applying my formula, I would say that “happiness” is a life in which you:
- Work to have many opportunities to feel good—to have fun, to feel love, to learn about things that interest you, to feel sensual pleasure, to see friends and family, to connect with other people, to feel of service to others, to have energy, to feel control, etc.… (positive affect)
- Work to eliminate sources of feeling bad—instances in which you feel anger, resentment, irritation, guilt, anxiety, boredom, grudges, worthlessness, disorder, exasperation, frustration, failure, etc. (negative affect)
- Work to feel right about your life—take steps to live the kind of life you feel that you “ought” to be leading, in terms of job, family, location, service, etc. (life satisfaction)
- Work to include an aspect of growth in your life—a sense of progress, advancement, increasing abundance, potential, opportunity, learning, mastery, responsibility.
Note the repetition of the word “work.” Happiness isn’t a passive state that descends on you like a golden cloud when everything goes right. It’s an unceasing effort.
Also, note that this formula embraces both the daily experience of positive affect (the pleasure of sitting in your favorite café with a perfect cup of coffee and the morning newspaper) and the overall sense of life satisfaction (having, at last, gotten that stressful job you really want, or the birth of the new baby who is keeping you up all night).
If you disagree with me on the definition of happiness, I urge you to take your definition and think about it in the context of my happiness formula.
Often, I’ve noticed, people write to me telling me that they reject my concept of “happiness,” then they go on to define happiness in a way that fits my concept perfectly.
Tomorrow: about unhappiness and depression.
Zoikes, I missed my own anniversary. I started this blog on March 27, 2006. To start a blog was one of my resolutions for March, the month of work and leisure. And I must say, keeping a blog has made me very happy. Exactly as all the research would predict. Tonight, to celebrate, I’m going to Lulu.com and making a book out of my first year of blog entries – one of my favorite things to do.
One Last Thing
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