Gretchen Rubin

What is “Happiness” Anyway?

As someone who writes about happiness, I’m often challenged to answer these three questions:

1. How do I define “happiness,” anyway?

2. Instead of happiness, which is fleeting/deceptive/egotistical/illusory, isn’t the real goal to achieve joy/contentment/satisfaction/peace/self-realization or [fill in the blank]?

3. How can we agree on what it means to achieve these states? What I mean by happiness might not be what you mean by happiness. You say happiness is a warm puppy; I say happiness is living alone in a cabin at Walden Pond; etc.

In law school, we spent an entire semester discussing the meaning of a “contract,” and I know all too well how a term can elude you as you try to define it. For the purposes of my happiness project, I decided not to worry about definitions too much. In scholarship, there’s merit in defining terms precisely, and one positive psychology study identified fifteen different academic definitions of happiness, but when it came to my project, spending a lot of energy exploring the distinctions among “contentment,” “positive affect,” “subjective well-being,” “hedonic tone,” and a myriad of other terms didn’t seem necessary. I decided instead to follow the hallowed tradition set by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who defined obscenity by saying, “I know it when I see it.”

I think it’s enough to think about being “happier.” Even if we don’t agree about what it means to be happy, we can agree that whatever happiness means, it would be nice to be happier. I think the looseness of the term happiness is actually helpful; it’s a concept large enough to embrace many different perspectives.

I suspect that one reason that people try to avoid using the word “happiness” is that happiness has a bad reputation. It’s often associated with superficiality, self-absorption, narcissism, and pleasure-seeking. (As in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall, when Alvy asks a happy couple how they account for their happiness, and the woman answers, “I am very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say,” and the man agrees, “I’m exactly the same way.”)

In fact, however, studies show that happiness doesn’t make people complacent or self-centered. Rather, happier people are more likely to volunteer, to give away money, to persist in problem-solving, to help others, and to be friendly.

One study showed that, all over the world, when asked what they want most from life — and what they most want for their children – people answered that they want happiness. I know when I feel happy. Trying to be happier – that’s good enough for me, without a precise definition.

Whoops, several readers kindly let me know that I posted a bad link to The Glow Movie the other day. Sorry about that!

Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

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