What is happiness and how is it defined? Not an easy question. I think we can say what it’s not exclusively limited to specifically, just pleasure or satisfaction. PBS.org’s post on the topic states that “Happiness has been said to be thought of as the “good life”, freedom from suffering, flourishing, well-being, joy, prosperity, and pleasures.” As you can see, this definition includes several concepts and terms.
Anytime I see other defined terms being used to try and define a term, it makes things less clear to me. To confuse matters further, some happiness experts say true happiness includes acknowledging, embracing and processing our sad times and sorrow in a healthy way….I agree. Is there a better way to get a handle on what our own Constitution gives us the explicit right to pursue? Yes!
While there are other definitions, I tend to favor the concept of happiness given by Marti Seligman, the father of positive psychology (and self-described grump). He describes happiness as having 3 parts: pleasure, engagement and meaning. Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness. Engagement refers to living a “good life” of work, family, friends, and hobbies. Meaning refers to using our strengths to contribute to a larger purpose. While all are important, Seligman says that engagement and meaning make the most difference to living a happy life. I agree, and this definition fits nicely with Victor Frankle’s comment that happiness cannot be pursued, but rather must ensue….a comment and concept this article in the Atlantic Monthly does a nice job of pointing out.
As a Christ follower who grew up in church and still active in a community of faith, I’ve often heard that happiness is a cheap imitation of the joy we are to experience in our faith. Happiness is spoken of as something being fleeting and temporary. That description is pretty much on target if happiness is viewed as being synonymous with short-term pleasure and little else. While somethings don’t change, words can and do. And the way happiness as it is discussed today by people who study the topic is sure starting to sound a lot like what I always heard being described as Joy.
So what does happiness look like? I like the analogy the PBS.org post makes between study and measurement of happiness and optometry: you know you’ve hit the target when you hear either “yes, I see much better now” or “yes, I’m happy”. Both are based almost entirely on reports of subject experience.
Believe it not, using Seligman’s definition and the daily experience of positive emotions, researchers have derived the following happiness formula: C + S + V= Happiness:
- C= Conditions (10%)
- S= set-point (genetic predisposition) (50%)
- V= voluntary actions (40%)
Arthur Brookes of the NY Times did an excellent piece on the background and science of the happiness “formula” if your interested in knowing more.
Essentially, we have a significant amount of direct control in the happiness we experience in life. Some even go further and say that 50 – 80% of our daily contentment is under our control and that we have more power than previously thought to override our genetically inherited set point….someone please send Oscar the Grouch the memo (or refer him to Brookes article)!
Frankly, when I first start hearing all the fuss and hubbub about happiness a couple of years ago I though it was just another pop-psychology fad. In addition, I was also little put off by it and prejudiced against it because of my limited definition of happiness. However, when you consider the more contemporary and richer definition of happiness and all that contributes to it, the game changes and makes it something to be excited about. Furthermore, it informs us that much of our happiness is directly within our control, regardless of circumstance OR genetic predisposition. It also means action is required on our part in order to get more of it. Whether you lean more toward a Swiss citizen or Oscar the Grouch, everyone is capable of moving the needle on their happiness.
How does the “happiness formula” impact your understanding of happiness? Is it possible that you actually have a lot more control over being a happier person that you thought? On a scale of 0 – 10, how happy are you? I’d love to hear any comments you have so please leave one.
More on Happiness and how to get more of it coming soon.