I have been managing Feel Happiness for just over a year now, and I’m proud of what I have accomplished so far.
From the beginning, my intention has been to help people live happier lives. This mission has served me well enough.
However, I have recently begun to question myself.
I know that I “like" being happy, but what is happiness anyways?
Do I want to experience the most possible happiness over my lifetime? Do I want to create the most total happiness for the world? Or do I want to have a number of intensely happy experiences in a short period of time?
Does happiness involve self-sacrifice? Does there need to be a meaning of life in order to find happiness? Or perhaps finding happiness is the meaning itself?
These are just a few of the questions that have been on my mind recently.
It would be irresponsible of me to continue writing in order to “help people live happier lives" when I don’t even know what that means.
That’s where this post comes in.
Here I will explore some of these questions in detail. By the end, I should know exactly why I am writing what I write, and you should understand exactly why you are reading it.
The point is not to define the word happiness per se, but to come up with some positive notion of living the good life. I’m willing to equate that with happiness, even if it isn’t scientifically rigorous.
Note: What you are about to read contains a lot of strange words and definitions. Don’t get too hung up on the words; they are merely placeholders for the ideas behind them. When I call something “happiness", try not to let your preconceived notions of what happiness is get in the way.
The Challenge Of Defining Happiness
When you stop to think about it, it’s hard to really pin down what happiness is.
People use the word all the time to mean many different things: pleasure, life satisfaction, good mood, contentment, subjective well-being, etc.
But those things are all completely unique! Which combination of these things is equivalent to happiness?
A good definition of happiness depends on what you are using the word for.
A scientist studying happiness may require a definition that can be quantified and measured so that it can be more easily analyzed.
But for us, that isn’t necessary. In fact, the concept of happiness is ultimately a folk notion, and thus a matter of practical concern for ordinary people trying to lead good lives.
So how do we use the concept of happiness in our day to day lives?
I can think of four, which I will arrange in order of importance here:
- Deliberating over choices. For example, you may ask yourself, “Which would make me happier: becoming an actuary or becoming a writer?" Happiness is often used as measure for important decisions, but it is not so much used for less important decisions, like what to wear today.
- Evaluating someone’s condition. This can be either yourself or someone else. If you haven’t seen your friend in a while, you may judge them based on how happy they are. If they are happy, you would say they are doing well overall.
- Help make predictions. Happiness has inertia. If I am happy now, it is likely to extend some distance in the future, be it days or seconds. So if you know that your friend is happy, you might find them more pleasant to be around and attempt to spend more time with them in the near future. Conversely, if my friend is depressed, I know that I’ll have a harder time attracting a woman when we go to the bar together.
- Explain things. Your unhappiness at your job can be used to explain your desire to make a career change. Or if someone you met doesn’t return your call, it could be because they are unhappy about something, so you don’t take it personally.
A proper definition of happiness should be able to do these things, particularly the first two.
In addition, it needs to allow you to assess your level of happiness at any given time. You don’t need to be too precise, but if you can’t judge whether you are generally happy or unhappy at that moment, the definition ceases to be practical.
The Idea Of Intrinsic Value And The Good Life
Intrinsic value is a philosophical concept referring to the value that something has for its own sake.
Put another way, the value is an end itself rather than a means to an end.
For example, Aristotle believed that happiness was an end in itself. You seek happiness for the sake of happiness, not for anything else, and everything you do is to get more happiness. In his view, something like wealth would not have intrinsic value, because it is a means to the end of getting happiness.
Different world views have different intrinsic values at their core. Nihilists believe there is no intrinsic value, humanists believe that human flourishing is an intrinsic value, and utilitarians believe that utility is an intrinsic value.
In order to live “the good life", you need to have a lot of positive intrinsic value.
Naturally, you must therefore figure out what qualities have intrinsic value to you in order to effectively live the good life.
What Happiness Isn’t
Philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and laypeople have been trying to find a good meaning for happiness for thousands of years.
What I want is to come up with a worldview that focuses on being happy to live the good life. As I’ve said before, this is not easy.
Before trying to define what this is, we should start by ruling out what this isn’t.
Objective Well-Being And Quantitative Methods
First things first, there is no good measure of objective well-being that I would be willing to equate with happiness.
Having a certain level of status, achievement, wealth, or health, is not enough to make someone happy.
There is also no way that we can take the factors that encapsulate happiness and distill them down into a number.
Sure, we can administer psychological tests, and give someone a rating for certain potential aspects of happiness (life satisfaction, positive affect, etc.). But these qualities themselves are not objective!
So, happiness must possess at least some degree of subjectivity and uniqueness to each individual, and is more qualitative than quantitative.
One of the first and most intuitive ideas for a definition of happiness is hedonism.
Hedonists seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
While pleasure definitely has the potential to be one aspect of happiness, it doesn’t seem reasonable that it would be the only thing of intrinsic value.
Consider this thought experiment by the philosopher Robert Nozick.
Imagine a machine that was capable of providing you with whatever pleasurable experiences you want, and you couldn’t distinguish those experiences from ones outside the machine.
Given the choice, would you prefer this machine to real life?
If pleasure were the only thing with intrinsic value, the correct answer would be yes. But in practice, most people say no, for a few reasons.
First, most people want to actually do certain things and not just have the experience of doing them. I don’t just want the satisfaction of having written a book, but also to know that I wrote it and the feeling isn’t a deception. Both of those pleasures (satisfaction and knowing that I did it) are important parts of my desire to write a book.
The second reason is that you actually want to be some type of person. As Nozick said, “Someone floating in a tank is just an indeterminate blob." Couldn’t have said it better myself! It’s as though your identity would be committing suicide, because there is no way to determine what kind of a person you are if you are just hooked up to a machine all the time.
Finally, that machine limits you to a man-made reality. This world is no deeper than a world that people can construct. Even if you can experience a simulated contact with something of deeper significance, you can’t actually experience it. I’m talking about more spiritual things here.
Personally, I would not plug into the experience machine, and therefore I reject hedonism as my worldview for finding happiness.
And by the way, if you found this discussion at all interesting, I recommend you watch the movie Vanilla Sky.
The desire theory equates happiness with getting what you want, or satisfying your desires.
This is definitely a step in the right direction from hedonism, but it’s still not quite right.
Let’s say one of my desires is to memorize every episode of the Simpsons (don’t judge me). No matter how great it would be to satisfy this desire, it just doesn’t seem to add up to a happy life.
There needs to be something more.
So let’s add another layer. Maybe happiness is some mix of hedonic pleasure, the satisfaction of your desires, and some objective measures (attaining certain status, good health, being charitable enough, etc.).
This seems like a step in the right direction, but how do we determine which objective measures are most important? Is having high social status really an end in itself? Adopting this theory would be highly complicated and impractical for a layperson, so it might as well be useless to us.
Cognitive vs. Emotional Aspects Of Happiness
Cognitive aspects of happiness require thought, such as whether you are satisfied with life on the whole. Emotional aspects are what you feel, or the experience of positive emotional states.
Which of these types would happiness really fall under?
To me, a good life would involve both cognitive AND emotional aspects in order to be complete.
Life satisfaction by itself would not be sufficient to determine my welfare. Life satisfaction involves serious consideration of ethics, which convolutes its relationship to happiness1.
If I have certain ethical beliefs that I follow, I might be satisfied with my life. But if they were too draconian I might be missing out on pleasure and not truly enjoy life as it happens.
Conversely, emotional considerations also don’t capture the entirety of happiness. You can experience lots of pleasure, but if you don’t have a positive assessment of your life situations, you will be full of regret and not happy2.
Cultural Issues And Happiness
Different cultures have very different conceptions of what makes a happy life.
A lot of research has compared Eastern and Western conceptions, but I’ll bet that most cultures have their own ideas.
In the west, happiness is based strongly on a person’s internal evaluation (cognitive) of them self, whereas in the east, external evaluation is more important3.
Similarly, subjective well-being in the east emphasizes role obligation, and subjective well-being in the west is related to personal accountability and pursuit of goals4.
Well, Now What?
We just went through an awful lot of information. What do we have to show for it?
Or as Homer Simpson said after his submarine was hit by a torpedo, “Enough of what’s out! What’s in?"
I’ve drawn two primary conclusions from the above discussion:
- Subjectivity. What makes a person happy is very personal, and it can’t be determined from the outside looking in. Only the individual can decide what makes them happy.
- Values. The subjective aspect of happiness comes down to the different values people hold. This would explain cultural differences, and why some people have such heated and differing opinions on the matter! What has intrinsic value to you?
Existentialism, Meaning, And Happiness
One particular worldview that I have always been fascinated by is existentialism.
Existentialists argue that there is nothing that holds intrinsic value universally. Because of this, many people with only a surface level knowledge of existentialism find it incredibly depressing and defeatist.
But for whatever reason, I’ve always been intrigued.
I’m not going to try and convince you to become an existentialist, but we can use their insights to help discover our new view of happiness.
Existence Precedes Essence
We all come into existence before we define ourselves. We are all individuals, and not the labels that other people use (and that we tend to accept) to define us.
Your true “essence" is the life that you lead. You can only define yourself through your actions, and you are wholly responsible for those actions.
In this way, you determine your own values and create your own meaning. Instead of there being a quality that holds intrinsic value for everyone, you have the freedom to choose your own meaning for life.
Each individual is solely responsible for giving their own life a meaning, and then living that meaning in a passionate and sincere way.
The idea of authenticity is kind of like the popular notion of “being yourself".
Do you act morally because it is something that “moral people" do? Or is your choice one that you made on your own, regardless of the social sanctions implied by your actions?
Authenticity is acting in accordance with your values.
You can think of your life as an unfolding story. To act authentically is to be the author of your own story. On the other hand, an inauthentic life would be one in which you allow other forces to write your story for you.
This says nothing about what the right or wrong way to live your life is. Rather, authenticity is about how you live your life; do you live it as yourself, or do you live it to fit into certain roles?
Final Thoughts On Existentialism And Happiness
Camus, an existentialist author, said, “But what is happiness other than the simple harmony between man and the life he leads?"
I think this is spot on. But what creates this harmony between man and his life?
The answer is meaning.
How To Live A Happy Life
At this point, we have discovered enough about what happiness is that we can now dissect what it actually takes to live such a life.
While it may not always seem easy to be happy, you must first recognize that you have control. You have the power to choose whether you are happy or not.
I’ve distilled the “process" of living a happy life down into five steps.
1. Take Responsibility For Your Life.
First things first: you must realize and accept that you and only you are responsible for your life and for your happiness.
Sure, things will happen to you that you can’t control. But you can control how you respond to them, and nothing and no one will ever take that ability away from you.
Whether you decide to accept personal responsibility or not, you are responsible. What you do with your life is up to you.
If you aren’t happy, it’s up to you to make it happen. This means that you must take conscious control of your reaction to the events and circumstances around you.
2. Know Your Values And Your Purpose.
Without committing yourself to some meaning or purpose, you will drift along aimlessly.
It is important to note that your values will change throughout your life. The things that I used to stand for in high school are completely different from the things that matter to me now.
Knowing yourself is a continuous process of trying to find meaning in your world.
3. Cultivate Awareness.
To be aware is to be present in the moment while simultaneously cognizant of your values.
This doesn’t mean you must be consciously thinking about your values all the time (in fact, you shouldn’t), you should merely be aware of what they are.
Cultivating awareness is a lifelong process, and no one (except maybe a few Buddhist monks) can be aware at all times. For normal people like you and me, steady improvement is the name of the game.
What I mean by awareness here is not exactly what people often mean when they say “being in the moment". It also includes recognizing the filters through which you view the world and being open to new possibilities.
So if you are religious, you need to recognize that you are interpreting your reality through your religious filter. Other people will interpret their realities through a secular filter, and you must accept those differences.
At any given moment, you should be present and experiencing it while knowing that a different experience of that moment would be just as legitimate.
4. Recognize The Choice You Have In Every Moment.
In every moment there is a choice. You have a multitude of different actions you can take.
There is no need to dwell on this choice, you should just be aware of it.
Right now I am writing up this blog post, but I don’t have to. I’m making the choice this very moment to type these thoughts down instead of, say, watching Saved By The Bell on Netflix. Or cooking. Or jogging. Or drinking to excess. Or….you get the point.
This step becomes much more obvious to you in real time if you are in the habit of setting and working towards goals.
5. Express Yourself Authentically With Each Choice.
So you’ve accepted responsibility for your life. You know what is important to you. You are present in the moment, and you realize that you have the choice to act however you want in that moment.
You have the freedom and the responsibility to make the right choice.
Ask yourself, “What does this moment expect from me?"
This is the heart of existential meaning. You must act in the here and now in the most worthwhile and realistic way given your circumstances.
If you value good health and you walk past a bakery, you should consciously choose not to buy any pastries. Simple.
Be the author of your own story.
Now of course, this isn’t always easy, and you certainly won’t always make the right decision.
But living the good life means acting authentically as much as you possibly can.
So there you have it. Happiness is the harmony between you and your life that you achieve through finding meaning in every moment.
With this definition of happiness, there are no “guru’s". Everyone is succeeding or failing on a moment to moment basis. You have no reason to listen to me or anyone about what makes you happy. You must take your own counsel and assess yourself by your own standards.
Find your own meaning, and live it authentically.
Where do you find meaning in your life?