What is Happiness?

 Happy – lucky, fortunate; contented with one’s lot, glad or pleased[i]

Synonyms [of happy]: Pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction.[ii]

Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” (Aristotle) [iii]

The very purpose of life is to seek happiness.” (The Dalai Llama)[iv]

Happiness has always mattered

The pursuit of happiness has been a central concern for millennia across many different cultures. We find its earliest written expressions in ancient traditions as diverse as Buddhism with its devotion to compassion and the end of suffering, and we find it as a theme in ancient Greek Philosophy, especially in the work of Aristotle who believed that happiness was the very meaning and purpose of life.

Happiness first became recognised as a political goal in the United State’s Declaration of human rights, and its pursuit is today embedded in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN General Assembly 1948)[v] and governments around the world are increasingly seeking to measure ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an indicator of national progress.  The best known example of this is Bhutan’s commitment to measuring Gross National, but in recent years the British government has stepped up efforts to monitor the well being of the nation.

world happiness report.jpg

In 2012 the United Nations commissioned the first ‘World Happiness Report

Looking at literature, happiness emerged as a common theme amongst late Enlightenment philosophers, the topic seeing a surge of interest between 1800-1840, most notably in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s theories of utilitarianism.[vi] Following this, the topic of happiness as a focus of literary attention witnessed a gradual decline, until just after the turn of the millennium, since when the topic of happiness has seen a massive increase in popularity. Today, an Amazon search in books for the term ‘happiness’ yields 21,742 results[vii]

So the fact that humanity has this shared goal is clear, but what is this thing we call happiness?

What is happiness?

The problem with defining happiness is that although the experience of it may have objectively measurable, biological roots (Layard 2011) it is also a subjective feeling with many different dimensions and in order to understand this complex feeling we need to unpick its various qualities. I think it is useful to distinguish between four different dimensions of happiness.

– ‘Aroused’ compared to ‘unaroused’ happiness

– Immediate ‘in the moment happiness’ compared ‘reflective’ happiness

– Happiness as pleasure compared to ‘eudaemonic’ happiness

– Ego-centric notions of happiness compared to egoless ideals of happiness

There is a degree of overlap between these different dimensions, and other systems of categorising happiness may well have fewer categories, but to really ‘unpick’ this emotion, I feel it is most useful to work in four dimensions as will hopefully become clear below.

‘Aroused’ and ‘unaroused’ states of happiness


Clubbing – merely induces an ‘aroused’ state of happiness

Aroused states of happiness are those states characterised by pleasurable feelings of intense joy, excitement, heightened awareness or a general sense of being ‘mad for it’. Most of us would associate such feelings with the ‘happiest times of our lives’ – Peak experiences such opening your presents on Christmas Day, finding out you’ve passed you’re A levels, or the day you get married; while on a more day-to-day basis such peak experiences might include such things as orgasms, your football team scoring a goal, or simply going out at the weekend. Wonderful though such peak experiences are, basing our happiness on them is fundamentally flawed as these are relatively short-lived moments in the grand scheme of the years of our lives.

In contrast to these short-lived ‘peak experience’ moments of happiness, for most of us, most of the time, ‘happiness’ means a slower-burning feeling characterised by contentment, satisfaction, being at ease, and peace of mind. These are generally the kind of ‘happiness feelings’ that are elicited by happiness surveys (Layard 2011) in which people are asked to reflect on how happy they are with their lives. These surveys reveal a huge range of different types of activity that people associate with happiness. In order of reporting – people are happiest when engaged in sex, socialising, relaxing, praying/ worshipping/ meditating, eating, exercising, watching T.V. and shopping.

It we are honest with ourselves, most of the time, most of these activities don’t involve us experiencing extreme joy[viii], although any of these activities might morph into such moments and then back into mere contentment and so on. It is also worth briefly noting the activities we associate with happiness range from ‘watching television’, an extremely passive, often unconscious activity, to prayer, which is at its best can be a very ‘tuned in’ highly conscious activity.

Immediate happiness compared to reflective happiness

According to recent survey data[ix] the happiest time of the week is 7.26pm on a Saturday evening while ‘7.29am on a Monday is the lowest point. In general, we are happier at weekends than on Mondays, in the morning compared to the evening (Golder and Macy 2011), and in any given year, the happiest day is June 20th[x]. All of us will be able to relate to such cyclical fluctuations in happiness – all of us will have our happiest times of the day, week and year, and all of us will be able to say ‘right now’ I am relatively happy or sad’. In fact, revelling in the up times, being aware that ‘I am happy right now’, being aware of the fact that ‘I’m lovin’ it’ can actually be an important part of the experience of immediate happiness on top of the actual feeling of happiness itself. The problem with ‘happiness in the moment’ is that at best it only gives us a partial measure of someone’s overall level of happiness, which is why we also need to take into consideration reflective happiness.

Reflective happiness involves looking at your life in the longer term and, taking into account all of the moment to moment fluctuations, reflecting on how happy you are in general at this stage of your life, rather than on how happy you are right now in this moment compared to other moments. Reflective happiness can also involve people evaluating their happiness by comparing what they have achieved in their life so far compared to what they think they should have achieved, which in turn is influenced by one’s relative social status in society.

Looked at in this way, it is possible to have had a year consisting of miserable moments, while on reflection you are very happy with your life in general. One can easily imagine, for example, someone working in an intense career earning a six figure salary hating the 14 hour days and experiencing very little ‘immediate happiness’ in the course of a typical working week, but such a person might score very highly on reflective happiness by deriving a sense of status and self-worth from knowing that they’re in the top 1% of earners and that their plan to semi-retire at 45 is well in hand. As a converse example, someone might have a wonderful social life and plenty of drug-induced peak experiences, but might be stuck in a dead-end job, going nowhere, knowing that it’s only a matter of time until ‘the drugs don’t work’.

Happiness as pleasure compared to ‘Eudaemonic’ happiness

There is a big difference between happiness as straightforward ‘enjoyment’ or ‘pleasure’ seeking, characterised by immediate gratification of some sort – supping on my bucket-sized quad-shot cappuccino between eating forkfuls of my double chocolate fudge cake, or spending a week on holiday indulging in booze, sun and sex (probably in that quantity-order for most people), for example, and Eudaemonic happiness which is happiness achieved through the restraints of deferred gratification.

Eudaemonia is an ancient Greek concept most commonly associated with Aristotle[xi] [xii] who equated happiness, with “human flourishing”. For Aristotle, happiness was ‘a final end or goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations. It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being’.[xiii] Eudaemonia is a value laden concept which holds that a life worth living is one in which the individual engages in effort to pursue a more meaningful happiness in the long term which may well require one to forgo immediate gratification and engage in a routine and disciplined life, potentially even enduring considerable suffering along the way.

Aristotle believed that individuals could fulfil their potential, and thus maximise their happiness, by developing the intellect through exercising reason and leading a ‘virtuous life’, which for Aristotle roughly equated to leading a moral life in engagement with society – striking a balance between such things as being disciplined enough to restrain yourself when just doing as you please might result in negative consequences, and yet having the courage to engage with society where necessary, rather than standing back and doing nothing.

Aristotle, however, is far from having a monopoly on the notion of Eudaemonic happiness, and there is considerable disagreement over how individuals can best achieve ‘happiness through flourishing’. All of the world’s major religions contain within them the idea that meaningful happiness is to be achieved through leading a virtuous or ethical life and they all lay down codes of conduct which, if followed, supposedly lead to greater peace of mind in this life, or bliss in the next.

Neither is this type of happiness limited to religion. Thousands of humanists and political activists who engage in ‘lifestyle’ politics today practice the way of the Eudaemon, believing that a more meaningful happiness in the longer term can only be achieved through things such as voluntary poverty, ethical consumption, veganism, and protest where appropriate.

As well as developing ‘moral character’ and leading an ethical life, eudaemonic notions of happiness also incorporate the idea that in order to lead a meaningful and happy life one needs to fulfil one’s own potential and this notion is widespread in contemporary society. The most obvious example of this as I write in early August 2012 is the Olympic athlete who sacrifices and suffers to realise their full athletic potential. This type of great effort to achieve great things is hugely celebrated[xiv] in our society, and such efforts are by no means limited to big name athletes. Millions of people sacrifice to meet their athletic goals, as do millions of students who go through education every year, and there is a wealth of similar examples people forgoing immediate pleasure, even enduring suffering in the present, in order to maximise their potential in the future.

Layard (2005) reports on research by psychologist Carol Ryff which has found a correlation between believing you are leading a meaningful life and levels of happiness. So according to this research, eudaemons are likely to be happier than immediate-gratifiers, so many people subjectively believe that this type of happiness is more worthwhile than the happiness associated with mere immediate-gratification and many people believe that greater and more profound happiness in the future can only be achieved through deferring immediate gratification to achieve their eudaemonic objectives.

 Egocentric and egoless happiness

By egocentric ideas of happiness I mean any notion of happiness which revolves around the self – such as me being gratified by getting what I want. By egoless notions of happiness I mean any sense of happiness that arises as a result of a genuine intention to put the well-being of others before oneself or any happiness that arises when the self becomes temporarily absorbed in an activity.

Egocentric notions of happiness include most of the notions of happiness which have already been discussed. This means any form of happiness achieved through me getting what I want – in the short term this means any happiness induced when I move from a relatively unhappy to a more happy state by eating my chocolate cake, going on my holiday, or getting into a relationship with somebody I desire; in the longer term it means the more contented happiness that arises when I consider how wonderful my life is compared to others, or the smug satisfaction I get when I reflect back on my life’s achievements. Those eudaemonic notions of happiness which are rooted in me fulfilling my potential for the sake of myself are also egocentric. We might celebrate the achievements of Olympic gold medallists for example, but these achievements are, at the end of the day, all about them. Some might even argue that one individual putting in so much effort to be able to jump just 10 centimetres further or run just 1 second faster than the next person to achieve glory on one day in one four year period ranks amongst the most egocentric projects in the world.

Egoless notions of happiness

Probably the most accessible and appealing dimension of ‘egoless happiness’ comes in the form of the now widely known idea of ‘flow’ which refers to the loss self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity. Classic examples of activities where ‘flow’ might occur include playing music, dancing, painting, or engaging in hobbies more generally. The idea of flow as an ideal form of happiness was originally proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Csíkszentmihályi, 2013), one of the leading thinkers within the positive psychology movement, who argues that for flow to happen we have to be engaged voluntarily in an activity which we enjoy doing with the intention of self-improvement. This essentially means that while this is an egoless mode of happiness in the immediate term, in the longer term it is egocentric.

To my mind a more authentic form of egoless happiness is witnessed in those people who strive to achieve happiness through helping others. Most of us will be able to think of examples of occasions when we have become happier through doing good for others, putting someone else’s needs before our own, or contributing to the collective good. This type of happiness emerges when we work as part of a team, when we give gifts, and when we care for dependent relations or spend time patiently educating our children. Most of us recognise that to lead a truly satisfying life we need not only to work with others, but we need to do things for others as well. I refer to these as ‘egoless notions of happiness’ in the sense that ‘I’ am less important in such examples than ‘I’ am in the immediate-gratification notions of happiness referred to earlier.

 Shallow happiness strategies compared to deep happiness strategies

To summarise I have distinguished between 4 ‘dimensions’ of happiness – I refer to any combination of those on the left as ‘shallow’ and those on the right as ‘deep’.

  1. ‘Aroused’ compared to ‘unaroused’ happiness – or ‘intense, excited peak experience’ happiness compared to calm, contented happiness.
  2. Immediate ‘in the moment happiness’ compared ‘reflective’ happiness – or felt happiness right now compared to our analysis of how happy we are in general.
  3. Happiness as pleasure compared to ‘eudaemonic’ happiness – Or happiness derived from immediate gratification compared to the happiness we derive from striving and possibly suffering to achieve our potential.
  4. Egocentric notions of happiness compared to egoless ideals of happiness – or the happiness derived from ‘gratifying myself’ compared to happiness derived from losing myself.

NB – I’m aware this is a bit of a departure from the main themes of this blog, but this is just something that interests me, so I thought I’d shove it our there.


[i]            1976. Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 6th Edition. Oxford University Press

[ii]           The Online Dictionary – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/happy?s=t

[iii]           Cited from the Writing Creative Non Fiction Blog –  http://writingcreativenonfiction.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/positive-psychology-what-makes-people-happy/

[iv]          Howard C. Cutler  and His Holiness The Dalai Lama, 1999. The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Mobius.

[v]           Article 25 refers to well-being which is one important dimension of happiness. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

[vi]          Google Books Ngram Viewer http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=happiness&year_start=1750&year_end=2008&corpus=0&smoothing=0

[vii]          Searched on 30th October 2012

[viii]          If anyone has any data on how much of people’s active sex lives is characterised by feelings of ‘love and contentment’ compared to ‘going at it’ please do get in touch. My feeling is that for most people even sex is overwhelmingly about the former and the ‘going at it’ element is much less significant, hence I’d say that even ‘sex’ is really about ‘contentment’ rather than ‘ecstasy’.

[ix]           Daily Mail, 2011. When Do YOU Unwind: The happiest time of the week is 7.26pm on a Saturday http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353672/Saturday-evening-7-26pm-happiest-time-week-British-people.html

[x]           The Telegraph.19th June 2008. Today is the Happiest Day of the Year –  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2158104/Today-is-the-happiest-day-of-the-year-according-to-Cliff-Arnalls-maths-formula.html

[xi]           See this entry in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for a fairly thorough and reasonably accessible discussion of the concepts of virtue, practical wisdom, Eudemonia and how they relate to each other. – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

[xii]          For a contemporary slant on Eudemonia see Karen Salmansohn’s blog post ‘A Happiness Tip from Aristotle’, from The Positively Positive Blog, April 8th 2012 http://www.positivelypositive.com/2012/04/08/a-happiness-tip-from-aristotle/

[xiii]          See this blog post on Aristotle – The Pursuit of Happiness: Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life –  http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/

[xiv]          On logging onto Twitter one day in early August 2012 I was greeted with the following strap-line on the homepage – ‘Dedication. Sacrifice. Guts, Glory. Get closer to the #Olympics on Twitter’, August 4th 2012

This entry was posted in Emotions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is Happiness?

  1. Pingback: Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy | ReviseSociology

  2. Inkposts says:

    I’m going to bookmark this and give it another read.

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