Throughout human history, few things have been debated by philosophers so often and so deeply as the nature of happiness. Is it an illusion, or a state of feeling content, either through letting go of anxiety or through attaining a state of satisfaction with one’s life? Is it simply a feeling of pleasure? What does it mean, exactly, to be happy?
Over the past few decades, those who study happiness have favoured the ranking of one’s overall “life satisfaction” (through questions such as, “On a scale of one to ten, how satisfied with your life are you right now?”) as indicative of one’s relative happiness— a hypothesis which has formed the basis of many of the happiness studies you’ve likely read about. Happiness has therefore been treated as something of a judgment, an equation people process based on observations of their lives.
This view, logical as it may seem at first glance, may be somewhat reductive, however. Psychologists have discovered there is a curious aspect to human satisfaction that possibly makes it a poor indicator of that elusive quality we call happiness—almost everyone, even those living in the most miserable of conditions (such as the slums of Calcutta), claims to be fairly satisfied with their lives overall. In a recent study of impoverished Egyptians, for example, researchers asked the study’s participants to explain why they were satisfied, and generally received responses following a similar central theme: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.”
Of course, the above statement does not exactly dance with ebullient joy; instead, it seems as though the poor Egyptians had long ago accepted the fact that they likely could do little to improve their lot in life, so had decided to accept it and remain as content as possible regardless. Doing so was an act of resignation, but by now it has become so practiced for many of these people that they rank their overall satisfaction with life as being pretty good.
When one examines the word “satisfaction” there is a clue as to why this is the case—satisfaction relies on things merely being satisfactory, not great. And, as things could usually be going worse, even if one is struggling to get by from day to day in an Egyptian slum (one could, for example, have terminal cancer, or be homeless altogether), most people are fairly willing to call their lives satisfactory, even if they could be substantially better. One must also factor in the impact of faith: Many of the world’s poorest are deeply religious, and as such, not quick to protest the challenges God has given them to overcome. Others are heavily invested in a cause which they are relatively glad to suffer for, as they believe in it very strongly. These people may be empowered, soothed, or driven by what they happen to have faith in, but this is not the same as having true happiness. They are instead simply able to set aside feelings of misery owing to the belief that if they carry on, they will be happy one day; they will gain entry into heaven, for example, or their efforts for their cause will come to fruition and they will die a hero.
Of course, life satisfaction tests are not without merit; they still provide us with useful information about how much people can deal with, what tools help them overcome extreme circumstances, and so on, but ultimately they are less than useful for defining happiness.
But if happiness is not overall satisfaction with one’s life, then what is it? The alternative approach among researchers currently relies on feelings; simply, if you feel good, you are happy. If you feel bad, you’re not happy. This take on the matter may seem extremely basic, but it circumvents subjective judgment getting in the way of assessing how one actually feels. Using this direct model, the Egyptians would not be seen as “happy” overall as, of course, most of them do not feel good owing to their poor circumstances.
This simple take on the matter might be enough for some, but for others, it opens up a whole new can of worms: What exactly is this “feeling good”? Most would say it’s experiencing pleasure rather than pain (including well-known philosophers like Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), but others would argue that this hedonistic belief system leads often to illusory happiness rather than true happiness.
It’s also a bit too purely physical in nature; few of us, after all, believe physical pain and unhappiness to be entirely one in the same. One may cause the other, yes, but unhappiness is also often a distinct state that seems entirely unrelated to physical, direct suffering. It seems to exist in its own unique capacity, and its origins are sometimes entirely mystifying to the sufferer.
If unhappiness can exist independent of physical suffering, it logically follows suit that happiness can exist outside of feelings of physical pleasure.
Happiness is, instead, likely a complex emotional phenomenon, a sense of wellbeing that extends beyond mere pleasure or basic satisfaction and extends into one’s emotions and moods—indeed, into one’s emotional condition as a whole. A person is happy when he or she typically inhabits a favourable emotional state: The individual is most often in good spirits, quick to laugh and smile and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and at ease in his or her being, engaged, energetic, and possessing a certain joie de vivre that lights up the room.
But how does one get there? If happiness is not merely a brute animal response to one’s life, how does it come to be? And moreover, how do we measure it?
The Creation of Happiness
When analyzing what, exactly, creates happiness, one does well to remember that while we humans have animal needs—for food, shelter, etc.—we are fundamentally emotional beings. We are foremost defined by our emotional natures, which in turn shape what ways of living make us happy, our needs as persons. Happiness is, most likely, the fulfillment of these deeper, more complex personal needs.
While these needs differ for everyone in exact balance and intensity, they tend to involve a handful of similar themes, such as attaining a sense of security, a positive outlook, autonomy or control over one’s life, healthy and enriching relationships, along with skilled and meaningful activity. Unhappiness usually results from a deficiency (real or perceived) in one of the aforementioned areas.
Ergo, unhappiness is a deeply personal phenomenon, one which says something about the sufferer’s personality (unlike pain; one cannot devise much about a person’s nature simply due to that person suffering from back pain, for example). Accordingly, one is not taught, generally, to not feel pain; even the Stoics and Buddhists do not advise such. Instead, one is advised to control one’s reaction to that pain, so as not to let it convince one that a deficiency is present in life.
Even human language notes a difference in this area: People feel pain, but are upset, anxious, melancholy, etc.—and if someone is melancholy, anxious, etc. a lot of the time, his or her personality is said to be a sad or nervous one as a whole. One cannot, however, have a “painful” personality, even if one suffers from chronic pain.
Similarly, while taking medication to alter one’s mood is often hotly debated as somehow being inauthentic to one’s true self, no one debates taking an Aspirin for a headache in that same way.
The above idea of happiness may not seem exactly revolutionary to the average person, but it was barely discussed 20 years ago, and the scientific literature on happiness even today often does little to differentiate between this take on happiness and the hedonistic model. Happiness has, in short, been quite neglected as a serious area of scientific study.
Why? Perhaps because of the human tendency to see it as a somewhat superficial emotion; there is an inherent bias toward darker emotions being deeper, more intellectual, more complex. Likewise, in our efforts to fully convey the divine nature of true happiness, we humans have often reached for spiritual metaphors—giving rise to indefinite terminology fastidiously avoided by researchers, who are left instead with a much more feeble technical vocabulary with which to investigate and describe true, lasting happiness.
From this use of spiritual terminology, however, we can deduce something important about happiness; there is something uniquely human about our perception of it, something that speaks to the idea of meeting our distinct needs as persons, as individual spirits. Ergo, it can be suggested that what we define as happiness is bound hand-in-hand with the idea of living in accordance with our true selves, or self-actualization.
The idea of human flourishing as a result of the fulfillment of the self is an ancient one, stretching back at least to ancient Greece, the Vedas in India, and likely other, earlier civilizations that we lack written records from. To live in accordance with one’s own nature is, according to philosophers across the ages, the true meaning of happiness, and moreover, of life.
This concept is more practically applicable than many give it credit for; most people who are generally depressed, anxious, or stressed seek, futilely, for a cause of their misery by scrutinizing the minutiae of their lives, the events that happen on a day-to-day basis which may have set them off. The idea of happiness as a process of self-actualization suggests that instead, these people should take a more holistic approach and analyze whether or not the way they are living makes sense within the context of who they are. Rather like physical pain warns us of what to avoid in our physical environment, emotional pain may be used to warn an individual of what he or she needs to steer clear of in the richer, more complex tapestry of life. By listening to such signals, we can be set firmly on the path to better living, attaining true happiness as a result.