Difficulties of Writing About Happiness

One of the difficulties of writing about and pursuing happiness is defining it. Ask anyone what it means “to be happy” and you’ll get a variety of answers that range from synonyms that aren’t really synonyms (to be content versus to be joyful), to philosophical interpretations of virtue to psychological explanations of a pleasant mental state.

I’d say that most people who you’d ask to define happiness have never really given much thought to what it means to be happy. They’ve gone through their entire lives thinking that either they’re happy at any given moment, or they’re not. They probably never pushed it further than that. They might not be able to define it, but intuitively they know what it is.

That is all well and good. And sometimes, the secret to being happy lies in not questioning things too much, and just accepting that in some cases things are what they are. However, I’m going to need to be writing about happiness, the pursuit of it, and how one attains it. That is tough to do without the starting point of a definition. So, let’s look at a few different ways of defining happiness and see if we can’t settle on something for the rest of our discussion.

Various dictionary definitions

There are a number of different dictionary definitions of happiness, and most of them come down to the following: the state of being happy, with “happy” being defined as characterized by pleasure, joy or contentment. In short, happiness is most often described in the literal sense with imperfect synonyms. Imperfect because none of them means exactly the same thing. While happiness seems close enough to joy, and close enough to contentment, joy and contentment do not really resemble each other. Joy is an exuberant emotion, whereas contentment is a neutral state.

While this does not help us define happiness particularly well, it does give us a range to look between. Somewhere between joy and contentment, we find happiness.

The philosophical interpretation of happiness

Philosophical interpretations of happiness are as numerous as there are different philosophies. While I don’t claim to be an expert in philosophy, I have read my fair share of it, and there does appear to be at least two contrasting positions on what happiness is in philosophy.

The first position that appears in much of ancient Greek philosophy, is the notion that happiness arises from virtue. In this sense, the greek word eudaimonia is translated as happiness. In this interpretation, happiness is about living a good life and being virtuous. To overly simplify, that which is virtuous is good. Good in this sense can either mean positive, or it can mean acting in a way that is good, or benevolently. Therefore, it stands to reason that to be happy is to be good or to be benevolent.

The competing interpretation of happiness, arises from the hedonistic tradition in which happiness revolves around seeking out pleasure and avoiding unpleasantness (again to overly simplify an entire philosophical tradition). This seems more aligned with our modern colloquial interpretation of happiness.

It seems to me that to achieve a truly happy state, one needs to combine both. Surely, acting virtuously can bring a person happiness, however, that does not mean that a virtuous person is automatically happy. Similarly, seeking pleasure might lead to an emotion of happiness, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy person overall.

The psychological meaning of happiness

Psychology seems to be the most scientific approach to measuring happiness, but even amongst psychologists there is disagreement about what constitutes happiness. Instead, psychologists focus on “subjective well-being” and use happiness as a measure. In other words happiness isn’t so much defined as it is used as a measure of defining something else entirely.

The World Happiness Report for instance, simply goes ahead and asks people around the world how happy they are, and then uses known facts about the countries and individuals to determine the factors that impact happiness. The 2013 report stated that six factors particularly influenced happiness. Those six factors were: “real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, perceived freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, and generosity.”

The flaw in this system is that it relies on each individual’s interpretation of happiness to measure it. So, what factors influence happiness in each country could be different based on what the individual’s interpretation.

What I Mean When I Talk About Happiness

So, where does that leave us? When I talk about happiness, I’m going to be using a combination of all of the above. It is partly an emotion, partly a feeling of contentment, partly virtue, and partly “subjective well-being.” In some instances, I might lean more towards one meaning than another, but at the end of the day, I will count on the judgment of the reader to determine what I mean. After all, if we’ve gone several thousand years of written language without having a perfect definition of happiness, then I’m certain that we can live with a little ambiguity on this humble blog. That being said, as we go, I will return to this topic, and dive into sources that define happiness more closely.

All of this is to the good. I firmly believe that a principle of happiness is making peace with ambiguity, and accommodating uncertainty.