What Is Happiness?

08/21/2016 01:35 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2016

If you were to look in the dictionary, you would find that “happiness” is “the state of being happy.”

This not being terribly helpful (literal-mindedness is an occupational hazard of dictionary compilers), you might consult “happy” and learn it to mean: “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.” (Merriam-Webster Online).

Many thinkers have considered the nature of happiness down the centuries. The Dalai Lama wrote an entire book on it: The Art of Happiness. “If you want to be happy,” he informs us, “practice compassion.” He also links happiness to cultivating a disciplined mind and making the best of our allotted time.

So, let us reflect what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives, and set our priorities on the basis of that. The purpose of our life needs to be positive. We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others. For our life to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities—warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more peaceful—happier.

The Dalai Lama’s statements about happiness help clarify why so many people are unhappy. If you are selfish, if you feel little or no empathy for others, if your mind is disorganized, if you harm others, you will not be happy.

We might build on this: if you lie to yourself a lot, if you are stuck in mindless consumerism, if you are greedy (even if you don’t own much), if you have a violent temper, if you are sour in mood as most chronic complainers are, if you look to others for your sense of purpose, you will not be happy. If you are chronically hard on yourself, you will not be happy.

All told, that lets out, what? Eighty percent of us. No wonder we wonder how to be happy.

Overall, I agree with the dictionary, which I use a lot, and with the Dalai Lama, with whom I share a birthday; but, not being the dictionary or the Dalai Lama, I would qualify both based on my own experience of happiness.

To the dictionary definition I would add “deep satisfaction and overall contentment with one’s life” because that is how I feel. Not 100% content, of course. I would change a few things in my life, but not many.

As for the Dalai Lama, I question his implied assumption that a life must have a purpose or a meaning. Just one? Not several?

I have a friend who is happy with his life. We are opposites in how we got to happiness, though. I’m a doer. I would not be happy if I weren’t tackling tasks. My life revolves around the singleness of meaning and purpose the Dalai Lama mentions. My friend’s does not. He is here to be, not to do. We balance each other.

When I turned fifty, I took a serious inventory of my life. Am I where I want to be? In what ways? Whither next? When my friend turned fifty, he lifted a beer to celebrate five decades of play. Cheers.

So different approaches to life make for different kinds of happiness. If spiritually matters most to you, you will not be happy living an unspiritual life. If you are artistically rooted and spend your time filling out forms, you will not be happy. Happiness, then, depends at least in part on figuring out what kind of person you are and, as such, what you want and need.

For most of us, learning this depends on other people. We are a gregarious species, like horses are. A purely individualistic approach to happiness stands a good chance of making us unhappy. Incidentally, it is because of the friend mentioned above that I did not perish long ago of taking my life too seriously. No one grows alone.

For me, happiness is more of a mood than a goal. I’ve never tried to be happy. As a doer I’ve always been too busy creating or leading or organizing.

By involving myself with what matters to me, I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to come to a point of realizing: yes, I’m happy now. For people like me who prefer Valhalla to Nirvana, at least on most days, I recommend forgetting about happiness and instead finding out what most deeply motivates you, then acting on it. What’s your passion.

The percentage of unhappy people fancifully mentioned above goes up when we consider an attitude guaranteed to prevent happiness: blaming what happens in your life on other people, things, or circumstances. If you say to yourself, “I would be happy with my life if —“ and the “if” points somewhere else, you may have resigned accountability for your own life. That is a lot of power to give up.

Another way of saying this is that we are never relieved of the task of taking up an active stance toward what assails us. Some of us have it much worse than others. No one escapes the accountability task. Having someone to blame for where you are in life is one of the most crippling positions to be in.

Hard to get out of, too. There’s a kind of resentful relief in making it all someone else’s fault. Some years ago a therapy client told me that if he hadn’t been abused as a child, he would have had a chance to make something of himself. “I was abused as a child,” I replied, “and I made something of myself. Isn’t the real issue how we face the abuse and what we do about it?”

There is absolutely no question that trauma from outside curtails possibilities. Whole groups of people are thrust down by oppressive mistreatment, bigotry, poverty, and violence. Every day they have it a hundred times harder than the rest of us. Yet some stand up and ask: What can I make of this? What good can come of it?

They have understood what Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, pointed out: that what we ask of life is less important than what life asks of us. They are the bright gems of humanity, the models of excellence, and happiness, for the rest of us. We can learn from them.

If you are privileged enough to live in secure circumstances and are still not happy, perhaps the inquiry starts with how you make yourself unhappy. Are you assigning something or someone else responsibility for how your life is turning out? Are you neglecting your self-care? Are you addicted to misery? Do you feel so entitled to special treatment in life that you pass up opportunities? Do you not know what you love most in life, what gives you joy, what makes your soul glow and rise?

I won’t finish here by undertaking a general definition of happiness, which for me is more or less what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia: living in accord with what your deepest self calls for in relation to other selves and the world around you. Instead, I invite you to explore what happiness means to you. Whatever it is for you, I wish you a plentiful portion of it.

 

 

 

 

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