What is happiness?

The word happiness tends to get used a lot. But what is happiness? Happiness can mean something different to each of us, and also how we use the word happiness might depend on our circumstances at the time.

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But which type of happiness?

Happiness has power and complexity behind it and if we’re not clear on what we’re talking about then perhaps there is the possibility we might misunderstand one another or even be misled.

There are different types of happiness and we may want certain types of happiness more than others. Here I’m going to attempt explain different types of happiness and how they might link to people’s everyday thinking as to what happiness is. Then I’ll add some personal reflections as to how one might, or might not, achieve all these different types of happiness.

From the outset I think it important to say that deep down you will probably have a sense of what happiness means for you and how much of it you want and need. In my opinion that inner guide seems the thing to trust the most over any expert. Nevertheless, perhaps this blog post might help with your own reflections in some way. I know that writing it has helped my own reflections.

First, my own personal conflicts out of the way

I must hold my hands up; I often use the word happiness without clarifying what I mean when I talk with people about the research I’ve been doing for the last decade. I do this with, I believe, a certain degree of personal consciousness. Not to mislead but because I’ve found it is the most interesting and captivating way of explaining what I’ve been doing. I see people’s eyes glisten fondly and often they want to know more. Or they may sometimes see it is an opportunity share their own ideas about happiness and express what it means to them. It often enables the conversation to deepen.

Perhaps I should be more accurate with my language and say I research “subjective well-being” of which happiness, as it might be understood in everyday language, is only a part of. However, I have found if I choose to present my research in this way then it can often be the end of a conversation. I’d prefer to have people interested in what I’ve be doing with my life – yes my own self-esteem and self-worth is a part of why I do that, but my deeper motivation is my whole-hearted belief that happiness and/or well-being could do with being talked about a bit more widely in our communities.

We’ve been talking about happiness for a long time – hedonic and eudaimonic

We can look as far back as the ancient Greeks to find the first written work on happiness. When discussing happiness Aristotle differentiated between hedonia and eudaimonia

Hedonia, directly translatable to what happiness is perhaps most often conceived of in society today, reflected to Aristotle the positive emotions (such as joy, exhilaration, fun, contentment…) we experience on a moment-to-moment basis. Under this conception of happiness living a happy life would mean maximising the amount of positive emotions and minimising the negative emotions (such as sadness, anger, frustration, disgust…) that we experience.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, was considered to represent a form of happiness whereby people are following their best inner nature. To Aristotle this consisted of following cultural ideals of excellence of the time i.e. living a virtuous life such as being wise, brave, and temperate. A good way of describing this type of happiness would be human flourishing.

Both of these early descriptions of happiness are rooted in how happiness is thought about and discussed today. Rather than refer to happiness researchers tend think in terms of well-being, which is a broader concept and has less potential to mislead, that incorporates both hedonic and eudaimonic components.

Hedonic well-being describes the moment-to-moment emotions we experience and these are separated into what are referred to as positive affect and negative affect – positive and negative emotions respectively. There is a scale that has been developed called the Positive and Negative Affect Scale that enables individuals to self-report how they felt in a given moment.

Eudaimonic well-being refers to the extent to which an individual is living a life that reflects their best self – whether they are flourishing so to speak. This can be measured using a scale that is called the Psychological Well-Being scale, and gives an indication of the degree to which an individual experiences autonomy (the control a person has over their own thought and action), environmental mastery (the ability to manage complex environments to suit personal needs and values), personal growth (continued development as a person), positive relationships (establishing quality ties to others), purpose in life (having a sense of purpose in life and pursuing meaningful goals), and self-acceptance. These could perhaps be seen as cultural ideals of excellence of our own time in the same way that Aristotle saw virtues in his time.

But are we happy and satisfied with our lives overall…

So far I have described that there is an aspect of happiness that consists of the moment-to-moment balance of emotions (how do I feel now?) and another that is grounded in being the best a person can be (am I flourishing in life?). Whilst the hedonic understanding of happiness might be criticized for being based only on emotions, and perhaps somewhat superficial, the eudaimonic understanding might be considered highly prescriptive.

Another type of “happiness” is one that is evaluated on a person’s own terms. For example, we might ask ourselves “whether overall we are happy or satisfied with our lives?” Such a question encourages an individual to take a step back and reflect on their lives overall. It doesn’t necessitate that an individual be happy in that moment, nor that they be following some cultural ideals of excellence. It is based on a person’s own subjective evaluation of what would be a satisfying or happy life to them and whether they are close to it. This form of happiness, most appropriately measured using what is called the Satisfaction With Life Scale, would be considered an evaluative one and it is therefore referred to as “evaluative well-being”.

Feeling happy, (not) anxious, satisfied with life, and that life is worthwhile

All of the above ideas about happiness – feeling positive and negative emotions (hedonic well-being), satisfaction with life (evaluative well-being), and being the best person one can be (eudaimonic well-being) – are now asked, to some extent routinely, of people to gauge well-being levels. For example, in the Annual Population Survey the Office for National Statistics asks people four questions related to each of these aspects well-being (see box). Hopefully if I’ve explained the types of happiness clearly enough so that each question can be linked.

They are very simple questions. To really understand well-being I think we need to ask better questions. However, well-being is only just beginning to be taken seriously and the inclusion of these questions has sparked important national conversations around well-being. There are other countries, Canada and Bhutan in particular, who have developed scales to give an indication of well-being for their countries

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So which type of happiness would you like the most? 

Now that we have (hopefully) improved our shared understanding of what happiness is we might want to ask ourselves how each of these aspects of happiness can be obtained, if at all?

It might be quite nice to have all these types of happiness all of the time but that in all honesty this is unlikely. We’re perhaps all familiar with the happiness we experience in the moment – it can often be short-lived and as it dissipates I’ve often found my-self trying to hang onto it only finding it further and further away from our grasp. Even when I try and repeat the action that I thought created the happiness in the first place – sadly I’m often bound up with expectation when I do this and the happiness doesn’t really arrive. I might even keep desperately repeating what I was doing and experience sadness from the futility.

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Really? Advertising works but it can be misleading

What I’m trying to say here is that happiness in the moment is for the most part elusive and is rarely sustained. Most of the time this type of happiness comes when it comes – often unexpectedly and doesn’t always last that long. We can choose to do things that seem to create it like maybe buy something new or meet with friends in a bar but this doesn’t work all the time. The term the “hedonic treadmill” is perhaps familiar to many – it’s easy to focus only on chasing this type of happiness.

One misleading aspect of so-called “happiness research” and in modern society is perhaps that we should try to be happy all the time. If we’re not happy then there is something inherently wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with being sad or unhappy, the problem I’ve found in my life is when I believe I should be feeling something different rather than observing and accepting what is present.rainbow happinessA focus only on happiness in the moment, which is unlikely to come all the time, may make it difficult to obtain other forms of happiness. For example, if we were to want to flourish according to the eudaimonic definition of happiness we would need to experience some personal growth or perhaps something like more autonomy. But personal growth might entail looking at uncomfortable aspects of ourselves, and autonomy might mean having to face the fear of making an important personal decision rather than relying on others. These things might not always be conducive to being happy in the moment but sometimes seeing that you understand more about yourself and that you are empowered to make more decisions for yourself might provide one with a sustained, rather than fleeting, positive feeling about themselves – they may feel they are flourishing in life.

Likewise, it is equally likely we could feel sad in a given moment, because we perhaps saw a dead dog in the street, and indeed we may have experienced little in the way of personal growth in our lives. But nevertheless we may still reflect and evaluate our lives and feel a sense of satisfaction with regard to what we’ve achieved – for example in our relationships, in work, and at home.

Are you happy? If so, in what way? Perhaps in all ways.

Research has shown for example that those with children can have lower life satisfaction (evaluative well-being) and less positive emotions, but have much more purpose and meaning in their life compared with those that are childless. Similarly, those that are unemployed tend to experience similar amounts of moment-to-moment affect as those that are employed but are less satisfied with their lives.

Thus if someone wishes or promises you happiness they might very well be indicating that in the moment they want or are expecting you to experience an abundance of positive emotions and/or and absence of negative emotions. However, it could mean that want or are expecting you to be happy or satisfied with your life overall and be generally happy with your life. Or it might be that they wish you to flourish in life (for example, lots of autonomy and personal growth). Of course they could mean all three, and it is likely, since these aspects of happiness to some extent overlap that you may experience all of these types of happiness in life.

The important thing is that not all types of happiness are the same and that it is for you to decide how you want to try to be happy. Hopefully our environments support that pursuit. I will write a blog post on the issue of whose responsible for our happiness soon.

I hope this post was useful. Happy new year!Happiness

3 comments

  1. Happy New Year Chrisopher! Thanks for sharing this piece of wisdom – although this is something natural, I haven’t been that conscious about the different definitions of happiness.
    I’m wondering if there’s a preference or different capability to one kind or another depending on your personality?
    I sometimes feel like forgetting the hedonic well-being as I’m more focused on long-term goals. I know other people who seem to be less aware of the eudaimonic happiness and spend their life searching happiness only the hedonic way. I admire those people as they seem to have more joie de vivre – I feel they get more happiness out of hedonism and that I have to intentionally concentrate on hedonistic happiness for a more balanced happiness in life. Still, I value edaimonia more than hedonism – does that make any sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you too Carmen. Hope you get the kind of happiness you would like from it. Instinctively I think most people know what happiness means for them on some level but definitely I thought helpful to write something on it. That’s a good question about the personality preference for different questions. We know how people experience events and the happiness they derive from them is dependent on happiness but I’m not aware of much work looking at how different personalities may prefer different types of happiness. Maybe something to look into.
      Like you I’m more orientated toward obtaining eudaimonic happiness – and what you say about trying to find a balance makes sense to me. Personally rather than be hedonistic per se I try to accept whatever emotion is present – trying to grasp happiness or deflect sadness has never worked that well and part of my appreciation of these emotions for what they are has I think led to more happiness in the eudaimonic sense for me. I really enjoyed your reflections on my post – thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post and interesting to learn about hedonism v. eudaimonic happiness and the value (and misconceptions) of each in it’s own right. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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