If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.
- Lewis Carroll
We all know this: in order to get somewhere, you first need to decide where you want to go. Then you can choose the fastest road and go. So why don’t we use the same approach when it comes to happiness?
We spend a lot of time chasing different things and opportunities hoping that they will lead us to happiness. We don’t really know what will make us happy so we chase what we think will make us feel great. And I think this is a bit crazy, don’t you agree? I mean, you never drive around aimlessly hoping to get to the place you want, right?
So before chasing happiness, maybe we should decide what that means for us. Usually, when we want to find out what a certain word means, we look it up in the dictionary. If we check the online Oxford dictionary, we can find the following definition:1
Well, this isn’t very helpful… When I wanted to learn more about happiness, I knew that this type of information cannot be found in a dictionary. That’s why I started reading books about happiness written by great psychologists. If they study happiness, surely they must know what it is! And they do. From what I have read so far, happiness can be defined as:
- The experience of positive emotion (joy, pride, satisfaction and so on) and the lack of negative emotion (sadness, fear, helplessness)
- The feeling that you are living a good life
At first glance, it might seem that they mean the same thing. But they don’t. Both relate to happiness, but the two perspectives are very different.
The first definition refers to feeling – what you are feeling right now and most of the time. If you define happiness this way, here’s what you can do:
- do the things that make you happy
- get involved in activities that generate positive emotions such as joy, satisfaction, curiosity, awe, excitement, euphoria, hope, gratitude, pride and so on
- avoid situations and habits that make you feel sad, depressed, angry, afraid, bored or frustrated
- try to create a lifestyle that allows you to feel as much positive emotion and as little or no negative emotion
The second definition refers less to feelings and more to perception. This type of happiness is about what you think and feel about your life in general – regardless of the occasional and short-lived ups and downs. You look past that and think about your whole life. If you define happiness this way, you can:
- think about what it means to live a good life and create that in your life as much as possible
- ask yourself what makes life worth living
- get involved in activities and goals that are meaningful to you
- do the things that, at the end of your life, will make you feel proud of what you have accomplished
If these definitions seemed similar in the beginning, I’m guessing by now you can tell that they are quite different. And I realize that we can go on living for 30, 50 or 90 years without ever thinking what happiness really means. It’s even more surprising to see that people have been thinking about this for a very long time.
I was a bit surprised to discover that the way Ancient Greeks understood happiness is very similar to the way we understand it now. They used to talk about happiness as:
- Hedonia – this refers to pleasure. It was believed that the goal of people should be to maximize pleasure and limit or eliminate pain. 2,3
- Eudaimonia – this refers to the good life, to a life well lived, to flourishing. 2 According to this philosophy, people should use their virtues and talents to seek the good life. 2
Even though the two perspectives are quite different, happiness can include both. Sonja Lyubomirksy, a famous author and professor of psychology defines happiness in her book “The How of Happiness”, saying that:
“I use the term happiness to refer to the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” 4
Personally, I think that a good, happy life can, and maybe should, include both positive emotions and a pursuit of what is good, virtuous and meaningful.
Why this matters
As I said in the beginning, I think that whenever you want to get somewhere, you must first choose your destination. Conversely, when you want to get something life, you must know what you are after. This is the main reason why I think we should understand happiness – to know what we are seeking.
But there is another thing I would like to add here. The way you understand happiness will automatically dictate how you will live your life.
If you decide to understand happiness as pleasure (hedonia), the things you will probably want in life are:
- luxuries (big homes, expensive cars, designer clothing)
- fine food
In most cases, your goals will be tied to materialistic things which you can purchase with money.
If you decide to define happiness as a good life (eudaimonia), you will want a life that focuses on or includes:
- virtues and values
- meaning (believing and working for something higher than yourself)
- deep relationships
- effort, work and even hardships at times
You will often focus on something that is deeper, valuable and cannot be purchased with money. You will trade in momentary comfort in exchange for the belief that your work will matter in the future.
It is easy to talk about these two perspectives as being separate and different. But things are never as simple and clear in real life.
I think that people usually want to experience both types of happiness. Without knowing and understanding this distinction, we have probably been searching for both.
However, I think that many people lean more towards one or the other. And the type of happiness we put first influences the choices we make in life and defines us more than we realize. So if you have never wondered what happiness you have been seeking and how it shaped your character and life path, now is the time to do it! Remember that it’s easier to get to your destination when you know which way you are headed!
Do you want to learn more about happiness?
When I realized that I had no idea how to be happy, I have decided to learn about it. So I started studying happiness by reading books, watching videos and reading articles about it. I started learning from the positive psychologists that lead the field.
I have learned many things and I continue to study happiness, but I was always a bit upset that nobody bothers to teach us about happiness. It’s one of the main goals for most of us, yet we are supposed to just stumble on it ourselves! I do not think this is a good approach.
So I created The Happiness School. It’s an online course with short lessons about happiness and the absence of it (depression). If you want to learn more, you can sign up for free right now!