What is Happiness?

Because happiness is something most of us aim for, how we define it has important implications for how we conduct our lives. To see why, compare these two competing definitions of happiness:

1. Happiness is all about minimising pain and maximising pleasure.
The underlying idea here is that there is a kind of mathematics of happiness. Imagine if on our deathbeds we were able to add up all the moments of pleasure in our lives and then all the moments of pain. The amount by which the pleasures exceeded the pains would tell us how happy we were during our lives.

2. Happiness is satisfaction with life as a whole.
On the surface this looks like the same idea but actually it’s completely different. Consider the case of Clea Koff, a forensic anthropologist who spent nine years working in Rwanda, digging up the remains of people killed in the 1994 genocide (Bergsma, In press). While this was clearly a gruesome task that would have given most people nightmares, afterwards she explained that the work was meaningful, which made it worthwhile. For Koff, then, happiness was satisfaction that she had done the right thing with her life.

Pleasure and pain

The first definition of happiness is perhaps the one most associated with hedonism, and one that is implicitly accepted by many people. But I think the second definition is much better because it makes room for the idea that we give meaning to the things we do.

Happiness is not just a headlong charge towards whatever makes us feel pleasure, it is about finding satisfaction in ourselves and in what we have done. Even when what we have done has been painful, like Clea Koff’s work.

[Image credit: sean-b]

References

Bergsma, A. (In press) The advice of the wise. Introduction to the special issue on advice for a happy life. Journal of Happiness Studies.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 11 January 2008

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