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]
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Bergsma, A. (In press) The advice of the wise. Introduction to the special issue on advice for a happy life. Journal of Happiness Studies.
The New Science of Happiness
→ This post is part of a series on the new science of happiness:
- What is Happiness?
- Sustainable Happiness: Why It’s All About the Day-to-Day
- Do We Know What Makes Us Happy?
- Experiences Beat Possessions: Why Materialism Causes Unhappiness
- Being Happy: Enjoyable Activities Beat Improved Life Circumstances
- Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25%
- 10 Grateful Steps to Happiness
- How to Improve Mood, Raise Energy and Reduce Tension
- 3 Happiness Enhancing Activities With Evidence They Work
- 9 Ways Happiness Leads to Success
- Is Happier Always Better? Socially Yes, Financially No
- How to Be Happy, Confucian Style
- Hedonist Philosopher Epicurus Was Right About Happiness (Mostly)
- Schopenhauer’s Extreme Self-Help for Pessimists
- Is Modern Self-Help Just a Massive Money-Making Scam?