“Do whatever makes you happy!” “Don’t let anyone stand between you and your happiness?” “If you are in a relationship and you are not happy, then you need to leave!”
These plus many other pieces of advice use happiness as the marker and measure of the goodness of whatever one is engaging in or aiming for. The search for happiness is as old as humanity and it seems self-evident that happiness is and should be what one aims for. But how do you know if you find it if you don’t know what it is? Many people can’t really differentiate whether they mean happiness as a feeling or an action or even a state. Due to this, I am convinced that there are many people who could be happy if only they knew what happiness was while other could realize that they are actually happy. The latter are like fish in the ocean wondering where the ocean and sad because they cannot find it. Is it possible that you are happy but you conceive of happiness as something different that what you experience right now such that you end up not being happy?
There are three ways of understanding happiness as proposed by Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology.
Happiness: The Pleasant Life (Hedonia).
This a personal (subjective wellbeing) evaluation of how happy (or not) one feels. It is about having more positive emotions or feelings such as excitement and satisfaction than negative ones depression, anxiety and discontent.
It involves having many pleasures such as entertainment, food, sex, calmness and the skills or resources for finding the said pleasures such as money, communication skills, cooking skills or even mindfulness among others. Subjective wellbeing generally focuses on one’s general life satisfaction. How do I feel about my life right now?
However, this level of happiness is subject to habituation: the tendency of response to stimuli to diminish the more it is repeated. Basically, the more we repeat an action, the less exciting it becomes. When you hear a joke for the first time, it might make you laugh but not on the 10th time. This is the basis of addiction; we need higher doses the more we take any substance in order to experience the initial excitement.
This is the most common understood sense of happiness but as we shall see, it is not the only one and research shows that it may not lead to meaning in life.
Happiness: The Good Life (Eudaimonia)
This second level understands happiness as when an individual maximizes on their signature or major strengths. This means that you engage with life from a point of your strengths (potential) and not weaknesses.
Is the work you do built on your strengths and talents? If you’re a person who likes to work with people constantly, then office work where you don’t meet people will not be good for you. Do your friends bring out the best in you? What about your other engagements in life such as marriage or parenting? Do you experience yourself using your strengths/talents in your studies, work, relationships and other commitments?
To understand Eudaimonia, the concept of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi could be of help. He holds that we experience flow when the challenges of a task or a job matches our skills, strengths and confidence. When the task has no challenge, we become bored and when the task is way too challenging and we don’t know what to do, we become anxious. Eudaimonia, therefore, is matching and using our strengths to engage in the world in a manner that we do not get bored or anxious.
Happiness: The Meaningful Life
This third stage understands happiness as a life dedicated towards a commitment greater than oneself. It is a life with a purpose. People living on this stage might express less subjective happiness as a feeling but more meaning in life!!
Imagine a parent who has to wake up early in order to take of the family. The said parent may have arrived later from work the previous evening and has work commitments to complete. He or she prepares the children for school, ensures that they have done their homework, eaten properly and prepared their uniforms in readiness for school. Then he/she has to take care of his/her attired for work and many other commitments that come with balancing between family and work. Such as person may not experience their life as having many positive feelings, subjective wellbeing, but may report having a high meaning or purpose in life. If such a parent was convinced that happiness is simply having positive feelings and no negative feelings (exhaustion, stress), they he or she will see themselves as less happy and possibly experience parenting as a burden and an obstacle to their “happiness.” Indeed, someone dancing and drinking in a night club every other night, with no familial commitments, might express higher levels of happiness as a feeling but lower levels of meaning in life.
Understanding what happiness is and adjusting our expectations might help us to realize that much life the fish, we are already in the ocean we are desperately searching for. Then certain sayings such as “Happy are those who mourn or a persecuted…” which are found in Christian scriptures will finally make sense and their wisdom lived by.