What is happiness and where is it hiding?

What is happiness and where is it hiding?
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March 20th is the International Day of Happiness. It was created in 2012 by the United Nations to better understand and celebrate our universal human right to be happy. But what is happiness and where is it hiding?

When was the last time you were happy? What comes to mind? Is it a specific moment in time or a period spanning days, months, or years when troubles stayed at bay? The distinction is important, because the former isn’t happiness. Come to think of it, the latter isn’t necessarily happiness either.

So what the hell is happiness? It depends on who you ask.

Ask Aristotle and he’ll tell you happiness is broken into two parts:

Probe a neurologist, and you’ll probably get a list of chemicals associated with happiness:

Question, say positive psychologist Martin Seligman in 2002, and you may get something like this:


Question him again in 2011, and you’ll get a slightly different answer:


In short, Seligman’s original model captured three broad areas of what he believed happiness consisted of:

  1. Positive emotion is what it sounds like, i.e., our feelings of pleasure, comfort, warmth, etc.
  2. Engagement is when we lose ourselves in whatever we’re doing, i.e., “being in the flow”
  3. Meaning happens when we feel like we belong or contribute to something larger than ourselves

But nearly a decade later, Seligman expanded his model to capture the broader concept of well-being by adding in two additional elements:

  1. Accomplishment is the winning for the sake of winning rather than for any other purpose
  2. Positive relationships highlight the point that other people matter and that rarely is the pursuit of happiness a solitary journey

Let’s try Merriam-Webster. You’ll get a pithy definition:

a state of well-being and contentment

This is getting out of hand. Maybe it’ll be easier if we try defining what happiness is not:

  • Happiness is not a fleeting emotion
  • Happiness is not like a child on a sugar high, it is not jumping from one moment of joy to another
  • Happiness doesn’t exclude feelings of discomfort, frustration, and anger
  • Happiness is not having a billion dollars, although a minimum amount to meet basic needs like food and shelter is instrumental

That seems like a manageable list.

While the content of what makes each person happy will vary, it is generally agreed that happiness is a sense of contentment and satisfaction with life. For me, this is what happiness means:

Even on the worst of days, on days when the sky pours, when the tides seem to push every which way but the way I want to go, and those closest to me seem like distant strangers, I find comfort that it will always get better. Perhaps more importantly, even on the best of days, on days when I laugh until it hurts, when the sunshine lights my path and the wind cools me down from the summer heat, I know that it won’t last.

Wait now. Doesn’t the first part make me a naive optimist and the second part a Debby Downer? For me there is a difference between naive optimism and “informed optimism” as Michael J Fox puts it. Informed optimism, to quote Christopher Reeve, is “the product of knowledge and the projection of where the knowledge can take us” (technically, he termed it “hope”). So happiness isn’t blindly believing that the future will be better, but acknowledging that there’s nothing in life that is inherently against me and that things have been better in the past and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be again (so long as I choose to do something to make that change happen).

On the latter point, being conscious of the ephemeral nature of the good days forces me to remain in the present and thankful for what I do have rather than wistful for what I don’t. This takes practice — and a lot of willpower — but over time, I’ve discovered it is slowly resetting my senses and at the same time, strengthened my core relationships.

Whether you agree with any of the above or not, it’s important to know what happiness means to you. Without a clear understanding of what we want to achieve or where we want to go, it’s easy to become the hamster running in circles on the wheel that goes round and round.

This sounds like a rhetorical question, but perhaps not so if you’re cynical, pessimistic and tend to see the glass as half empty. Besides the obvious (i.e., being happy just feels better), a plethora of research has shown that happiness is associated with healthier and longer lives. Similarly, sustained stress and anxiety is associated with systemic inflammation, heart disease, and diabetes.

In a longitudinal study of 6,000+ men and women between the ages of 25–74, a Harvard School of Public Health professor found that:

emotional vitality — a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance — appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was distinct and measurable, even when taking into account such wholesome behaviors as not smoking and regular exercise.

Now that we’ve landed on a somewhat concrete answer to what happiness is, let’s see how the world is doing on. The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes the World Happiness Report, which asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They then rate their own current lives on that scale.

Here, I’ve average the results from the years 2012 and 2013 and compared it to the average of 2014 and 2015. While inter-country comparison on absolute happiness levels is difficult to do, we can look at the change in happiness. On this, most of North and Latin America seem to have witnessed the largest drop in happiness, while Asia, the Middle East, and Africa saw the largest uplift.

However, the picture looks a little bit more drab if we add in the standard deviation of responses within each country. Against the rise in average happiness level, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa have also seen a much larger percentage increase in the standard deviation in responses. In other words, higher inequality in terms of happiness.

For an interactive version of the above charts, click here.

What is the meaning of life? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I pose these questions because like “How can you be happier,” the answers tend to start off with “It depends…” The elements that make each of us happy are shaped by our environments and the influences that shape our views of what life is, what life ought to be and what life can be. Nevertheless, philosophers and scientists alike have tried to tackle this question.

Take our stoic friends from the Hellenistic period who essentially believed that happiness lies within our control.

One core principle of stoicism is embodied by what Epictetus once said:

Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.

In other words, it is not the event or the person — be it the loss of a loved one or winning the lottery — that is responsible for our happiness, sorrow, anger, or any emotion. Rather, it is how we perceive the event and the judgment we apply to it. To the Stoics, it is our mind, specifically our ability to reason, that allows us to overcome these emotions and the urges of the body. Perhaps that’s what Shakespeare also meant in Hamlet:

…nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so

Let’s speak to our neurologist friends again to see how we can unlock those happiness chemicals.

Coming back to the psychologists, we’ll similarly get a different perspective.

There are many models that try to explain what makes people happy, but common elements include:

  • Autonomy: our ability to make choices of our own free will and without being coerced
  • Meaning and purpose: our feelings of making an impact in the world or in something larger than ourselves
  • Belonging and social relationships: our feelings of connection with others, a not too dissimilar concept to level 3 of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • Gratitude: our thankfulness for the tangibles and intangibles in our lives

Often not discussed is the balance between these elements and how to marry them together. For example, how much autonomy is needed and how much is too much? In a 2016 study, researchers found a tug of war between autonomy and gratitude. Higher autonomous individuals valued gratitude less, likely because they viewed it as a form of reliance or indebtedness to whoever they’re supposed to be grateful to.

Let’s return to the team at the World Happiness Report.

They looked at how each of 6 variables — levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption — contribute to the level of happiness measured in each country between 2013–2015. In the chart below, you’ll find which variable had the largest explanatory power for the countries covered.

GDP per capita is by far the predominant variable with the largest explanatory power. However, even then, it explains at most ~29% (in Qatar). If you hover over each country, there is a “% Dystopia” line, which is the amount that is left unexplained by these 6 variables. So, there’s still a lot left to unlock from the black box that is happiness.

For an interactive version of the above map, click here.

Holy cow. That’s a lot to take in.

It looks like everyone does have a different view, each of which is right in its own regards. Yet, at the end of the day, it comes back to you. It comes back to unraveling what happiness means to you, a definition that frees you from the confines and dependencies of externalities, a definition that leaves you in the driver’s seat rather than in the backseat.

My definition of happiness and how to achieve it has evolved in maturity, specificity, and focus over time. No doubt it’ll continue to do so, because if it didn’t, that’d mean I’ve become once again the hamster on the wheel that goes round and round. Here is where I stand at the moment:

Happiness is leading an authentic and conscious life through which I can articulate the values and principles important to me. It is finding meaning, purpose, and impact in what I dedicate my time towards, and doing so with conviction. Happiness is not having an answer to the question, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” because it implicitly assumes I will “grow up” at one time or another. I believe life is a series of experiments that together add up to a lifelong adventure. This means never “growing up” and always seeking to find opportunities to learn, to explore, to feel discomfort, and to find the nugget of joy within the frustrations that are as guaranteed in life as the rising and setting of the sun.

Let’s pull this together.

  • Everyone and their mothers have a different definition of what happiness is, but there are clear things on what happiness is not — e.g., it doesn’t mean never having moments of discomfort or frustration
  • Happiness is important because it’s associated with healthier and longer lives, while its counterpart is associated with heart disease and nasties
  • If you feel like your level of happiness has declined, you’re not alone — it’s dropped in many areas of the world as have the intra-country distributions
  • What will make you happier will depend on what happiness means to you — but the key is to recognize that it is largely within your control, so wrest it over and take action today

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