What is Happiness?

To begin with: Have you seen Pharrell Williams’s ’24-hour’ music video ‘Happy’ yet? Basically, it’s a loop of his new song “happy” with 24-hours worth of footage of people dancing and singing in the streets.

Go ahead, check it out here (Come back though!!). There might still be 5 or 6 hours worth of “happy” left by the time I post this.

Aww, now you have a soundtrack to tap your feet to while reading this. How wonderful…Of course, if you are a grumpy git like myself, this song will just annoy you and you’re probably unable to listen to the dull, unimaginative, endless repetition of “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof” (what does that even mean?!) – “Clap along if you feel that happiness is a truth” (more like clap along and drink the kool-aid)

And anyway, has anyone forgiven Pharrell for the atrocity of “Blurred Lines” yet? – Oh, decidedly not.

On a side note: Personally, I am convinced this is not *just* a “creative”, “fresh” way to promote a stupid song, but a secret government project to test if we’ll forget about the NSA, Typhoon Hayan or climate change by voluntarily listening to a brain-numbing, repetitive song *in a loop!* about forgetting all your problems. Is anyone thinking what I’m thinking??? Hypnosis!!!

“Clap along if you think happiness is a truth”

“Happy, happy, happy, happy…”

Ah, screw this post, I feel so high on Pharrell’s soothing, mood-lifting voice, I’m gonna go have an orange mocha frapuccino. Woo, the world is a great place.

Ok, I took off my headphones. I can see clearly now. The world is still terrible. Good.

I don’t think there is any other subject that gets as much attention as happiness these days. Every day, my Twitter and Facebook feeds are flooded with new advice on “How to live a Happy Life”, “10 Things that Happy People do”, “The Habits of Supremely Happy People”…It obviously is a topic that many people are SUPREMELY interested in.

In fact, in 2008 4,000 books were published on happiness, while a mere 50 books on the topic were released in 2000 (Flora, 2009). In Bhutan, the Gross National Happiness (GNH) is measured to give an insight into people’s well-being, rather than just the nation’s economic well-being in the form of the GDP. Universally, happiness is seen as a beneficial good.

People are OBSESSED with happiness and achievieng this perpetual state of being happy.

Lately, I’ve noticed that many of my friends have been a lot more interested in happiness and what it means to be happy. I’m not quite sure why, but I assume that it has something to do with age. Most of my friends are in their late twenties or early thirties which seems like a quite mellow phase in life. You’ve sort of done the university/partying-thing, you probably have a good group of friends, maybe a steady relationship and probably some kind of a job. Rather than asking “What am I going to do with my life”, a question which haunts many people in their early or mid-twenties, people have chosen a certain path (even if it’s just a temporary one) and are more likely to ask themselves “Do I like what I’m doing with my life?”.

And this is where “happiness” comes in which, let’s face it, is really a rather elusive concept. I have tons of friends who read all those BS articles on how to be more happy, telling them to “be more mindful” and “practice spirituality” and “cultivate optimism” and “practice gratitude” and other great gems of pseudophilosophy. Ok, thank you, I’ll just change my whole personality, that sounds like a surefire way to be happier. I’ll go meditate about that.

I’ve never really understood obsession with happiness. Although I am aware that every person has their own definition of what happiness means, it has always been clear to me that happiness, or *being happy*, is made up of moments that induce the emotion of happiness. So, my personal concept of happiness is very much tied to the view that it is a temporary and fleeting emotion. I think you can’t be happy all the time, just like you can’t be angry, sad or enthusiastic all the time.

Therefore, I feel happy when I have time to watch Hello Ladies or eat good food or have a really good conversation with a friend. But I’ve never really felt the pressure of having to be happy every moment of my life and reaching this stage of perpetual happiness. I do realize though, that this comes down to a general misuse of the word happiness. Or perhaps my very black-and-white view on the subject.

What happiness should be called is: General Well-Being. Being Satisfied with life. referred to as a general satisfaction with life. Which, to me, is an entirely different concept.

As you can tell, I am a big fan of definitions. So, let’s look at some.

The author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, psychologist Ed Diener simply describes happiness as “subjective well-being”: A combination of general satisfaction with life and having more positive than negative emotions.

One of the leading researchers in positive psychology and author of Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman defines happiness as a three-fold concept: It depends on pleasure, engagement, and meaning. The pleasure part is pretty self-explanatory, but what’s interesting is that he emphasizes engagement, in the form of work, family, friends, and hobbies. He also believes that giving meaning to our lives, i.e. using our skills to contributing to a cause or larger purpose, also plays a crucial part in being happy. Seligman also insists that engagement and meaning influence your happiness the most.

Sounds simple enough, right? Happiness = pleasure, positive emotions, engagement, meaning. So, if you want to be happy, experience pleasure, surround yourself with nice people and do something good for society. Done. That’s all there is to happiness, right? Case closed.


It’s much more complex than that. I will highlight this by an example given by Daniel Kahneman (2010): He tells the story of a man who went to a classical concert and listened to a wonderful 20-minute-long symphony which he greatly enjoyed. At the end of the piece, he heard a very loud screech. He told Kahneman: “This ruined my whole experience”.

Kahneman’s response: No, it didn’t. He says the man still had a wonderful, happy experience for a whole 20 minutes, until the very last minute. What the screech ruined was the memory of his experience. Kahneman, who by the way won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for economics and is famous for his work on “happiness economics,  points out with this example that happiness really is a two-dimensional experience.

Let’s explain this with a theoretical scenario:  You just lost your job. Every application you write is rejected. Are you a happy person?

You see, here is where the tricky part is. Of course the person above is not happy in the sense that he/she is missing a major puzzle piece to complete his/her satisfaction with life.

Different scenario: You are in a good relationship. You love your parents. You are healthy. You hate your job. Are you a happy person?

You should be, shouldn’t you? Or not?

Well, there is a very BIG difference on how we judge our own happiness based on our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves”.

Your experiencing self is you at any given moment of the day. You reading this right now. This is your experiencing self.

Your remembering self is the part of you which tells the story of your life, which keeps score. It’s the part of you that, at the end of this, will remember and judge this blog post as a “brilliant insightful piece of writing that made me happy” or a “waste of 20 minutes of my life that I will never get back, and that made me very unhappy”.

So, what’s the point of this remembering self? Think about your last holiday. Do you remember every single experience you lived, every moment that you felt annoyed or happy? Of course you don’t. Otherwise your brain would be filled with useless data. Instead you probably remember an overall feeling of “Hey, what a nice holiday” and a few memories of certain memorable instances. All the individual moments you experienced are largely ignored by your remembering self. This is why Kahneman points out endings play a big role in our experiences. If there is a happy ending, there is probably a happy memory.

That is why happiness is experienced very differently depending on whether you look at your experiencing self or your remembering self. In other words, your experiencing self will give you information on any pleasure that you feel in the very moment. Your remembering self will give you information about how happy you think you are when you think about how happy you are 😉 That is why Kahneman says that you can’t really know how happy you are because it is so relative. It’s relative to your current experiences, it’s relative to how you remember experiences and it’s relative to singling out reference points which you think made you happy (relationships? life expectancy? health? money?).  You might say “I have really great relationships, but I’m not earning enough money” – so how much does the dissatisfaction of not having enough money outweigh your satisfaction with having great relationships?

Complicated, huh?

Good, let’s add to the confusion by adding more complexities to this topic. I like making people unhappy.

Many researchers make a distinction between hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being, which sort of ties in with the concept of the experiencing self and the remembering self. Hedonic well-being is tied to pleasure-seeking and is based on so-called subjective well-being (SWB). This type of happiness says that an individual is happy when experienced positive emotions and overall satisfaction with life are high, and negative emotions are absent or minor (Carruthers & Hood, 2004).

Eudaimonic well-being on the other hand, is strongly tied to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It says that once people experience have covered all their basic needs,  their need for satisfaction will relatively increase to what they have already achieved. Well-being will then also include psychological needs, such as purpose, meaning, autonomy, self-acceptance, etc (Keyes et al., 2002; Deci & Ryan, 2000).

So clearly there are lots of different ways to look at happiness/well-being. The question is – why do researchers even care about defining something so subjective? Well, because in science everything has to be measured and quantified. And you can measure and quantify without knowing what to include. Nevertheless, measuring happiness continues to be quite a subjective field since it largely depends on self-reporting.

Ed Diener (mentioned above) developed the Consider the Satisfaction with Life Scale survey. It asks people to rate from 1 to 7 the following five statements

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

Obviously the higher the score, the greater your measured happiness. Nevertheless, the validity of this questionnaire has been questioned because it doesn’t take into account how timely events influence people’s perception of their own well-being. There are other surveys dealing with happiness, such as the Oxford Happiness Survey, the World Values Survey, the Wellbeing study by the Gallup organization and others.

And, of course, happiness isn’t a static mood either, so researchers have found tools to look at the transiency of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi (what a name) has carried out a survey where he contacts study subjects with handheld computers and beepers at random intervals with questions regarding their happiness (Wallis, 2005). This has largely been deemed a very intrusive method to obtain data.

Good old Kahneman has developed a tool to make the perception of happiness less reliant on current moods by introducing a day-reconstruction method which includes a long diary and questionnaire about everything they did the previous day and how they rated their feelings on a seven-point-scale. He used this method on 900 women in Texas which revealed that the activities this group of women rated most positive were: Sex, socializing, relaxing, praying and eating. Somewhere way down the list under cooking was “taking care of my children”, ranked a little above housework. Children – the greatest joy in life.

At least that’s what you would believe if you read the results of a TIME poll on happiness in 2005 in which 35% of respondents that the one thing that brought them the greatest happiness was children.(Wallis, 2005).

So, clearly there is a big discrepancy between things that make us happy in the long-term, compared to things that makes us happy right now. The question is, which matters most?

For anyone interested in the topic, I recommend the following TED talk by Daniel Kahneman, as well as this article.


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