What is happiness?

I don’t know anyone who wishes to be unhappy; do you? I know many people (me included) who, against all wisdom and common sense, make choices that lead to unhappiness, but that’s not what they had set out to be.

Everyone wants to be happy. If you ask people what they want out of life, most will tell you that they want to be happy. But what makes a happy life? What is happiness, anyway? These questions are as old as the Himalayas, of course, and people have been pondering them for ages.

The founding fathers of the United States of America considered happiness so vital to the type of life they wanted for their people that they included the pursuit of happiness as an “unalienable right”, together with life and liberty. However, the US Declaration of Independence only guarantees the freedom to pursue happiness; it does not guarantee happiness itself. You have the right to chase happiness; actually catching it us upon you.

The phrase pursuit of happiness always makes me feel that happiness is elusive, like sand in your hand that keeps slipping away as you do your best to hold on to it. It also gives me the impression that it is a “thing” – something tangible, which means it can be pursued and caught. The phrase also makes me think happiness is actively trying to get away from us.

But is happiness elusive? Is it constantly trying to get away from us as we race after it? Is happiness something we can catch at all?

What, then, is happiness? We all know a happy person when we see one. You can hide — up to a point — negative emotions like hate and jealousy, but happiness will shine through.

The Dharmic philosophies (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zen) define happiness as a state of being. According to these, a happy person has let go of negative emotions that characterize the ego – jealousy, resentment, bitterness.

  • Is honest with herself about what truly makes her happy.
  • Does not dwell in the past – whether good or bad – or in the future, but instead, is rooted firmly in the present, living each moment consciously, mindfully and deliberately.
  • Is content with what she has and is not constantly hankering after what she does not have.
  • Takes joy in service to her fellow humans.
  • Practises gratitude regularly.
  • Does not use other people’s estimation of her as a measure of her success
  • Practises non-attachment. A happy person is not attached to the material possessions and has embraced the impermanence of material things.
  • Engages in those activities that bring her joy (rather than solely for fame or prestige or wealth).

Of course, happiness is not the exclusive domain on the Eastern religions. Not all people that practise these religions are happy. And there are plenty of people that practise other religions or no religion at all who are very happy. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomisky defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

While they differ on almost all their core beliefs, atheists and religious people (or people of different faiths) define happiness in much the same way. They do not each look towards different sets of people as their ideals of happy. So, happiness transcends differences of faith, or its lack thereof entirely.

So, the question remains, if everyone is looking for happiness, why have so few people actually found it, and even fewer managed to hold on to it? Could it be because they have been looking for happiness in the wrong places?

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What is happiness?

3 thoughts on “What is happiness?

  1. I don’t think I can give a succinct answer to that. Heck, I don’t believe I even have the answer. Wouldn’t I be the first in that queue otherwise ?

    Having said that, I do believe that although the fundamental definition of happiness is the same universally , it is individual perceptions and egos which define what each person ‘believes’ will make them happy. For you, perhaps having a fully equipped kitchen and owning your own restaurant will make you the happiest… Leaves nothing more for you to desire. Maybe yes. It may even be that after accomplishing all that you still feel the need for something else to be happy. Perhaps another new appliance or a wine cellar to go along with the restaurant. You see, we define happiness mostly with something material. What if I take away that material possession or even that desire from you? What will become of your happiness then? Our everyday conscious thought is entangled with possession. Mind you, this possession can be materialistic, educational, physical, emotional. Anything that has the capability of inflating our ego. I am slim. I got a Booker. I own a penthouse. I have the best husband/wife/ parents/family. I belong to the best religion/community.

    It is said in the Veda that detachment and acceptance is the way to happiness. Or perhaps ‘one’ of the ways is more like it. If you attach yourself to the material world or at least are not conscious of it, you will suffer. Perhaps that’s why they preach giving. Because then you are not possessing , you are just giving . Parents around the world find their happiness by providing for their children unconditionally, and hence a purposeful ‘meaning’ to their life.
    Others, can find meaning in writing , or cooking or painting. As long as they are just doing something , ‘without’ the expectation of getting anything in return, that includes validation of any kind, they find their happiness.
    “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
    Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurma Tey Sangostva Akarmani”

    Do your duty and be detached from its outcome, do not be driven by the end product, enjoy the process of getting there.

    Just my two penny. Err… More like twenty looking at its length 😳

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    1. Anu, fundamentally, I agree with you. However, it isn’t just the material possessions that bring us happiness, but what we do with it and why we do it. Why we do what we do that defines whether or not it will make us happy.

      You gave the example that for me, it would be a wonderful kitchen. I could own the best kitchen in the world, but if, in order to do be able to afford that kitchen, I have to work a job that leaves me with very little time to cook, then that kitchen will bring me more misery than happiness. I will spend all my time lamenting that I am not able to enjoy the kitchen that I have.

      The other point is that why a person wants something is also important. Wanting something because it is your passion and you truly enjoy doing it brings happiness. But, so often, we put turn things into milestones for happiness, thinking, “when I have that Mercedes/million-dollar house/lost 20 lbs I will be happy”, as if happiness will miraculously appear when that goal is achieved. I have found (and it is well documented) that when we decide we will be happy when something happens, we do feel happy, but that happiness is temporary. Soon, that new car/luxury house/new look becomes part of our baseline expectation, and we are once again dissatisfied. Happiness has to be part of our existence. And when that happens, we do what we need to, without feeling either elation or misery. Yet, we are happy…and even happier when engaged in activities we truly love doing.

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  2. Erm that is what I said isn’t it? 🙂 Let me explain again.

    I never said that I believe only material possessions bring us happiness. I said the exact opposite, that we ‘BELIEVE’ the next new or best thing will make us happy (which is the same as turning things into milestones like you are saying). When I gave the example of ‘if I take away your best kitchen from you’, I meant to highlight that we can never control the world or our possessions.
    I also said that possession is not only the materialistic kind. It can also be physical and emotional… anything that gives us a sense of ego or self-importance.

    I did not say that having a lavish kitchen will make you the happiest. I said that you may ‘think’ you can be the happiest with a lavish kitchen but like I said, even with the best kitchen, you may feel the need to get the next new appliance to be happier (which is the same as turning things into milestones. As soon as we accomplish one milestone, that happiness is short-lived and we feel the need for something else to complete it). Or like you said yourself, not having enough time to enjoy that kitchen will only make you miserable.

    Also, doing something because it is your passion means you do it irrespective of whether you will get any validation from the world. When I said in my comment that people can find meaning in writing , or cooking or painting, I simply meant that they are following their passion, their heart and that they do not do it with any expectation of a reward at the end of it.

    So, yes, why we do what we do defines whether or not it will make us happy. Which is true when the ‘why’ is without expectation i.e. detaching ourselves from the expectation of a result/ ‘phal’ from the outside world. Else, one’s happiness, even if derived from their passion, will be swallowed by the desire or wait for that result.

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