What Is Happiness?

Everybody wants to be happy. Books on happiness sell. CEOs want happy workers (or so they say). Consultants peddle happiness. Scientists research happiness. Academic papers on happiness get published. Governments are starting to use happiness assumptions in policy decisions. Happiness abounds. At least talk about it does.

The problem is that nobody agrees on what happiness means. Try an experiment. At lunch today, ask your friends what makes them happy. The answers will be all over the place. For some, kids. Others, hanging out with friends. Spiritual experiences for some; the satisfaction of a job well done for others. Chilling. Partying. The symphony. The Jets game. See what I mean?

Don’t worry, you and your lunch mates aren’t alone in your confusion. Humans have been trying to find the answer to happiness as long as we have been able to think, and we are still disagreeing.

The ancient Greeks, from where much of our understanding of happiness comes (I won’t try to tackle Eastern philosophy in this blog), believed that man had no control over his own happiness. We were toys to happenstance, the whims of “fate, chance, kings and desperate men,” to borrow the words of poet John Donne. This thinking changed, or became more complex, with a fellow named Socrates, who maintained that an individual can choose happiness by seeking to better himself. You could say Socrates invented self-help.

This thinking was refined by Plato and Aristotle, who developed a theory of happiness – or eudaimonia – that is still useful today. There are two key elements to Aristotelianism: happiness is the end to which all actions aim; and happiness resides in fulfilling our own proper function. In other words, know what you are excellent at (virtue), and focus your efforts on that virtue (this was well-covered in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”: “Be excellent, my friend”).

The primary post-Aristotelian traditions among the classical Greeks were twofold. The first was Epicureanism. The whole wine, women and song thing, you know (although the Greeks’ use of the term is better understood as the freedom from anguish and pain). Another is represented in the writings, most notably, of Cicero and Aurelius. It was Stoicism, or freedom from control by one’s passions. For these Greeks, happiness would be stolidity and acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.

Guess which is more popular with Americans today. Yep, you go now, Epicurus.

Pleasure-seeking is certainly one element of happiness, and to many academics – particularly economists – is its most legitimate definition. The term hedonics refers to the study of happiness as pleasure-seeking, and has notable advocates, including Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman (Kahneman actually breaks it down into things like preference utility and experience utility, a discussion of which is beyond my pay grade).

Much of the work of defining happiness using empirical evidence comes from research psychologists. The most generally accepted term for happiness among psychologists is subjective well-being, or self-reports from a subject as to whether he or she is happy. Generally, surveys of subjective well-being fall into one of two major categories: overall life satisfaction (is my life a good one?) or current emotional state (am I in a happy mood right now?).

So what are we to do with all of this? What definition of happiness might work for you, dear reader, in life and at work? I think the most useful definition comes from my friend Martin Seligman, the so-called father of positive psychology. He summarizes, in his most recent book, Flourish, how happiness can be broken into five parts:

1. Positive emotions. A happy life includes moments of joyfulness. Lighten up and laugh at work now and then. Go crazy when your football team wins. Eat more ice cream. Try to have some fun every day.

2. Engagement. This is about those times you are really into something, like a new assignment at work that is in your sweet spot. Being in “flow,” or “in the zone,” is how you might describe it, and most often it occurs when your strengths are aligned with a task.

3. Relationships. One of the world’s most famous positive psychologists, the late Chris Peterson, summed up happiness like this: “Other people matter.”

4. Meaning. Happy people feel their life and work means something. It doesn’t have to be profound meaning on a world-changing scale, but having a sense that there is something more to your job than a paycheck is part of being happy.

5. Accomplishment. Ever had a day where you got absolutely nothing done? At all? Were you happy? Didn’t think so.

This definition of happiness isn’t perfect, but it works for me. It is easy to remember with an acronym – PERMA – and is applicable in everyday life. What do you think? Let me hear from you.

(Author’s note: My thanks to Dr. James Pawelski for guiding me, in a series of lectures, through the history of happiness.)