What is Happiness

  • Are you happy?
  • How do you know what will make you happy?
  • What it will take to get to that point?

These are big questions that people spend most of their lives grappling with. The search for an understanding of happiness is not a new phenomenon. Indeed the search for happiness is perhaps one of the oldest enquiries of mankind. The greatest thinkers of our time from Aristotle to William James to the Dalai Lama have described the search for happiness as the ultimate purpose of human life. Indeed “Life, Liberty and te pursuit of Happiness” became an inalienable right within the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence.

However, it is perhaps interesting that defining the term happiness can be as elusive as trying to achieve it. Historically happiness has been seen as a subjective term that is virtually useless in attempting to understand what makes a person feel fulfilled or satisfied. The word happiness, writes Henri Bergson, ‘is commonly used to designate something intricate and ambiguous, one of those ideas which humanity has intentionally left vague, so that each individual might interpret it in his own way’. But why is this the case? Does this need to be the case?

For the ancient Greek philosophers happiness or well-being could be achieved in two dinstinct ways;

Hedonia (seeking pleasure and comfort) – within the Hedonic tradition, there is a view of happiness in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Hedonists identify happiness with the individual’s balance of pleasant over unpleasant experience. The advantage of the hedonic approach is that it fosters the belief that it is up to each individual to define his or her own happiness.The hedonic tradition can be traced back to philosophers such as Aristippus, Epicurus, Bentham, Locke, and Hobbes

Eudaimonia (seeking to use and develop the best of oneself) – within the Eudaimonic tradition it is not happiness in the moment which matters but living a good, virtuous life of self-actualization. This tradition refuses to equate happiness with pleasure. In the latter notion In other words, it avoids paternalism or elitism where some types of happiness are judged to be better than others. eudaimonic advocates argued that living a life of virtue, and actualising one’s inherent potentials was the way to wellbeing. This tradition can be traced back to philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.

These are often seen as opposing pursuits, yet each may contribute to well-being in different ways. It could be argued that Hedonia and Eudaimonia should not be treated categorically, nor considered mutually exclusive, but rather that hedonia and eudaimonia operate in tandem, in a synergistic fashion.

The study of psychology or the scientific study of the human mind and its functions was historically focused on the ‘disease model’ of the human mind. For most of the 20th Century psychology primarily focused on what was wrong with the human mind. In more recent years, the emergence of positive psychology has lifted the taboo surrounding research into areas such as happiness and wellbeing, resulting in an abundance of research interest. Actually, in recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research on happiness, much of it coming under the heading of “Positive Psychology.” It is no longer a complete mystery what makes people happy, and, in fact, you can live a happier life if you put the research findings to work for you.

The person arguably behind the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman (2002), introduced an authentic happiness model, in which he distinguishes between the pleasant life, good life and meaningful life in an attempt to work out what well-being really is. The pleasant life is devoted to pursuit of positive emotions, and can be paralleled with hedonic well-being. In the good life one would use one’s dominant character strengths to obtain gratifications – activities we like doing, akin to flow. Finally, meaningful life is about using your strengths in the service of something greater than yourself.

The research of Seligman and his colleagues shows that when people engage in hedonic activities (e.g. leisure, rest or fun), they experience many pleasant feelings, are more energetic and have low negative affect. In fact, during these activities, they are happier than those who engage in eudaimonic pursuits. In the long run, however, those who lead a more eudaimonic existence (work on developing their potentials and skills, learning something) are more satisfied with their lives.

Seligman was among the first to propose an integrated wellbeing theory termed Authentic Happiness theory, which suggested that the presence of positive emotion, meaning, and engagement were indicative of wellbeing. A better way of framing it might be to use the term well-being, which is the extent to which a person feels comfortable, healthy, and satisfied with his life. People who pursued both eudaimonia and hedonia reported higher levels of most well-being. Furthermore, hedonia and eudaimonia each made unique contributions to well-being. Adding hedonia to a life already high in eudaimonia was linked with greater positive affect and carefreeness; adding eudaimonia to a life already high in hedonia was linked with greater meaning, elevating experience, and vitality.

The happiness that we will be aiming for in the process of mindful happiness coaching will relate to well-being from the authentic happiness model. It is also important to be aware that how we think will impact our ability to develop positive emotional health. Understanding how our brain works is crucial as it impacts the way we look at the world in which we live.