Figuring out the definition of something often means comparing it to, and contrasting it with, other things to see how it is different.
Is happiness the same thing as contentment or satisfaction or pleasure?
Or are they all different things?
Let’s compare and contrast each of these to happiness:
Can you be satisfied and not be happy?
Can you be content and not be happy?
Can you experience pleasure and still not be happy?
Another way to explore the question of happiness is to ask…
Can someone be struggling or suffering hardships,
yet still be happy?
The answer to these four questions should be “yes” for anyone who thinks them through.
Yes, you can be satisfied but not happy. You have heard of people who have made all the money they need, but end up killing themselves.
Yes, you can be content but not happy. Like being satisfied, being content is a small state of consciousness. You’ve just made a good bargain, perhaps buying something valuable for a price far below what it is worth. You are content.
But does that feel like happiness? Doesn’t happiness feel like it should be something larger?
Yes, you can experience pleasure and not be happy. You just ate a good meal, heard good music, or experienced great sex.
Does that mean you are happy? Does the pleasure stay or go away over time? Isn’t there something about happiness that is more…permanent?
Yes, you can struggle and suffer hardships and still be happy. Talk to parents who have successfully raised children who have gone on to successfully raise their own children. They may have suffered and experienced loss, yet they see that they have had a complete life. Despite the struggles, they are happy.
Exactly what is happiness? That is, true happiness, not anyone’s relative, momentary personal opinion of happiness?
Is it possible to define this kind of happiness?
A Short History of Happiness
The ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, had different, though related, definitions of happiness.
Plato, in the Euthydemus, acknowledges that happiness seems to rely on acquiring good things. But in the Symposium, he makes clear that a balance is involved:
Happiness is spiritual well-being.
A harmony in the Soul,
an inner peace arising from
a proper order of all parts of the Soul.
In The Republic, Plato goes so far as to say that a happy person would receive an injustice rather than inflict an injustice on another.
In Plato’s world, a happy person would never forcibly rule over another.
Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, provides another angle on the definition of happiness:
Happiness is living a complete life;
the ultimate purpose of life being
an activity achieved by exercising
positive virtues, even in difficult situations.
It is a life of purpose and noble achievements, even when recognized by no one but the happy person.
Those virtues, according to Aristotle, include Courage, Generosity, Justice, Friendship, and Citizenship.
There are hundreds of books on happiness. But it seems that many of today’s writers have little to add to Aristotle.
Perhaps the key to Aristotle is to understand what he implies but never directly states, at least in modern terms. But we will get to that at the end of this chapter.
Dennis Prager, in his book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, believes that happiness cannot be defined for everyone. However, he does think that achieving happiness in its full form requires wisdom, and the hard work and self-discipline to put that wisdom into practice.
You can get an idea where he aims the reader by some of his chapter titles:
“Happiness is a Moral Obligation”
“Unhappiness is Easy—Happiness Takes Work”
“Comparing Ourselves with Others”
“Equating Happiness with Success”
“Equating Happiness with Fun”
“Seeing Yourself as a Victim”
“Develop a Perspective: Cultivate a Philosophy of Life”
“Life is Tragic”
“Find the Positive”
“Everything has a Price—Know What It Is”
“Seek to Do Good”
“Find and Make Friends”
His chapter on friendship is particularly interesting, with subtitles like “Family,” “Marriage,” “Finding Friends,” and “Keeping Friends.” Aristotle’s definitions of friendship can be seen implied in this chapter.
Charles Murray has written a wonderful little book: The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.
This book is a must for young people looking to make their way into the working world.
Here’s a glimpse of the kind of profound, solid advice he gives to the youth. Although he offers this advice in a chapter other than that on Happiness, it applies to anyone seeking happiness:
You probably possess two of the most important personal qualities for success—high cognitive ability and good interpersonal skills. But it is unlikely that you have already developed another important trait: resilience.
Murray provides the dictionary definition of resilience as the ability of a material to return to its original shape after being stretched or deformed in some way.
Young people who have not exercised their capacity to be resilient are more like crystal glasses. But they have the potential to exercise resilience and learn to bounce back like a Super Ball.
… if you’ve grown up in a loving and untroubled environment, that potential is unrealized. Here’s the problem: You can be sure that your resilience will be tested sooner or later. When it happens, you don’t want to shatter into glittering shards. If my description fits you, now is the time, when you’re still single and more or less without responsibilities, to start exercising your elastic limit.
Such character traits as resilience, tenacity, focus, independence, self-reliance, and many more need exercise to develop.
Good parents, teachers, and friends
actively help you build these character traits.
Each of these character traits has a role to play in a life that can truly be called happy.
In the section Murray titles “On the Pursuit of Happiness,” he provides some advice that hits true (built right on Aristotle’s definition of happiness: “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.”)
He develops six ideas. Check out his book to appreciate how he eloquently develops each idea:
1) Show up.
2) Take the clichés about fame and fortune seriously.
3) Take religion seriously, especially if you’ve been socialized not to. (Murray describes himself as agnostic.)
4) Take the clichés about marriage seriously.
5) Be open to a startup marriage instead of a merger marriage.
6) Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly.
If you have never seen the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, put it at the top of your movie list and watch it as soon as you finish this book.
Hugh Hewitt, who teaches constitutional law, frames his book The Happiest Life around gifts and givers. For him, generosity is the precondition for happiness.
He first works his way through “The Seven Gifts”: Encouragement, Energy, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Good Humor, Graciousness, and Gratitude.
Of these seven gifts, he says:
Everyone is eligible to be a giver of these gifts. Everyone. You don’t need wealth. You don’t have to be twenty-one. You don’t even have to be literate.
And if you’re not giving these away, you are being a miser.
Then he follows with the seven kinds of givers we can be:
The Spouse, The Parent, Family Members, Friends,
The Coworker, Teachers, and The Church.
And to be a giver, you not only need to have generosity, but also courage. He starts the introduction of the book with a quote from the ancient Greek General, Thucydides:
The secret of happiness is freedom,
and the secret of freedom is courage.
Hewitt then writes:
You have to have courage to give away what you hold dearest, again and again and again. Every day. Remarkably, self-sacrifice and generosity produce the greatest, most enduring happiness.
Hewitt’s book is warm and wise, and full of illustrative stories to provide a sharp and insightful definition of the gifts.
For example, to bring home what empathy actually is (as opposed to sympathy), he shares a conversation he had with a rabbi.
Sympathy is sharing suffering at a distance.
Empathy is sharing suffering up close.
The rabbi said simply, “Show up and shut up.”
You don’t have to tell the suffering person that you know what they’re going through. You don’t know.
You don’t have to tell them it will be all right. You don’t have to share your own experience with suffering.
As Hewitt says, “The gift of quiet, advice-free companionship in the midst of suffering is a gift of the highest order.”
He makes the point that empathy is a costly gift because it means “reliving past sorrows and entering into new ones.”
Why so much talk of happiness in a book about sex and romance?
Simple: We seek sex and romance, not as ends in themselves, but as means to happiness. And often, thinking sex and romance are central to happiness, we discover they are only the beginning.
Although happiness is composed of many parts, knowing those parts and seeking a balance among them may help you move closer to happiness.