Are you happy? If you are, are you happy some of the time, most of the time, all the time? How happy are you? What is ‘happy’ anyway? Is there an optimum type of happiness? Is being happy meant to be our ultimate goal in life?
Oh dear! Thinking about happiness turns out to be a surprisingly hard. We all have an idea about what happiness is, but it is far from easy to pin down exactly what it means. There are probably quite a few reasons why.
The most obvious is that happiness means different things to different people. Another is that happiness is not a single emotion but a cocktail of feelings. A third is that, in spite of that, so many writers do indeed tend to treat happiness as a single emotion. They create confusing messages about how to achieve and sustain it. They imply that if we aren’t constantly happy, we are failing in some way. And yet another reason is that actually, happiness is amoral. Someone does not necessarily have to be good in society’s, or other people’s, terms in order to be happy. Even so, is often said that to be happy we must be also be virtuous.
Of course, people have been trying to understand happiness for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks considered it, and today there is no end of self-help books that aim to show the route to a happy life. Happiness has been a goal for governments too, and for a long time. The original United States constitution talks about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. That last is especially interesting – not ‘happiness’ but ‘the pursuit of happiness’. It is as if, whereas life and liberty can be attained, happiness will always be just out of reach.
The idea of what happiness actually is has evolved. For centuries it was measured in terms of a whole life, well lived. That was in an era where, as Thomas Hobbes described a typical life as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Nowadays, for a growing share of the world’s population life is relatively sociable, well-off, pleasant, peaceful and lengthy. We have come to think of happiness as something we aspire to every day, all the time.
The conventional wisdom is that happiness is closely connected with wealth. Surveys tell us that in societies with a higher Gross Domestic Product people tend to be happier than in poorer places. Governments focus on increasing economic performance because they believe that will create a happier population who will gratefully vote them back in. Yet we also hear so many stories of people who have become hugely successful, realising their ambitions and acquiring great wealth, who say they are deeply unhappy. Achieving their goals and acquiring all that power and money did not give them what they thought they had been promised – freedom from care and worry. And lottery winners don’t always find their cares melt away.
Happiness is too important a subject not to try and understand. The planet and humanity are at an enormously challenging point. We have had to confront a global pandemic, the climate and the environment are in a critical condition, there is mounting tension between nations, and we cannot expect an unending rise in living standards. Indeed inequality is actually growing in many societies. Achieving a liveable, sustainable and equitable future depends on billions of people behaving in ways that enables that future to happen. And it will only happen if – by some meaningful measure – behaving in those ways makes the great majority of people happy.
If thinking about happiness is difficult at an intellectual level, it is also hard at a personal level. Who is qualified to discuss happiness? Is it necessary to be an expert in psychology, philosophy, behavioural science or economics? I am none of those things. My education is in engineering and business. I have helped bring up a family and have grandchildren, had a series of jobs in different areas, and travelled a fair bit. I can point to some achievements but also to plenty of things that didn’t work out as I hoped. I think I have had more than my share of luck overall, but I would be perfectly content to be described as ordinary. So my learning and experience are what life has provided so far.
Whether that gives me some kind of legitimate licence to or not, I think I can at least offer my own views about happiness with a few decades under my belt. But can anyone fail to suffer from imposter syndrome if they dare to consider this huge subject, no matter what their qualifications and experience?
My approach is not to attempt to come up with a prescription for a happy life. What I want to do is try and explore what happiness is, and more particularly, what circumstances we need to establish in our lives in order that we can be as happy as we possibly can. In subsequent articles I intend to consider how we might use our happiness to deal with what life throws at us – good and bad.
So what exactly is ‘happiness’? Dictionaries give it definitions like ‘the state of being happy’ which doesn’t get us very far, and ‘happy’ as ‘experiencing joy, being fortunate, feeling content’. One well-respected happiness expert defines happiness as ‘feeling good’. Surely there is more to it than that. On the other hand, there is a temptation to pile in all sorts of emotions to the point where happiness becomes meaningless. Perhaps, instead of trying to define happiness in terms of the effects it produces, we should consider it as a state of mind – an input rather than an output. I am going to offer this as a working definition of happiness.
Happiness is a state of mind that enables us to savour the experience of life but be resilient in the face of setbacks and adversity.
This says that for most people, for most of the time, it is possible to maintain a mental state that is positive in outlook. By that I mean being open to enjoying and appreciating all kinds of experiences, and also being prepared to take some risks in order to widen our exposure to what life potentially has to offer. It also means having a mental cushion against the blows that life inevitably inflicts.
Of course, some events can be so tragic that such a mental state cannot be sustained and takes a long time to rebuild, if that is possible at all. There are also lots of people who, because of mental illness, physical diseases, injury or disability, find it impossible to achieve that state of mind or keep it going. It would be trite to suggest that those people are failing in some way if they cannot find happiness. So again – what I am considering is most of the people, most of the time.
The challenge then, is to understand what creates and fosters a happy state of mind. I am suggesting that it is based on a construction which recognises that:
Happiness has three aspects – contentment, pleasure and fulfilment.
Happiness has three sources – the self, our relationships with other people (which may extend to other creatures and inanimate objects) and our inter-actions with other people. Within each source there are three drivers which are the feelings or behaviours which produce a happy state of mind. Each one affects the three aspects of happiness to different degrees. And the degrees vary from person to person, and probably vary over time for each person.
The following diagram shows how they fit together into an overall model of happiness. It is important to stress that this model is not some kind of gear box, where increasing the power of one driver feeds through directly to bolstering one or more aspects. The whole thing is much more fuzzy and fluid than that, and the elements of the model may affect each other in unexpected ways – just like how the human body and brain work.
At the core are the three aspects that make up our happiness.
CONTENTMENT is feeling safe, secure and settled – having enough to eat, financial sufficiency and good health. It is feeling you are in control of your life. It is freedom from anxiety or fear, and freedom of thought and expression. An acceptable level of contentment enables us to fully experience pleasure and fulfilment. However, contentment is relative. Different people have different ideas of contentment; some find it in frugality, others in opulence. Once achieved, contentment is not indestructible. It can easily be damaged, or even destroyed, by changing circumstances.
This is the most important aspect of happiness. A perceived lack of contentment by someone will make it harder for them to achieve their desired state of happiness.
PLEASURE is the sense of joy, excitement, wonder, even ecstasy. It is being elated and carefree, if only for a short time. Pleasure can be gentle (like the scent of a flower) or it can be full of energy (like scoring a goal). It can be anticipated (like meeting someone special off the train) or a complete surprise (like hearing you have won a free holiday). Pleasure is a feeling that at its most intense will last only a few minutes at most. Such intense pleasure must fade away, otherwise we would always be in a state of manic euphoria. A more serene pleasure may last much longer – even days.
FULFILMENT is about making the most of whatever we are able to do as individuals. It is doing something with our life which we feel is worthwhile (whether or not anyone else agrees). It may be large or small – what matters is that we think it is important. Fulfilment is achieved over time. It probably involves set-backs, periods of disillusionment, dead ends, failures, as well as ‘wow!’ moments. It gives a sense of accomplishment and deep satisfaction. It may even lead to recognition and reward.
So, by my definition, a truly happy person is content with their circumstances, enjoys real pleasure from positive experiences and opportunities, and takes fulfilment from their belief that what they are doing with their life is worthwhile on their own terms. At the same time they are able to cope with life’s inevitable vicissitudes.
But where are the sources of those aspects of happiness? I think they come from three places, ourselves, the relationships we have with other people (not to forget pets and even inanimate objects like the radio), and our interactions with other people – be that as relatives, friends and neighbours, or through a community, a nation or the world at large.
SELF (ourself) is about the aspects of happiness which spring from our own private feelings. They are very strongly influenced by a number of things, including our upbringing, our culture, the set of beliefs we have been exposed to, and whether we chose to embrace, accept or reject any or all of them. Our attitudes are also shaped by our innate personality type and the balance of natural chemicals in our body at any point in time. Three drivers I associate with SELF are DELIGHT, CHALLENGE and PEACE.
DELIGHT is those activities, situations or experiences that give us the sense of being in a wonderful moment. There is a sweet pain in knowing that this feeling cannot last; the sensation can only be brief – rarely more than a day, and generally much shorter. Delight can be in thrills, elation, intellectual buzz. There are sensual pleasures in taste, smell, vision, hearing and touch. Delight can be evocative. It will often set off nostalgic memory triggers. Delight can be calm and all-absorbing, as when silently observing birds from a hide.
CHALLENGE is deliberately taking ourself out of our familiar mental and physical zone and doing something that tests us in some way. It may involve an intellectual or physical stretch, and it may involve some risk (or even a great deal of risk). Some people want to edge outside their ‘comfort zone’ a little bit, like learning a new skill. Others actively seek real danger. What comes from meeting the challenge is a feeling of accomplishment, overcoming the odds, growing as a person.
PEACE is a sense of calm tranquillity. It is being in harmony with the world and the people around us. Even though life may have its difficulties, there is a freedom from anxiety and agitation. It is being unafraid. For many, peace comes from having a strong set of beliefs or principles to live by. These bring certainty about what to do and how to behave. For others it is about being able to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, and how we want to do it.
Whilst some people find genuine happiness in solitude, most of us derive our happiness from a mixture of internal and external stimuli, which leads to the other two sources of happiness.
RELATIONSHIPS refers to the way we engage with the people we are closest to from a family, social, work or other group perspective. It is about how those relationships affect how we feel. By nature, we human beings are social creatures. Some relationships can be optional (we can decide whether to join a club of some kind) and others are involuntary (like our relatives). In other cases we may have little choice (such as taking the only job available). The drivers of happiness I associate with RELATIONSHIPS are BELONGING, TRUST and LOVE.
BELONGING is the idea of being emotionally attached to other people within a group or as individuals. ‘Belonging’ does not mean possession. It is the comfort of knowing that we do not face the world alone. It is the reassurance that there is at least one other person who wants to have some kind of positive relationship with us. Belonging to certain groups helps to define who we are and gives us a sense of being part of something that is bigger than ourselves.
TRUST is the confidence that other people will do as they promise. Human civilisation is based on trust but that does not mean that people are universally trustworthy. Even so, being able to trust the people we deal with is an important contributor to our sense of well-being. Trust is also having the confidence that those people we deal with have our best interests at heart. Having trust in others allows us to broaden our experiences. A century ago few people trusted that aviation was safe; now virtually everyone is happy to fly somewhere.
LOVE is caring deeply about other people and knowing that they care deeply about us. Strong and positive emotional bonds give us enormous comfort and also the confidence to do many things. There is also a sense of mutual commitment that means we look after each other’s interests. Liking someone is about enjoying their company; loving someone is genuinely wanting their life to be happy. This does not automatically imply a very close, intimate or even enduring relationship.
These drivers are not entirely restricted to other people. Many of us find in pets a great deal of belonging, trust and love. That does not mean that the animals themselves have the same feelings (a dog behaves in response to how its owner behaves), but the emotions that come from their company are very real. These feelings can even be associated with inanimate objects. Some people have a relationship with something as prosaic as a radio station, to which they feel a huge sense of attachment and very strong emotional bonds.
Now we come to the last of the three sources of happiness – INTERACTIONS.
INTERACTIONS is about the transactions we have with other people as opposed to our emotional engagement with them. None of us is totally self-sufficient so we must give and take tangible and intangible things in order to lead a comfortable life, which in turn help to make us happy. The drivers of happiness I associate with INTERACTIONS are CONSUMING, CONTRIBUTING and CONTROL.
CONSUMING is what we have to do to live a half-decent life. We have to buy most or all of our food, most or all of our clothes, our housing, our transport, our entertainment, our social media, etc. A lot of this consumption we find enjoyable – think of ‘retail leisure’. We also consume lots of other things – education, healthcare, utilities like water and electricity. We consume services like legal help, insurance – even being rescued perhaps. All this should bring comfort. To consume these things we have to rely on other people, but they also rely on us, because if we didn’t consume they would have nothing to do.
CONTRIBUTING means playing our part in society, typically as a worker or team member. We work as an individual or in a team, producing or helping to produce the products or services that others consume. In this way we have a distinctive role in society. This sense of purpose provides a sense of meaning to our lives. Without it we might feel our life is aimless. Not everyone can contribute (perhaps because of their circumstances) or indeed wants to (that is their choice).
Contributing is also about how we share some of our wealth, time or energy with others in a way that we hope will do some good. Sharing may be with people we know, like our family, or it may be with strangers. It doesn’t have to be big; the old cliché of helping someone across the road is an act of giving. What we get from giving is both the good feeling from the act itself (which may be a bit self-indulgent – especially if we advertise we have done it) and the good feeling that what we give makes a genuine difference to someone else’s situation. Sharing (or giving) is entirely voluntary.
CONTROL is about being in a position where the power balance between ourselves and the rest of society is reasonable. Being in a situation where we have no control over what will happen to us is very stressful. Having a great deal of autonomy over how we behave means a high level of freedom. Most of us accept what we consider to be a reasonable level of control over what we can do, through laws, rules and moral codes. Individuals will decide whether or not they are comfortable with the nature and degree of control imposed upon them.
Even though the model has a clear structure and is symmetrical that does not mean everything is clearly defined and compartmentalised. The reality is that whilst I believe the basic logic is sound, the real-life version is fuzzy and overlapping. We don’t just contribute through interactions; we also contribute to our relationships. A strong dimension of love can be patriotism. Delight is often a deeply shared experience.
My ultimate argument is that we cannot attempt to create enduring happiness in individuals or communities by tinkering with the drivers. What we have to do is to look at the whole model and find ways to plug any gaps in the aspects, and bolster those aspects which are lacking in some way. Whatever we do about the drivers has to make sense in terms of how it is likely to influence the aspects in a positive way, otherwise why do it.
I also believe this is not entirely a do-it-yourself exercise; if government policies were designed this way, perhaps we should collectively be happier. On the other hand, we have to be wary of commercial organisations (and public ones too) deliberately manipulating our happiness to make us do things that benefit them more than they will probably benefit us. If I was asked what I think is the most important area to focus on, I would definitely say contentment, for that is the foundation of everything.
How could this model be used? At a personal level, we can think about each of the drivers and consider what it is about our attitude, behaviour and circumstances which affects each of them. We can consider where our personal gaps lie and what we might do to plug them, but plug them in a way that clearly influences the aspects of contentment, pleasure or fulfilment.
At a society level, governments and other public bodies (be they at local, regional or national level) undoubtedly have a massive effect on people’s happiness, and must use that power wisely. Rather than try and find ways to make people generally happier (which can be rather hit and miss) perhaps these organisations should examine which aspects of happiness their citizens feel deficient in.
They could then consider how taking action to increase the positive impact of one or more drivers would address those deficiencies and thus boost their population’s overall sense of well-being. Human Centred Design is a philosophy for creating products that genuinely meet users’ needs. Could ‘happiness centred design’ – cognisant of this model – be the way to come up with more effective policies and social outcomes?
The position with commercial organisations is a bit more complicated. On the one hand most commercial organisations like their customers to be happy. Happy people buy more. But on the other hand, many firms have done very well preying on, and amplifying, the anxieties of people. In either case up to now, the emphasis has largely been on stimulating impulse purchases – getting people to feel good enough (or anxious enough) in a moment to press the ‘buy button’, take on a bit more debt, spend rather than save.
The internet has made that easier, and made the pedlars of ‘stuff’ gigantic fortunes. But whilst that consuming can be a lot of fun (or dispel some kind of unease), we are starting to understand the consequences on the environment and the climate. So again, the challenge is to consider how to use this model to sustain businesses whilst not threatening the planet. Once again, perhaps some kind of ‘happiness centred design’ could be a useful approach.
Lots to think about. Maybe this view is misguided. Or maybe it is a useful way to consider happiness in a new way. I’m going to carry on thinking about it – which makes me, well, pretty happy.
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