Happiness is a word that barely needs any explanation as it is used in everyday language from our earliest years onwards. Since we were babies we were taught the definition of happiness through our experience of positive emotions and the word happy that was attached to it by others. For instance, when we laughed or smiled we were described as being happy, we learned to sing the words to songs such as ‘if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’ and our friends and family sang Happy Birthday to us once a year. Happy we came to understand, was a good thing to be.
A happy childhood
If your experience is similar to mine, you would have been told as a child that ‘these are the happiest days of your life’ and encouraged to enjoy them. Being a grown-up it seemed, wasn’t that exciting, although as a child I failed to see how that could be so? Didn’t it mean that you could go to bed when you wanted, buy as many sweets and chocolate as you could eat, watch whatever you wanted on TV and no school? Wouldn’t that result in ultimate happiness?
So, presuming we did have a happy childhood, what would be the definition of a happy life as an adult? Yes, adulthood did bring those responsibilities we couldn’t imagine as a child but can we and do we live a happy life as adults? What do we mean by a happy life anyway?
The meaning of happiness in positive psychology
Until I studied positive psychology I didn’t give happiness much thought. I considered it to be something that either was, or was not present in one’s daily life. I also felt that there were more important things to prioritise than personal happiness. Now, I see it differently. My happiness affects not just how I feel, but how I perform in every area of my life and in my relationships with others. Positive psychology taught me that happiness is a basic human need and not a selfish goal. Even people who say that happiness is not important to them usually express the desire that their children, parents, friends, colleagues and even total strangers are happy. If the world was a happier place then perhaps some of the world’s problems would disappear?
The definition of a happy life
What is a happy life? We cannot define or prescribe the conditions of a happy life because it is so variable amongst individuals. In many ways, a happy life is simply one that you experience as being happy. This goes part way to explain why some people describe themselves as happy in conditions that would challenge our happiness whilst others seem to suffer despite appearing successful, wealthy, healthy and blessed in life.
The science of positive psychology provides many of the answers of what is likely to make you happy by studying the characteristics and behaviours of people who seem to thrive and flourish and highlights ways to develop these attributes yourself. However, just as we are told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, happiness is the subjective experience of the individual. There is no one-fit solution.
What a happy life is not
Perhaps it is easy to describe what a happy life isn’t and can never be. It is not feeling happy every minute of the day, never experiencing negative emotions, never feeling things such as disappointment, loss, anger or sadness. My definition would be, being able to cope well with the difficult stuff in life, whilst encouraging, appreciating and facilitating the conditions that make happiness a frequent experience. In other words, feeling as happy as one can be each day, dependent on the circumstances one is in. I feel we can only assess a happy life by looking back through time and asking, on balance was it, and is it still mainly a happy experience? We can never assume that what exists now will do so in the future. We may become happier or unhappier, healthier or sick, we cannot know but if we are always as happy as we are able to be each day, we will have reached our happiness potential in life and not wasted it. I don’t think we could ask for more.
The definition of joy
It always fascinates me when we run our Introduction to Positive Psychology courses, that the majority of people have a mismatch between the things that they say will make them happy and the things they do. The most important thing to realise about happiness is that it is a ‘now’ in the moment experience often experienced from tiny moments of joy. Putting on warm slippers, stroking your pet, tasting your first cup of coffee in the morning, waving to a neighbour, finding a parking place straight away, talking to a friend, finishing a difficult task, and enjoying the feeling of the sun on your face. These are the sort of things that make us feel joy BUT only when we notice them. One of the most wonderful things that positive psychology can help us with, is how to appreciate what we experience at the time. The source of joy is almost always present even in the most challenging of times. For instance, noticing the kindness and tenderness of a nurse even if you’ve just broken your leg! This is a habit that can nurtured until it becomes second nature. Positive Psychology doesn’t make us happy – it teaches HOW to be happier.