Ask Yourself This: “How do I Define Happiness?” Semantics Matter

I have noticed a theme in blog posts recently, happiness.  Not so much “how can I get some” or “this and this makes me happy” but rather the beginnings of an anti-happiness movement.  The problem is that we aren’t using the same language when it comes to discussing happiness.  It’s a problem of semantics. This idea and a few recent posts I’ve read have led to me writing this psuedo-reply post.Don’t Try to be Happy! Wait what?

These recent posts of bloggers I follow had led me to write this response post, but I could site many more with similar undertones.

Retire by 40: Why the pursuit of happiness is misguided. 

Dr. Curious: The unhappy pursuit of happiness

This  isn’t a negative review of these posts. I enjoyed these posts very  much.  They simply inspired me to write a reply post.  I have contacted these bloggers to let them know I’ve written this.

This is the theme I’ve noticed:  Happiness is not a worthy goal.  We should instead strive for contentment.

Ok, at the surface that makes sense, I would love to be content!  Happiness is nice too though.  I am happy writing this post….or am I content?  Am I both?  Why have 2 terms for the same thing?  Argh, I’m so confused I’m becoming unhappy.  I think I’ll just watch NetFlix instead of writing.

So to me the question becomes: What is the difference between contentment and happiness?

These conversations about happiness (and I’ve had many) always boil down to semantics. Define Happy?  The posts reference above are defining happiness, saying they don’t think it’s worthy as a pursuit, and replacing it with contentment. That’s fair and I see the definitions they use and generally agree.

The problem is that I’m only able to agree within the confines of the post.  When I step out of the post and try to have a conservation about happiness, definitions change, it’s Communication Breakdown and further discussion crashes like a Led Zeppelin.

It’s the Tower of Babel, we need to speak at least a similar language.

The positive psychology literature uses the term “Subjective well-being” as synonymous with happiness. A scientifically accepted definition of happiness/subjective well-being is frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction and infrequent negative affect. These can be objectively measured and thus tested.

Positive Psychology

These Psychologists have developed and validated tools to measure and test happiness.  A leader in the field, Daniel Kahneman published a study on money and happiness.  (Detailed post here if interested).   What is nice about that study is that Dr. Kahneman gives us a glimpse into the tools positive psychologist use to measure happiness.  Here is the Methods section of his paper.

Methods: Analysis of 450,000 telephone responses of US residents surveyed in 2008-2009 in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (GHWBI) .  What was specifically pulled from the poll data were measures of “subjective well-being”.  The authors separate subjective well-being into 2 groups:

  1. Emotional well-being – (aka Hedonic well-being or experienced happiness) Refers to the emotional quality of an individuals everyday experience-the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.  These were measured as dichotomous variables (yes or no answer) based on experience the day before the phone interview.  For example: “Did you experience joy a lot of the day yesterday, yes or no?” or “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday, yes or no?”
  2. Life satisfaction – A person’s thoughts about his or her life.  Measured using Cantril’s ladder which is seen below.

Noe take  a look at the graphical summary of the study results:

  • Notice there are even more objective measures of happiness and even unhappiness.
  • Measures of Emotional well-being
    • Positive affect: Average of 3 survey items (reports of happiness, enjoyment, and frequent smiling and laughter)
    • Blue affect: Average of the 2 survey items worry and sadness (note converted to Not blue in graph)
  • Measure of Life satisfaction
    • Cantril’s ladder
  • Stress: The answer to the yes or no question “Did you experience a lot of stress yesterday?”

Contentment is part of Happiness

Contentment is just part of happiness. Happiness as the blog posts above define it seems to be elation, euphoria, ecstasy, jubilation, whatever…The contentment they seek is just the “frequent positive affect” part of the accepted scientific definition of happiness. Therefore, the pursuit of contentment is simply the pursuit of a part of happiness.

I agree!  We should not seed constant euphoria.  I would much rather be often content than rarely elated.  I started this blog partly as a means to define what happiness means to me.  I have used the writings of those above as a guide but still keep my own nuanced personal definitions.

The study above was merely a collection of telephone responses to easily answered questions stored in some huge database.  Surely happiness is more complex than a telephone auto-survey?   Of course it is, it’s very complex and personal.  That’s no reason not to set up terms, loose or otherwise, as a framework toward meaningful discourse.

I’m also not saying that we should all stop and measure our happiness and adjust accordingly.  That could turn into an obsession about happiness which would defeat the purpose.  You might say this post and much of this blog is doing that very same thing!  Sorry, but I’m not exactly ruminating about happiness all day.  I just live my life and post about it on occasion.   But I enjoying learning about happiness and share what I learn.

Ask Yourself This: How do I Define Happiness?

After all that, this is the point of the post.  You can look it up on google, you can read the fine print like me, you can just write a post about it.  What I’ve have learned from this post is more about myself and my definition. I don’t define it like Dr. Kahneman, Dr. Curious or RB40, but I am trying to figure it out.  How do you define happiness?  

5 Replies to “Ask Yourself This: “How do I Define Happiness?” Semantics Matter”

  1. Happiness is contentment with committed engagement. Contentment is happiness with no engagement. Both are unknowable without some rain falling down.

    Here is a couplet from Steve Goodman’s “eight ball blues”

    “wish I had the common sense
    To be satisfied with me”

  2. Hello GLMD,

    I am often a very happy person. I also do not need much to make me happy. I suppose my bar is quite low. I am often told that by those who know me. Positive psychology is very interesting indeed.

  3. It makes me sad that people think we should settle with contentment and not happiness :*(

    Maybe we shouldn’t chase happiness, but make it. I’m happy most of the time, and occasionally elated. Not adolescent heartthrob elated (hormones of a 16yo are very different than a 36yo), but On Top of the World. I attribute my happiness and elation to making good choices, including choosing my mood. Even when I’m frustrated with work or noncompliant children, my underlying being is happy.

    Last week my 4yo looked at me and said “I’m happy I’m me.” When you can say this, you’re happy!

  4. The lack of contentment that marks the U.S. is reflected in many ways.

    1. We see it in our high rate of consumer debt. Most of us aren’t content to live within our means, so what do we do? We go into debt to live slightly better than we can afford, but then we suffer anxiety from the pressure of paying all our bills. Yikes!
    3. What do the advertisers have to say about happiness?
    They try to convince us that we can’t possibly be happy unless we have their product. What happens? We purchase whatever it is they’re pitching only to find that we own one more thing to break down or one more time consuming piece of equipment to add more pressure to an already overloaded schedule.

    Seems like a never-ending cycle to me.

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