Happiness. Oh, to be happy. Yet, what exactly do we mean by this elusive word?
Given the recent explosion of bestsellers, smartphone apps, websites, workshops, TED talks, online courses, magazine articles, and an ever-growing range of research programmes dedicated to helping people become happier, it’s in fact a rather pertinent question.
There seems to be a growing hunger for a truer, more achievable and sustainable happiness – one which is more than the fleeting, instant-gratification associated with materialistic pursuits or the addictive ‘like’ on Facebook.
Happy. What does it actually mean? The word alone, with its simplistic connotation of pleasure, can be misleading. Happiness is a subjective concept, differing hugely between people. We all have our personal preferences, likes and dislikes. However, and importantly, we all know what it actually feels like to be happy. We all understand the feelings associated with happiness. Equally importantly, I believe, is that happiness is not about denying negative emotions. It’s not about pretending to be joyful all the time. It’s completely natural to feel ‘negative’ emotions: To have a bad day. To want to hibernate in winter. To want to eat your weight in chocolate now and again. To not be ecstatic and smiling all the time but simply to just be ‘ok’. All these different feelings and emotions make up what it’s like to be human and I’ve found through my own research that repressing or denying what society deems as ‘negative’ emotions doesn’t make us happier people. What’s important is how we accept and manage these feelings by not judging ourselves or others.
When I first started to research happiness, I actually found the two overarching concepts of wellbeing enormously helpful: The first sees wellbeing as hedonic (coined by Greek philosopher, Aristippus) and concerns striving for maximum pleasure (positive affect) and minimum pain (negative affect); instant gratification and short-lived, fleeting pleasure.
Hedonic activities include the ‘thrill’ of buying new things, a ‘like’ on Facebook, getting drunk, over-indulging and addictive apps on our smartphones which are all part of what is known as the “hedonic treadmill” (the more we have, the more we want – e.g., generally, the more money a person makes, the more expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.)
Generally, this type of happiness comes from external stimuli (e.g., consumerism, advertising) and although such sources of happiness aren’t necessarily a ‘bad thing’, they can have negative effects on our spiritual, emotional, physical and social health if this is our only source of happiness.
Which is why, through my own research, I found that there’s a need for balancing the hedonic pursuit of happiness with a concept called eudemonia (as explained by Greek philosopher Aristotle and translating as “our true nature”). Eudemonic wellbeing concerns finding meaning and purpose in our day-to-day life and living in accordance with our inner values. We could describe it as “a quiet contentment” or sense of inner, spiritual wellbeing.
Eudemonia is about feeling a sense of connectedness with yourself, others and the world around you
This may be achieved through engagement (with others through our relationships and oneself through personal development, self-care and learning – known as flourishing); expressing gratitude and using your strengths to serve something greater than yourself (e.g., altruistic behaviours: helping others and showing compassion). It is precisely this type of wellbeing which “Second wave” Positive Psychology now emphasises as the most important ‘path’ to long-term happiness.
Discourse aside, regardless of how we define it - eudemonia or hedonia, wellbeing or subjective wellbeing – what is perhaps particularly interesting is just how much of our personal happiness we can actually control. Research has found that genes and our upbringing influence about 50% of our personal happiness, and our personal circumstances – such as how much we earn and what’s happening around us - affect only about 10%. This means that about 40% of our happiness depends on our daily activities, relationships and how we choose to spend our time; the things that - to a large degree - we can control through the small, simple but effective ‘actions’ we can take to look after our wellbeing in order to care for others and the world around us. That’s why this year I've started running workshops which aim not to teach people happiness, but to give people an opportunity to reflect on what really matters to them and to others in order to create happier, more positive and caring communities, individuals and relationships.
“Happiness is a quality of the soul... not a function of one's material circumstances.”
Originally published in print, May 2017: