Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. To read the introduction, please go here.
Week One of The Science of Happiness covers a lot of ground, from defining happiness to happiness myths and even to whether or not we even deserve happiness. It also offers an exercise (Three Good Things) to help you track moments of joy in your day to day life. So, let’s dive right in. (If you’re playing along with the Home Version, please feel free to add your own takeaways in the comment section.
What is Happiness?
When people say, “I want to be happy,” what do they actually mean? Is happiness something that can be pursued, acquired, and accumulated, or is it something more ephemeral?
Kat and I have a system of verbal shortcuts we use when we argue. “Square One” means that no matter what we are arguing about, we love each other. “Square Two,” however, means we need to check our definitions, because we may be arguing about two different things. When discussing happiness, it’s definitely important to take a “Square Two” approach.
When people say they want a happy life, quite often what they mean is they want a meaningful life. The difference between happiness and meaningfulness can be likened to the difference between a meal and a diet. Happiness is a transient, momentary, self-contained experience of pleasurable emotions. It can be a happy reunion with a loved one, a personal success, or a delightful vacation or luxury purchase. It happens, our emotions spike, and we move on.
Meaningfulness, however, is more like a diet—more comprehensive, encompassing those momentary moments of happiness, as well as other perhaps not-so-enjoyable but equally important experiences.
Do We Deserve Happiness?
The idea that humans deserve happiness is a fairly recent one. In the past, a good life meant caring for your family and making moral choices. Happiness was something bestowed on the lucky few, not a given, and certainly not a requirement for a good life. The Good Life, according to our ancestors, meant doing good works, showing compassion and reverence for whatever deity you worshipped, and taking care of your family and community.
Around the time of Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, things began to change. With the rise of utilitarianism, the emphasis shifted from being good to feeling good. Instead of a random gift from the gods, happiness became a commodity to be earned, hoarded and, most importantly, deserved.
The idea that people deserved to be happy represented a cosmic shift in how people saw their lives, one that had lasting ramifications on all aspects of Western society. Suddenly your happiness was connected to your worth, and vice versa. If you were unhappy, obviously you’re doing something wrong. Happiness has replaced service, compassion, and good works as the ultimate must-have commodity.
This obsession with happiness can actually lead to less happiness in life. Pursuing happiness for its own sake has led to depression and anxiety as well as a cultural ennui that feeds into rampant consumerism and a shockingly decreasing level of empathy towards others.
So Where Do We Go?
The trick is to take our inalienable right to pursue happiness (which in my humble opinion is not a bad thing) and marry it to the time-honored pursuit of a meaningful life.
- Happiness is satisfying wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life.
- Happiness is in the moment, where meaningfulness involves thinking about the past, present and future, and the relationship between them.
- Happiness comes from receiving; meaningfulness comes from giving.
- Meaningful lives involve higher levels of stress and challenge.
- Self-expression is important for meaning, but not for happiness.
Happiness tends to be more transient – an emotional state or spike of activity in the pleasure systems, whereas meaningfulness tends to be long-term and comprehensive. Putting your happiness in the context of a meaningful life can give you a more sustainable feeling of well-being.
Three Good Things
The exercise for Week One is Three Good Things. If a meaningful life is like a diet, then Three Good Things is like an eating journal. For fifteen minutes a day, every day, you write down three good things that happened to you. The practice of writing down these events, in factual, contextual and emotional detail, helps solidify the experience in your mind. It also creates a sense of mindfulness and receptiveness to those small, seemingly insignificant joys we overlook on our quest for “happiness.”
Please check in next week when we look at happiness in relation to social connections—romantic, platonic, and familial—as well as the science of empathy.
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.
I hope this week’s blog has given you something to think about and maybe to discuss with others. Please feel free to share this post. Feedback is always appreciated, and don’t forget to like us on Facebook . Comments are always open.