What is Happiness?
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
"What is happiness" sounds like a strange question.
This blog post is a thought-experiment considering how the agreed-upon cultural language of happiness (as defined by Merriam-Webster's Dictionary) may affect our perception of what it is. I am not, in this post, delving into mental health disorders that impact mood; rather, I am digging into the concept of happiness. Happiness is what most people want, right? It is seen as a journey's end, a mountaintop destination, an un-tangible, yet sought-after prize for those who have "figured it out." So often I hear, "If only I had/was/knew/could...then I'd be happy." Looking in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, we find that its definition of happiness is "a state of well-being and contentment." It appears that both factors "well-being" and "contentment" are necessary to satisfy the definition of happiness, as there is no "or". Going further, the definition of contentment (or contented) is "feeling or showing satisfaction with one's possessions, status, or situation." Seeking emotive clarity in the dictionary feels reductive; however, for the sake of the thought experiment, let's look a little deeper.
Let's dig into "contentment"
Noticing the language of the definition, it emphasizes "well-being" and "contentment." Let's start with contentment. Notice that contentment is both "feeling or showing" satisfaction with life situations. To me, feeling implies an internal, more congruent and genuine alignment with an actual sense of satisfaction, whereas, "showing" implies an external face of contentment, leaving the question open, how can contentment be present without internal feelings of satisfaction with life experiences or circumstances? This feels like an interesting and, ironically, unsatisfying dynamic in the language of contentment, if contentment can be a purely external "show" and still fit the definition. For the sake of this experiment, let's continue to dig. Using this line of thought, perception plays a large role in the concept of contentment, not only your own, but also, others'. If contentment does not have to be internal, it must be at least external and therefore perceptible to others. Others may look at your life and decide that you are content based on a "show" of contentment. Personally, this made me think of how people may display images on social media that offer an outward face of contentment; however, these same people may not actually feel internal satisfaction with life situations. Others may perceive someone as happy, but internally, this perception may or may not be congruent with the individual's inner feelings. This may also be said for people who appear content in their situations regardless of lack of material wealth. Continuing in this line of thought, if the external, assumed value of an object or situation we're basing contentment on is not as potent a factor, as others may draw the conclusion that one is "content" based on external factors, the question then becomes, twofold - one) how do we increase internal, congruent satisfaction with "possessions", "status" or "situation" two) how do we do this regardless of external value of said objects?
What about "well-being?"
Let's take a look at the other major component of this definition, "well-being". To me, well-being is a holistic experience covering all aspects of personhood. Fostering physical, cognitive, emotional, relational, and spiritual health may all be aspects of "well-being". Pairing this with the above definition of "contentment", we may be able to say that having the "most" or "best" of any of these things is not necessarily what brings about contentment, AND, valuing something as "best" or "most" by external value or factors may not take into account personal values, as internal satisfaction is not required to meet the definition of "contentment" and therefore, happiness. Using only this definition removes a pretty vital factor in what I think most people would value about the concept of contentment, which is an internal perception of satisfaction in life circumstances. This means that, in exclusion of external value, you must have your own value system by which to measure internal satisfaction. Let's keep digging.
Decide what matters to YOU (Create your own value system)
There may be situations, circumstances, or possessions that appear to be externally valued by those in your community or the larger world, for example, having an expensive car, a high-profile job, the newest cell phone, having certain relationships, looking a certain way, having a certain demeanor, fill-in-the-blank to fit whatever these expectations may look like in your life. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things; however, in the pursuit of happiness based on the above conversation, it may be an important step to take personal stock of what you want internally, rather than simply accepting something as "valuable" because it's been said to be so by external sources. Examine these and decide what are worth pursuing to YOU and why. What are the values you would like your life to reflect? How do these pursuits foster your well-being? What would you be proud to look back on, knowing you've spent irreplaceable time and precious personal energy to pursue it?
Identify both areas of contentment, and areas of improvement
Where are some areas in your life where you are doing a good job of promoting your own well-being, and what are some areas you'd like to improve? What situations are you content in, and which ones would you like to change? There are always "two sides of the coin" so to speak, don't overlook the areas in which you've successfully taken care of your well-being, and in which you are content. Examining areas of improvement in light of areas of success/satisfaction makes them less overwhelming and gives you an idea of what works for you, personally, and what really matters to you.
You are in charge of your well-being and contentment
Others can provide a valuable source of input, feedback and emotional support; however, internal satisfaction can only come from, well, internal sources. Only you truly know how you're experiencing the world and your feelings, and only you can truly engage in a process to 1) promote your own well-being, 2) recognize areas of contentment and areas of improvement, and 3) begin to plan for changes that reflect your values. Spending time exploring your personal values, examining inward contentment based on how these values are manifesting in your personal life (regardless of external sources/value) and seeking support in therapy can be a great way to explore your own perceptions and values, so that you can begin to make internal changes towards increased happiness, satisfaction, well-being, and contentment.