14 January 2013

On Happiness


Everyone chases after happiness, not noticing that happiness is right at their heels.
-- Bertolt Brecht

Happiness is quite the thing. Everybody talks about it, everybody seems to be looking for it. But what really is happiness? Some say it doesn't exist, others say it's right around the corner, if we'd care to take a look. A reader told me once, that she wasn't looking to be happy all the time, she was seeking more of a general feeling of contentment.

That made me think. So did Amitai Etzioni's video from the other day. The word "happiness" can encompass a lot of ideas, concepts and emotions, and I don't plan to go linguist or philosopher on you. I'd rather like to share what I think happiness is, and see what you think about it.

The Emotion vs the Feeling

I'm not quite sure if my English translation is correct here, but there is a difference I'd like to point out, between the "emotion" which is what you feel at a certain instant, and the "feeling" which is something that lasts for a longer time, affects your general mood and, if it lasts long enough, your personnality.

Emotion: Spending a happy moment with friends, getting a good news, experiencing something great.
Feeling: general happiness mood of sorts, while living sad moments, or angry moments...

So one one hand, there is the happy emotion, fleeting and linked to an event, and the happy feeling, more general and lasting, layered over all kinds of instantaneous emotions. Maybe that's what Amitai Etzioni called "being deeply, profoundly happy", "lasting sense of contentment", "inner satisfaction" in his video.

I wanted to make that difference clear, as I'll be discussing the two below.

The yearned "happiness"

Of course, I can't vouch for the rest of humanity, but when I listen to songs or read texts mentioning happiness, it seems that what people are really looking for is the general feeling, the contentment, the inner satisfaction.

The problem might be that people are looking for a lasting contentment but their actions only procure the fleeting emotion. For example, buying things to be happy. It's quite a classical behaviour in our society. One buys a new car, or a TV, or a new dress, whatever the person's preferences are.

But what really happens? Upon receiving the object, the person experiences the emotion of happiness for a while: the moment of receiving it, the first use, but then it becomes usual, normal, and the emotion fades. It procures the emotion but not the general feeling of contentment.

And maybe, just maybe, this endless quest for happiness through objects is one of the reasons for today's extreme consumerism. If the happy moment is when receiving something new, then you need to get new things all the time, right?

Changing our way to be happy

I think we can be happy, we just need to find another way to experience happiness. Other than what society teaches us - by buying stuff. This is what we have been taught to do really: advertisments make us think that buying this will make us happy, our society's values teach us that success is money and the resulting material possessions.

I think we need to doubt this certainty in order to really be happy. Shift our values. Understand that searching to get the fleeting emotion of happiness doesn't guarantee the long term contentment.

I'm not saying that I'm perfectly content all the time, but ever since I have started questioning consumption, simplifying my life and freed more time for myself and my loved ones, I am happier than ever.
What do you think? Are you happy? What is happiness for you?

PS: I can't find the comment of that reader I mention above, so if you recognize yourself, please don't hesitate to come forward :)


  1. Having suffered from depression for many years I like to think that I have a quite balanced view on the happy emotion vs happy feeling vs contentment thing. Most days I like to just sit in my chair for a moment and enjoy the fact that I feel, well.. normal! It is quite a treat, I can assure you. That is definitely my version of contentment ;)

    That said I do recognize that delusion that I sometimes get where I think that the perfect LBD or bag or gadget will make my life SO. MUCH. BETTER. Of course I do, I fall into that trap constantly! But like you I do feel that I feel a lot happier once I started to think consciously about these things. It is a work in progress, but it is going in the right direction :)

    1. I imagine there is also the debate between being happy vs. being NOT unhappy. That's an interesting point of view, to be able to compare with a darker time of real unhappiness of sorts.

      It's a work in progress for me too, and I hope blogging and sharing and discussing these things helps!

  2. This is something I've been thinking about lately. I've noticed that I'm more content with my life now than for example a year ago. Though nothing outside of me has changed. So the change has to have happened on the inside: the way I feel and think. I don't know what or how exactly, but I can certainly feel the difference.

    However, I do feel that some of it has to do with the realisation that one cannot buy the sense of being satisfied with their life. It has to come from within you. No amount of designer handbags or clothes is gonna make you truly satisfied with yourself and your life.
    "What I want and what I need is and will always be free."

    1. Happiness comes from within, that's something I've read and heard a lot. Maybe the problem is to try to find external sources of happiness, like buying things, when really it's about changing our own vision of the world.

      Anyway I'm happy to hear that you feel better than you used to. I have the sense that in our current society less and less people are happy, or content, or whatever the right word for it is.

  3. So much food for thought here. Meditation helps me appreciate the present and experience a sense of gratitude as often as possible. In recent years, I have realised that it's far more important for me to feel fulfilled rather than pursue happiness all the time. I feel like one is more about the journey and the other more focussed on the destination. No doubt, goals are important - I certainly recognise that, being a fairly standard type-A person - but as time passes, I find the experience, the journey much more pleasurable and rewarding.

    1. That's a very interesting point actually! The journey vs the destination, gratitude for the present moment vs achieving goals. I hadn't thought of seing things that way but that sounds like a good road to investigate.

      I've been wondering a lot about goals lately, how having big goals could actually stop one from living the present moment, as if you couldn't start living until the goal is fulfilled or something.

      We are certainly in a society of achivement, at least, the standard "western" society. More asian cultures, like the Japanese culture I've studied a lot, seem to focus more about the here and now, the flow of things, maybe, the way, rather than the destination.

      Oh, and by the way, what's a "type A person"?

    2. A type A person is usually very goal-oriented, a perfectionist who takes excessive pleasure in getting stuff done. Pretty much the opposite of "being in the moment". I think meditation has helped me hold on to my goals, but keep them in perspective. It's important to me to have goals - I adore making lists - but I have learnt to enjoy the process rather than get obsessed with it. Does that make sense?

    3. Yes it does, I see your point. I can imagine enjoying the process towards achieving the goal, the steps etc. I love making lists as well, but to be honest I think I like making the lists in itself more than ticking the elements off.

      I suppose I am a type that enjoys the process more than the goal, so much that I even have a hard time actually achieving them sometimes, being lost in a different train of thoughts, or going in all directions.

      I had never heard of "type A" persons though. Is there a type B, and C and so on?

    4. Very important to enjoy the process!
      The Type A, Type B theory emerged some time back and seems to have stuck around in pop culture - here's a little more information about it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_and_Type_B_personality_theory

    5. Thanks for the insight, very interesting. I love personality theories and other human behaviour research in general. According to this wikipedia definition, I am definitely a type B...

    6. I too am ridiculously type A. And it wasn't until a friend who is much older and wiser pointed out that we have to step back and enjoy the journey that I started to take note of it. At first it felt really uncomfortable for me and I think my friend took some pleasure in seeing my panic at the thought. I'm a work in progress (we all are), but I try to reflect on the journey a bit more these days.

  4. I found this article quite interesting:


    1. Thanks for the link! It was a very interesting article indeed.