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The Happiness Riddle

Image of woman sitting in meadow with balloons
Catalin Pop / Unsplash
Opinion by SJ Whitaker

The desire to be happy is a deep-seated human need, but what do we actually mean when we talk about ‘happiness’, and is it distinct from ‘joy’?

Our life on earth is short, so we feel driven to enjoy as much of it as we can before we cease to be, or continue evolving in some other form. After sheer survival, the pursuit of happiness often becomes the underlying purpose of living. No matter whether we are atheists, humanists, or believe in some kind of spiritual potential, most of us would probably prefer to be happy here on earth, and preferably ‘right now’. Yet, like the changing tide of our fortunes, happiness seems elusive.

Our parents may have said, “I just want you to be happy”’ or perhaps they instilled in us expectations that if we just work hard enough, success and therefore happiness will be ours. Adverts, films, television, and even social media all give a subtle, sometimes subconscious, message that a certain way of life is a happy one; that if we ‘do this’ or ‘have that’ we will be happy too. But happiness seems to constantly slip out of our grasp: no sooner do we glimpse this sought-for state than something comes along to take it away from us, so that we feel unhappy and dissatisfied again. Some believe this is simply the condition of being human.

The American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests an alternative view:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Whatever our opinion may be on the subject of happiness, it is a riddle that has occupied our minds for millennia. The ancient philosopher Aristotle (circa 300 BC), wrote “happiness depends upon ourselves”. Socrates, (alive around 450 BC), believed that "the secret of happiness... is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less". Whilst Buddha, circa 500 BC, stated that “there is no path to happiness, happiness is the path.”

Today, if you make even the briefest online search for ideas about happiness, results are numerous. Some publications return to the topic time and again; it is enough to swirl our brains into a tornado, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and destroy our sense of happiness at the same time.

Defining 'happiness'

In making sense of it all, we need to go back to basics to try and understand what we mean by the word, ‘happiness’.

According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, asking ‘what is happiness?’ is an impossible question to answer because the meaning of the question is not clear. Are we interested in the actual word itself, or in what happiness actually is?

Either way, we need to have some basic sense of what we mean by happiness. The Encyclopaedia suggests that, for the most part, philosophers understand it as either a ‘value term’, or a ‘purely descriptive psychological’ one:

  • Psychological term – A state of mind – much in the same way as we would use ‘depression’ or ‘serenity’,

  • Value term – A life that goes well for the person leading it – a state of well-being or flourishing.

As a psychological term, ‘happiness’ is a way of describing a mental state of being, and it might be experienced by people in differing ways: as pleasure, satisfaction, peace or an emotional feeling. It is hedonistic and about the present moment experience.

The Encyclopaedia then poses a follow on question:

“ valuable is this mental state? Since ‘happiness’, in this sense, is just a psychological term, you could intelligibly say that happiness isn’t valuable at all.”

However, if we view happiness in the second category, then it is all about value. It’s what philosophers call ‘prudential value’, meaning ‘what is good for us’ – commonly called our well-being in recent times. If we have what benefits us (ideas about what this is varies widely between people) then we are thought to have happiness ‘in a life that is going well for us’. This value term naturally creates a sense of societal division; a happiness hierarchy: if we are seen to be doing badly or not having what we need for well-being, then we are somehow lesser or to be pitied.

But the Encyclopaedia delves deeper into this way of looking at happiness, isolating two sub-categories:

  • Subjective value theorists – either hedonists who believe happiness is the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence; or ‘desire’ theorists, who see well-being as having what we want now.

  • Objective value theorists – such as Aristotle, as mentioned earlier, believe that happiness or well-being is about a life of virtuous activity and ‘fulfilling our capabilities’.

Happiness is not only a personal concern, or a concern of philosophers. It’s also a political, potentially society-transforming one. How it does this is a matter of some debate. Politicians of all persuasions wrestle with this year on year.

Henry Stewart set up his business, Happy Computers, in 1987, with the aim of making software training an enjoyable process. The company evolved over the years into Happy and, as of 2021, Happy provides IT training, leadership, personal development and apprenticeships, whilst seeking to create happy, productive workplaces, based on freedom and trust. Henry Stewart believes that “inequality makes people unhappy. Poverty makes people unhappy. Consumerism makes people unhappy. A real focus on increasing happiness would lead to very radical change in society.”

This sounds like a truism, but by placing the emphasis purely on our physical circumstances again, we may be missing something. Arguably, the feeling of ‘happiness’ is actually about how we experience life, not the actual life itself. Regardless of whether we feel happy or miserable, life is the same; reality is as it is. Circumstances come and go, but how we respond to them, what our inner position is, remains the real issue here. So happiness is about how well we can ‘live life on life’s terms’.

We might be tempted to say ‘ah, but it is easier to be happy if you have a good life’ – perhaps equating a good life with a good standard of living, personal safety, good health or being in an intimate relationship. This is an alluring idea and one that society and politics alike continue to focus on. Certainly, these factors can all aid well-being, and are part of the human experience, but perhaps they represent a half-truth.

An American friend of mine illustrated this by telling me about two couples he knew when he was living in Los Angeles. Both couples lived in huge properties on Sunset Boulevard; both were millionaires. One couple was consistently unhappy, fearful and dissatisfied with their lot, whilst the other was full of joy and appreciation of their life and the people in it. It’s easy to draw a simplistic conclusion here. There could be emotional or psychological reasons for their respective attitudes, or some great hidden grief that has not been explored, but the way it was described linked the differing levels of happiness to their ability to appreciate and respond well to life - wealth or no wealth.


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'Happiness' vs 'joy'

Here, we can return to linguistics again to help us delve a little deeper. The word ‘happiness’ is undeniably over-used in our daily lives. We use the same word, ‘happy’, on a sliding scale to describe wildly different degrees of experience and circumstance. We are happy if our bus arrives on time; happy to drink our special coffee from our favourite barista; happy to sacrifice our time to do an errand for someone; happy that we managed to side-step the dog dirt on the pavement; happy when we are dancing wildly at a party; happy when we are reunited with long lost family we haven’t seen for years; happy when a loved-one is saved from death; and so on.

A less commonly used word is ‘joy’. If there is an essential difference between the words ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’, could it radically and consistently change the way we experience life?

In Diffen’s article, Happiness vs Joy - Difference and Comparison, a clear and fundamental distinction is made:

“Happiness is about the self's pleasure. Happiness may dwell on materialistic, worldly pleasure while joy is derived from soul satisfying, emotional wellbeing. While happiness comes from outside things, joy is about inner self.”

So happiness is derived from earthly matters, whilst joy comes from within.

Rachel Fearnley suggests, in Joy vs happiness: 3 ways to build a more joyful life, that:

“Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience, but are very different. Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.”

She goes on to say that, “So many of us have lost touch with that feeling, not knowing how to cultivate joy anymore, so we resort to quick fixes like alcohol, drugs and addictive foods, or find fleeting moments of happiness from other places without truly experiencing it and cultivating it for ourselves, for example by watching TV.”

In my own experience, finding this deeper joy is not dependent on my circumstances, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, it is about the present moment.

As someone who has always allowed my mind to linger in the past or continually take me into some future moment (even five minutes into the future), my most common experience has been dissatisfaction and lack of peace, happiness or joy right now. My fulfilment is always ‘yet to come’. In essence, it is a fear-based way of living. So my greatest practice - and continuing frustration - is learning to live in the present, in an acceptance of the now as it is, of myself as I am, and of others as they are.

I began to glimpse this new reality when I began the process of recovery from addiction and mental health issues.

This life-long journey involves challenging my sense of self, or lack of it, my thoughts, my emotions and my behaviours. When I was ready, it meant delving into my past to illuminate how I responded to life and why. It meant unearthing the gritty stuff, such as deep-seated fear and low self-esteem. It also meant learning to become still and be at peace with my being, with the present moment and a sense of Presence. It has also involved trying to lose my extreme self-centred focus, and connect with others and nature in a new way.

I would be lying if I said it was easy. It is definitely not a quick fix (like TV) and there is no ‘end point’ – it is very much ‘progress not perfection’. For many years I argued bitterly against the idea of joy beyond circumstance: it was too easy, too glib.

However, when I finally surrendered and became willing to go to any lengths to continue practising what often feels difficult and frustrating, I can honestly say that there is a new freedom and new joy to be had. Momentary glimpses of this joy are, with practice, growing and expanding. It all depends on my ongoing commitment to remain open and willing to learn, grow, and develop. The Mind regularly tries to pull me back into fear, self-pity and ‘unhappiness’ again, but I am learning to access that deeper inner joy even within the lashing storms of life – one moment at a time.

How each of us makes this journey of discovering joy-beyond-circumstance will vary widely. It is about exploration, and will be approached in a uniquely personal way. Part of the joy is in the exploration.

Finding our joy

If you are expecting this article to finish with ‘6 ways to increase joy in your life’, you will be disappointed. All I can say is that this is definitely an ‘inside job’ and not about the circumstances of your life. It will probably involve a degree of self-honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. The journey is often about discovering how to become still, what it means to be truly in the present moment, finding out who you truly are, and developing a high level of awareness.

I could point you towards various helpful books or resources, to help you, but it is very much an active as well as a reflective process. For example, I found The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, was a remarkable book – not to be rushed through, but read very slowly and practised, and then read again, very slowly, followed by more practise in my everyday life. However, what has been eye-opening for me, may not be for you at this time. I have tried to read certain books in the past and thrown them across the floor, because I was not ready to hear what they were saying.

When we open ourselves up and become willing to learn, somehow the tailor-made resources and people for each one of us seem to materialise. They come into our lives at just the right time for us: when we are ready for them. We just need to drop our pride and resistance (which is not always easy) and ask questions.

So I say again, this exploration is a uniquely personal experience. The journey towards joy, and even how we experience joy, will be different for each one of us, yet it can also unite us, connect us deeply in our humanity. These are not just words. Joy can be our living experience.


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