How to Be Happy, Step 1: Figure Out What “Happy” Means

Everyone wants to be happy, but what do they mean by “happy”?

Posted Feb 22, 2018

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

by Julia Revord, Seth Margolis, and Sonja Lyubomirsky

If there is one thing that people across nationalities and political views can agree on, it’s that they want to be happy. One survey of 48 countries found that residents of every single country wanted happiness for their children. Obviously, happiness is a goal that most people see eye to eye on — but what is happiness? Does everyone agree on what happiness means, or do they mean something different by the word “happy”? If you mastered The Art of Happiness, taught by the Dalai Lama, would you become the same type of “happy” that John Lennon wanted to be when he grew up? When Pharrell Williams sang that he was happy, was he exercising the same inalienable right as the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence were describing?

For millennia, philosophers have debated what happiness (or “well-being”) truly is. Not surprisingly, they have yet to reach a consensus. Instead, philosophers today have “agreed to disagree” on a single definition of happiness, settling the matter with four central types of happiness, labeled hedonic happiness, life satisfaction, eudaimonia, and desire fulfillment.

Perhaps the most familiar form of happiness is hedonic happiness, which involves experiencing relatively more positive (versus negative) emotions. Hedonic happiness is sometimes called pleasure; it is the sensation of just feeling good and, of course, not feeling bad. Hedonic pleasure is the way it feels to eat your favorite chocolate — the sensation of it melting on your tongue, the sweetness filling your mouth, and that warm feeling in your stomach that just says mmm. But, so far, there has been no record of someone who successfully achieved lifelong bliss via regular trucks of truffles — why?

Imagine lying on your deathbed, asking yourself if you had lived a good life, and trying to answer by tallying all of the good food that you had eaten and the massages you had received. It seems absurd. People have a natural sense of whether or not they are satisfied with their lives, which is not necessarily just based on adding up how much pleasure they have experienced. This is the second type of happiness — life satisfaction. As the name implies, this definition equates happiness with being satisfied with your life. Of course, you might be the type of person who is deeply satisfied with your life of crime, in which you torture animals for fun and craft artisan leather goods out of bits of your neighbors. Using only life satisfaction and hedonic definitions, you’d have a good shot at happiness. Yet somehow this doesn’t seem what most parents dream for their children, or like what your neighbor Stanley really wishes for you when he calls out, “Happy Holidays!” Nor does it seem to answer the philosophical question of what is the “good life” for which each human should strive.

The solution to this conundrum is the third definition of happiness — eudaimonia. This concept from Aristotle stems from the words eu (meaning “good”) and daimon (meaning spirit), referring to the fact that your life appears to be directed both in luck and deed by a good spirit. Eudaimonia describes a life driven by virtue and good fortune — for example, in your occupation, social relationships, and family. Eudaimonia is often thought to reflect an “objective” view of happiness, in that someone could review a file of your life and count up facts about your deeds and successes to give you a happiness score. Thus, the eudaimonia approach to happiness makes it possible to compare how happy two different people are in a more objective way than the life satisfaction approach — more like taking your children’s temperature (objective) versus asking them if they are sick enough to stay home from school (subjective).

However, eudaimonia removes personal preference from the equation. It is akin to someone saying that the perfect gift for every American child is a Red Ryder BB gun. Aside from the obvious problem (that you’ll shoot your eye out, kid), it is possible that Aristotle’s “perfect” eudaimonic “good life” would be better suited to some people than to others.

The final view, desire fulfillment, is the extent to which you have gotten what you want — a definition of happiness often used by economists. This view is an objective number (i.e., how much did you get) used to describe something subjective (i.e., what did you want). If Veruca desires one golden goose and numerous other things, someone can, without knowing how Veruca feels or how much pleasure she gets, objectively count if she got what she wanted.

You might speculate that these four types of happiness go togeth­­er — that an individual with one type of happiness probably has all of the others, too. Our research suggests that the answer is not so simple. Imagine a social worker who finds her job to be quite meaningful and wants nothing more from life than to help people. Yet she is confronted on a daily basis with injustice and despair — situations that rarely make her feel cheerful. This social worker might not report much hedonic happiness, but could experience a great deal of the other types of happiness. She may feel that she is satisfied with her life, that she has succeeded in living out her deepest-held values of helping others, and that she has achieved her aspirations. Indeed, ongoing research from our laboratory is finding that these types of happiness only overlap about 50 percent. That is, if you know how high someone is on one type of happiness, you only have 50 percent of the information needed to know how high they are on any of the other three types of happiness.

Which of the four definitions of happiness do people prefer? To find out, we asked a sample of 807 individuals for their opinions on the four types of happiness. They agreed most with the life satisfaction view of happiness and agreed least with the desire fulfillment view of happiness. It turns out that people are inclined to believe that it is more important that they are happy with the way their life story has unfolded as a whole than whether they have all their wishes satisfied. 

What type of happiness do you want? Do you strive to prioritize feeling good, living according to your morals, becoming rich and powerful, or feeling satisfied with the way that you have lived your life? The answer to this question may help you decide how precisely you should live your life.

I'm happy to post this piece with two guest bloggers and my collaborators on research funded by a grant from Happiness & Well-Being: Integrating Research Across the Disciplines (Saint Louis University & John Templeton Foundation).