survey of popular books on the subject of happiness will reveal two things: a) there are numerous definitions of happiness, and b) most books on this subject suck.
As for the various definitions, they generally fall into two categories: those that focus upon emotions and those that focus upon material circumstances. In a nutshell, emotional happiness means feeling good, and material happiness means having the life you want. One is internal – existing in your consciousness – and the other is external – existing in the world around you.
The two are distinct! You can feel good even if you do not have the life you want. And you can have the life you want and still feel miserable.
Material, external so-called happiness shall be tackled in greater depth in a later section. In summary, while material goals can add meaning to your life and be enriching to you and others, a lasting sense of happiness does not result from fulfilling such goals. Modern western culture places far too much emphasis on these externals. We are led to believe that one’s worth as a person is merely a measurement of one’s material circumstances. A person who receives a large income, owns enviable possessions, lives in a big house, marries a desirable spouse, parents charming children, and accomplishes notable goals, is a good person, a worthwhile person, and, we assume, a happy person. It is this belief that drives people to enter the rat race, but the belief is, through-and-through, a complete and utter lie.
It might be more difficult to be happy when you’re starving or undergoing torture, but generally speaking there is little correlation between material circumstances, which are external, and happiness, which is internal.
Therefore, happiness does not require wealth. It cannot be bought.
Furthermore, happiness doesn’t require love or approval from other people. It does not require one’s family to be made proud. You don’t need the perfect mate or a litter of lovely little children. Neither does happiness require exceptional intelligence or a specific degree. It does not require success in business, a clean and organized office, fame, or accolades. You won’t be made happy by the right car, the right house, the right boat, or any material possession. A cadre of exciting friends won’t make you happy either. You don’t need an attractive face or body, physically fitness, or the perfect diet. Happiness does not require you to be better than others. You don’t have to run a marathon or travel the globe. Happiness does not require you to do any of the things we’re led to believe we ought, should, must do.
It is unrealistic to expect to always feel joy, or for that matter any other single emotion. It is not only unrealistic, it is undesirable. This fact is what moves some people to assert that sustained happiness is impossible. I agree with them that the pleasurable emotion that we sometimes call happiness, like all emotions, is only meant to be temporary. But when I speak of happiness I don’t mean a particular emotion, but rather a state (which includes what you tend to believe and think, how you tend to feel, and what you tend to do).
A single emotion lasts a few minutes to a couple of hours. Consider though that depression can last days, weeks, months, and even years. How does depression persist for so long when emotions are such transient creatures? The answer is that depression is not a singular emotion. It is a cycle in which irrational thoughts and painful emotions build upon each other in a feedback loop. Happiness is, similarly, a cycle, but it consists of rational thoughts and pleasing (or at least rational) emotions.
Happiness is not about having the external life you want, but about dealing internally in a rational and healthy way with the life you have.
This is not to say that happiness bars positive change in your material circumstances; on the contrary, you’re monumentally more likely to improve your life when you feel empowered and your outlook is bright. Material improvements are a very likely side-effect of happiness, and without happiness positive change in your life is much more difficult. But such improvements are not the route to happiness. The externals do not confer happiness. But in a manner of speaking, happiness confers the externals.
On this our culture is terribly confused, for it flips the true order. We are taught to chase happiness through externals, when we can only receive happiness if we stop running and grant it to ourselves.
Here, at last, is the definition of happiness:
Happiness is a rational state of mind that accepts realistic negative emotions (such as sadness and disappointment) when they are merited, but that generally leads to a range of positive emotions (contentment, triumph, joy, delight, enthusiasm, etc.), and leads away from depression and anxiety (as well as rage, resentment, debilitating guilt, debilitating shyness, shame, diffidence, decision paralysis, panic, loneliness, feeling trapped, and low frustration tolerance). Happiness requires that one be intolerant of irrational thoughts that cause unrealistic negative emotions, and that underlying self-defeating beliefs are revised, opting for unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, and situation-acceptance.
Now that I’ve written it let me revise it. “State of mind” may be too ambiguous a term. “Mindset” may be a better word, by which I mean a mental approach, a pattern or habit of thought, or really a set of thinking skills. And to refine it further, happiness might be better defined as a cycle, in which constructive thoughts and behaviors enter a feedback loop with positive emotions.
Types of distorted thinking that are inimical to happiness include mind-reading, “catastrophizing” (minimizing or discounting positives, and maximizing and/or dwelling exclusively upon negatives), blaming, comparing lives, labeling, all-or-nothingism, and “should-ing.” Common underlying self-defeating beliefs include perfectionism (the main source of the “shoulds”), seeking worth through achievement, and seeking worth through approval or love.
I formulated this definition of happiness through my study of psychology, especially Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). I’ve been most assisted by books written by David Burns and Albert Ellis. Much of the language is theirs.
To put it more simply:
Happiness is a cheerful mindset that puts you in good spirits most of the time and that helps you deal effectively with perceived adversity.
Happiness is stubbornly refusing to disturb yourself with stupid crap. If you can do that, you’ll mostly feel good. This involves developing a belief system that is helpful, healthy, and based on facts.
Happiness is accepting who you are, who other people are, and what the universe is, rather than adhering to some fantasy, some perfect model in your mind that bears little correlation to reality. It is acknowledging your own nature, the nature of other people, and Mother Nature.
Happiness is a joyful way of embracing the current moment, this very moment, this “right now,” without bitterness about the past or terror about the future.
Happiness is a good attitude (a rational way of viewing yourself and the world) that tends to result in a good mood (not one feeling but a whole range of pleasurable emotions) and self-helping behavior (going out and doing enjoyable, enriching things).