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What is happiness? Can this abstract concept actually be defined. Take a look at the following three definitions and ponder over what resonates with you.

“Happiness is the absence of misery.”

“Happiness is the joy that we feel when we’re striving after our potential.”

“Happiness is having fun at a party, the excitement of new experiences, or the delights of a fine meal.”

“Happiness is the absence of misery.”

The focus of traditional psychology has always been on how to cure the depressed and miserable. If we had a scale from -10 to +10 and -10 was very miserable, the goal of psychologists and their research was to get the one on -10 to 0. Look up research articles in the field of psychology and you will find topics like anger, misery, sadness, pessimism, anxiety and depression being popular topics (e.g. 54040 articles on depression vs. 415 on joy). The reason for this is because historically, psychologists were mainly concerned with these topics and curing people who suffered from such issues. If we adopt this methodology, then the meaning of happiness is the absence of misery. As long as someone is not miserable and sad and they are at 0 (as opposed to -10), they must be happy?

happiness

“Happiness is the joy that we feel when we’re striving after our potential.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t work for me. Recent developments in psychology has come to shift the pendulum. Martin Seligman began a movement in psychology (coined positive psychology) in 1998. He claimed that happiness is not the negation of unhappiness. It may be surprising, but many people live in something known as quiet desperation – meaning not necessarily depressed nor anxious but not happy (i.e. 0 on the scale of happiness). Positive psychology came to take one from 0 to positive. Shifting the focus to be on the positives of life and what we are good at and trying to maximise what works and not eliminating what doesn’t.

The question that positive psychology asks is how we can help ourselves and others become happier. It suggests that happiness is something that can be developed and taught, and we can do activities ourselves to increase our own happiness e.g. keeping a gratitude journal. It also allows us to be human. What does this mean? This means that we have the permission to feel upset, miserable, angry and even depressed because these feelings are normal. When a loved one passes away, are we not going to feel a feeling of misery and depression? Only two types of people do not feel this – psychopaths and dead people. Therefore, these feelings do not need to be eliminated and when they do occur, we do not need to overact and assume there is something wrong with us.

Related: the effect of gratitude on our happiness

“Happiness is having fun at a party, the excitement of new experiences, or the delights of a fine meal.”

happiness

These are moments of temporary bliss. Sure, during these experiences you will feel a high level of joy and perceived happiness, but they are very moment specific. Once the moment passes, that feeling passes with it. Once the party is over, your feeling of fun is over, once the new experience is finished, the excitement is finished and once the fine meal is consumed, the delights of it are consumed with it too.

So, what are your thoughts? Is this an accurate representation of what happiness means? Can it even be defined?

Reference List:

WGBHForum (2014) Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB8Usl6aX2I (Accessed: 18 June 2018).