What is Happiness?


What makes people happy?  Typically, we tend to think of happiness as an emotion, or a mental state that we are currently experiencing. If someone thought that making a lot of money, or achieving one’s goals made them happy, then we would expect them to be thinking of happiness in terms of numbers in a bank account. Hedonists would associate happiness with how good they’re feeling about themselves.

Happiness, however, had a very different kind of meaning to the ancient Greeks. Directly translated to Greek, happiness is Eudaimonia. It did not represent pleasant feelings of elation or joy, but rather, it was defined as living ‘The Good Life’.

The Good Life entails living virtuously. What that would require, is that we constantly find the perfect balance between two polar extremes. For example, it is bad to have too much courage for that would be considered rash, while it is also bad to have too little courage for that would be considered cowardly.

But is that accurate? Can extremes not be virtuous in their own right?

Take someone who’s always honest, for example. Or someone who’s extremely hard-working. Seeking out balance never made any sense to me. Presumably, having balance should energize you since you’re not suffering in any major area, but what if what energizes you is one activity and one activity only?

Imagine a basketball player who revitalizes his resources every time he steps foot on a court. Should we be telling him to divide is time more evenly and compel him to do things he doesn’t want to do, or worse, gets drained while doing?

Happiness, or the modern self-interested definition of it, is overrated. There is a lot more to be said about purpose, honor, meaning. These things are not fleeting. They stay with you. They empower you. Happiness is simply positive emotion. And that can easily dissipate.

People who constantly plan journeys towards finding “positive emotion” are addicted to feeling good. In most cases, it’s because they’re spending their time doing something that doesn’t make them feel good at all. When you’re disengaged at work, you get an urge at the end of the day to find your “fix”.But when you’re doing something meaningful, you forget about the “fix”. The work you’re doing becomes your fix.

The Buddhists would say that it is our irrational drive to be happy that makes us unhappy. That we have set ourselves up in a kind of trap where we will have a unquenchable thirst for more, thus damning ourselves to a perpetual state of discontentment. And perhaps it is our irrationality itself that stops us from finding happiness – rather than our irrational quest.

It may be ideal to pursue a slightly variable definition of happiness – one that is better tailored to our personal psychology and circumstances, and in doing so, we might be wise to be aware of our propensity to make irrational errors. We might also learn from hard-earned wisdom from ancient religions that warns us from attaching ourselves too strongly to materialistic goals. And in doing so, we might defer our attention to things that we find truly meaningful.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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