While I haven’t written about it in some time, my fascination with happiness and optimal human experience continues. Two years and counting, in fact.
After all this time spent dabbling in psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, ethics, politics, communication, the productivity movement, the Slow Movement, passion, creativity, genetics, sustainability, love, life, the universe and everything, one would hope that I might consider myself a fundamentally happier human being than before. And so I do. But in the course of reading countless books and engaging in more conversations and debates than I can recall, I also seem to have run headlong into my happiness project’s elephant in the room.
The thing I’ve noticed about ‘happiness’ is that we each mean something different when we use the word. (‘Love’ works the same way, sometimes leading to a whole lot of hurt and misaligned expectations. The ancient Greeks did a little better, distinguishing philia, eros, agape, storge, and xenia.) And yet so few authors, both of the positive psychology genre and otherwise, take adequate space to define what they mean when they use this slippery word, and so few conversations make time for the parties to confirm that they’re both talking about the same thing, instead leaping straight into the talking at cross-purposes.
While reading What Makes Us Happy? over at The Atlantic earlier this year, I noticed that psychiatrist George Valiant uses the term ‘happy-well’ instead of merely ‘happy’. Although a little clumsy, I appreciate this because it not only aligns reasonably well with my own usage of ‘happiness’ but also represents an understanding that the term ‘happy’ alone is profoundly ambiguous.
So…happiness. I’ve seen it used to refer to hedonic pleasure, an absence of suffering, sustainable well-being, an absence of negative feelings, an abundance of positive feelings, the experience of a sense of purpose and meaning, euphoria, balance, contentment in the moment, a more fundamental sense of contentment or ‘rightness’ about one’s life, inner tranquility, complete fatalism or submission to a higher power and more, not to mention that warm feeling induced by a glass of wine or five. And, when you think about it, some of those are very different things indeed.
Reading that list, it strikes me that there’s simply no way that I’d dedicate my time to pursuing some of those user-defined experiences of happiness, nor encourage others to do so. The ‘happiness’ in my happiness project would more accurately be defined as ‘maintaining a sustainable level well-being, physical, psychological and otherwise, through both joy and sadness, with realism, rationality, courage and the conviction that my well-being does not exist in isolation from that of my environment and fellow travellers’. This, of course, makes a crap name for a project. ‘My happiness project’ is much catchier, particularly given that my brain has a damn short attention span sometimes.
However, in spite of its essential ambiguity I still like the word ‘happiness’, just as I appreciate the awkward, elusive, often-tricksy concept that is ‘love’. It’s a big, interesting umbrella-term that’s full of all manner of ideas – many of them contradictory. My happiness project may not be your happiness project, nor even encompass your understanding of happiness, but given that I personally find happiness in complexity and sometimes in contradiction, that’s all well by me.
(crossposted from LiveJournal)
Some Happy iPhone Apps (Depending On Your Definition of ‘Happy’):
I Can Has Cheezburger
Gretchen Rubin’s new Happiness Project Toolbox
My recent del.icio.us links tagged ‘happiness‘