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Speaking In Smiles: How We Define Happiness

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

Author: Justin Mckibben

What is happiness?

Is it a warm gun? Is it what happens when you don’t worry?

Is it truly something money can’t buy? Is it the feeling we choose to carry with us with adversity even in the toughest times? I came across a few articles discussing happiness this morning, and thought why not share some thoughts.

Historians and philosophers have mused over the notion since the conception of the word, and over time it seems our ideas as to what “happiness” means has changed through differences in culture and circumstances, with the help of dialect and language.

In America’s Declaration of Independence we were all promised the right to pursue it. Today various research groups engage in the scientific method to research questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained. It impacts our health, and even has its roots in our spiritual beliefs. So what should it mean to you?

Dictionary’s “Happy” Definition

On the Marriam-Webster dictionary website, the word “happiness” is defined commonly as:

“A state of being happy”

Huh… far out. Thanks Webster for that incredible insight!

No but seriously, it goes on to describe it as

  • Good fortune: prosperity
  • A state of well-being and contentment: joy
  • A pleasurable or satisfying experience

Online informative site Wikipedia defines “happiness” as:

“A mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. A variety of biological, psychological, religious, and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources.”

Most philosophers and historians have been able to agree that the idea of happiness in ancient times centered on good luck and fortune, in contrast to today’s contemporary view from the perspective of most Americans as something over which they have control and something that they can actively pursue in our lifetime. Which one feels closer to home to you?

The Scientific Search for Happiness

Although the scientific study of happiness and ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB) has thrived over the last 30 years, the concept of happiness has been abstract, mysterious and intangible according to researchers.

In 1984 Ed Diener, an American psychologist, professor, and author who is known for over 25 years of research on the subject advocated the use of the scientific term SWB as opposed to happiness precisely because of the obscurities associated with the term “happiness.”

SWB has been regularly used as the subjective evaluation of factors such as:

  • Life as a whole
  • The presence of pleasant emotions
  • The relative absence of unpleasant emotions

While the exact use of the term “happiness” has been debated, others are more focused on the effects than the strictest definition. A 2005 study by Andrew Steptow and Michael Marmot claimed to have found that happiness is clearly related to biological markers that play an important role in health.

Another author on the subject even reported that happy people live 14% longer, increasing longevity 7.5 to 10 years, suggesting that laughter and smiles can truly be some of the best medicine. But how can we know for sure if scientists can’t give us a formula for it… aside from serotonin, dopamine and other chemicals in the brain that create comparable sensations…what is the exact receipt for happiness?

Philosophy of “Happy” in Society

Socrates thought of happiness as something at least partially within one’s control, and that the education of desire is a key to happiness. Even the American President Abraham Lincoln once said,

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

According to University of California researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky,

“40% of our capacity for happiness is within our power to change.”

Over time what we conceive to be important to our happiness has changed.

In 1938 psychologist Sandie McHugh from the University of Bolton conducted an unscientific survey on the happiness, asking a series of questions in a news advertisment which 226 people responded to.  Comparing that data to a similar survey from 2014 we can see subtle changes and patterns.

In 1938 the 3 most important aspects of happiness were:

  • Security
  • Knowledge
  • Religion

In 2014 the top 3 were:

  • Security
  • Good humor
  • Leisure

Just that one chunk of facts can say a lot about how we have changed over time to understanding our meaning of happiness. Religion fell to 10th most important in 2014, while it appears telling jokes is more important than being educated and relaxing is more important than spirituality. Some of this change probably has a lot to do with social media and technology that has begun to wirelessly reprogram our self-image, satisfaction and expectations in ways that both restrict and expand out perception.

Some people believe knowing what happiness really means is almost as difficult as achieving it. Some motivational speakers and psychologists have even written entire books on how to identify your happiness and how you can best achieve it. There is theory that happy people make more money, have more friends and are even more creative.

As a (recovering) manic depressive and an artist’s I’m not sure how accurate that last part is, but I’ll let it ride.

Speaking In Smiles

I have written before that I believe we all have some level of influence on how happy life is day to day, and in my opinion that is contingent on how I appreciate the present, moment to moment. I don’t think happiness means the absence of unpleasant emotions, but it does mean having the emotional sobriety to smile through it. They say you can practice happiness, and if practice makes perfect than a perfect life is less about having everything you want and more about valuing every object and experience your graced with.

If true happiness is the combination of how satisfied you are with your meaning in life and how good you regularly feel, then perhaps the key to each individuals happiness is finding the most fulfilling piece of ourselves and trying to make it the intrinsic inspiration of our lives.

Maybe happiness feels so abstract because we are so each so different. Regardless of our brains chemical responses and biological behavior, we all know different things that strike different nerves. Maybe we should never have a strict definition of happiness, because in the realm of the abstract there is freedom, and in that freedom we find our own catharsis by speaking in smiles.

“If you want to be happy, be.”

Leo Tolstoy

When we get lost in drugs and alcohol, compulsion and addiction, we start to forget what being happy feels like. Never give up on being happy, because you deserve it and there is always a way back. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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