How Can Happiness Be Defined? [Definition + Examples]

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Last updated on October 3, 2020

If I asked you and your neighbor to define happiness right now, the two answers would probably be wildly different. Why is that? What is happiness really? Is it a feeling, a state of mind or just an emotion? What initially looks like a very simple question turns out to be one of the hardest questions out there. How can happiness be defined?

The answer is that there is no universal definition of happiness. In fact, your definition of happiness is unique in every way. The way you define happiness is as unique as you are yourself. That’s because happiness is not just a single emotion or state of mind. It’s an equation of many different things. This happiness equation varies from person to person and from moment to moment.

In this short article, I show you my journey on my mission to define happiness. I show you why there is no universally accepted definition of happiness, and why your own personal happiness definition is all that matters in the end.

Ready? Good.

how can happiness be defined header

What is happiness exactly? What is there to learn about happiness? This article is a part of the most in-depth guide on how to be happy, which answers these questions in the first section: What Is Happiness?

How happiness is most commonly defined

Here’s how happiness is defined according to Google:

Happiness is the state of being happy

Is this the answer you need? I’m going to assume that it’s not.

However, you might think this is a very simple query: define happiness. What could possibly be so hard about that?

It turns out that happiness is nearly impossible to define. Have a look at different dictionaries and encyclopedias and I bet you won’t find the exact same definition twice.

A case study on defining happiness

There is a very interesting example of how happiness is nearly impossible to define. Wikipedia has a page about happiness. The first page on Wikipedia specifically about happiness had a lot of trouble defining at as well. See for yourself here. It starts by defining it as “the state of being happy”.

happiness wikipedia definition 2003

That’s exactly the same definition as Google came up with, and it doesn’t really help, right?

In 2007, the editors of Wikipedia agreed on a definition that was a bit more nuanced. They defined happiness as an “emotion in which one experiences feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense joy”.

happiness wikipedia definition 2007

Then, one year later, in 2008 something interesting happened.

The 2008 version of the Happiness Wikipedia defined happiness like this:

“Happiness is an emotion in which one experiences feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense joy. This definition is, however, a synoymous one. A more clarified one is almost impossible to concieve due to the capacity by which a human can allocate the correct words into an appropriate and meritable sentence that would describe happiness.”

I won’t continue with the hundreds of other revisions to the article here. If you are looking for a good read on Wikipedia’s history on defining happiness, have a look here.

happiness wikipedia definition 2008

Why am I showing you all these Wikipedia articles then? It’s because something really interesting happened over time. The editors at Wikipedia had so much trouble finding a single definition of happiness that they just admitted that happiness is almost impossible to define. I’ve highlighted that part in the image above, which it the Wikipedia page that I’m talking about here.

Why it’s really hard to define happiness

If you ask me what made me happy last week, my answer is going to consist out of the following things:

  • Spending time with my girlfriend on a nice date
  • Enjoying a hot cup of coffee on a Sunday morning
  • Watching the Champions League live on television
  • Going for a nice 10K run through the woods
  • etc
  • etc

But if I ask you – or anybody else in the world – the same question, the answer will never be the same. In fact, the answer would vary so wildly that it would be impossible to keep track.

You see, there is an endless list of factors that could influence our happiness. The definition of happiness, therefore, changes from person to person. My personal definition of happiness will never fully align with your definition.

That’s why it’s so difficult for the world to agree on a single definition of happiness. That’s because happiness can’t be universally defined.

The many synonyms of happiness

Here’s another clear reason my happiness is hard to define. It’s because there are literally dozens of synonyms that people use to describe happiness. I’ve combined a part of these synonyms in this word cloud here:

happiness definitions and synonyms

You probably noticed a couple of synonyms that you don’t agree with. For me personally, I’ve never used “contentedness” as a synonym for happiness.

Then why do I still show it in this word-cloud?

Because “contentedness” might very well be a part of someone else’s happiness definition. Heck, maybe in 10 years time, I will define my own happiness as “contentedness”.

You see, all these different synonyms may be a part of how you define your happiness. The synonyms and combinations of how someone would define happiness are literally endless. And that’s what makes happiness so incredibly difficult to define and measure. It’s a weighted average of all these different synonyms, and the equation of happiness truly changes per person. I’ll even go as far as to say that the happiness equation changes per person per day.

If pleasure makes me happy today, it doesn’t mean that that same amount of pleasure makes me happy tomorrow.

If a feeling of gladness makes me feel happy today, it doesn’t mean that it will make me feel happy next year.

Your happiness definition is as unique as you are

What I want you to realize is that your personal definition of happiness is unique. What makes you happy doesn’t necessarily make another person happy. In fact, your definition of happiness changes over time.

And that’s one of the most critical aspects of happiness. That’s also why it’s so hard to define and quantify.

unique happiness snowflake definition

Finding your own happiness definition

What I want you to do is consider your personal happiness again for a moment.

Think back at the last week, and remember what things or events had a positive influence on your happiness. Think of the things that really made you smile or feel satisfied with where you were or how you acted.

What came to your mind? Was it a concert you visited? Was it a movie you watched? Was it a book you read? Or was it when you finished a huge deadline at work? It could literally be anything! I want you to realize that you just measured a part of your happiness.

You see, even though happiness is claimed to be extremely difficult to define, you can still define what is currently part of your happiness equation. It’s very simple.

For me personally, when I think back of yesterday, I remember that I went for a lovely long-distance run through the woods (even though it rained) and I played some games with my brother.

sunny weather in the forest february 2019.png

These are happiness factors that were a vital part of my happiness equation yesterday. It was a Sunday and I finally had some time to enjoy a quiet day again. The things that I did yesterday were great for my happiness, as it was a really happy day for me.

Do you see what happens when you consciously try to figure out what made you happy? You slowly finish the puzzle of what happiness your happiness definition is, piece by piece. You can do exactly the same, and you’ll quickly be able to define your own personal happiness!

If you’re still having trouble understanding the concept of happiness, then you might like my happiness essay about “What is happiness?”

Tracking my happiness in order to define it

I want to mention here that I’ve been tracking my happiness for over 5 years now. What does this mean? It means I spend 2 minutes every day to reflect on my day:

  • How happy was I on a scale from 1 to 10?
  • What factors had a significant effect on my happiness?
  • I clear my head by jotting down all my thoughts in my happiness journal.

This allows me to constantly learn from my own happiness definition. By looking back at my happiness journal, I can basically learn all about my own happiness definition. This is how I purposefully try to steer my life in the best direction possible. And I believe you can do the same!

Closing words

So how can happiness be defined? If you’ve made it all the way down here, you should know that happiness cannot be defined in a single universal way. That’s because happiness is as unique as you are personally. Our definition of happiness not only changes from person to person but also from day to day. How I defined happiness today probably won’t align with my definition of happiness 1 year from now.

So how can you define happiness? By finding out your own personal definition of happiness. You can do so by consciously thinking back about what made you happy on a daily basis. By doing this, you’ll quickly find out that your happiness definition is evolving every day, week and year. If you track your happiness – like myself and many others are doing – you can learn about it and steer your life in the best direction possible!

What is your definition of happiness? How would you define happiness right now? I’d love to find out in the comments below!

hugo huyer author of tracking happiness small

Hugo Huijer


Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 6 years.

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