Most people find themselves at least momentarily speechless when asked to define happiness, and those who can give a quick answer have usually already given it some thought. But what makes happiness so difficult to define?
Happiness is desirable and often elusive, but above all it’s subjective and constantly changing, and it’s those characteristics that make it so hard to pin down and define. While there are some themes that keep cropping up in different definitions of happiness – contentment, security, positivity – no two definitions are exactly the same. Not only that, but the same person may define happiness differently in different stages of life.
In this article, I’ll take a look at some definitions of happiness and why happiness is difficult to define.
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?
Happiness according to real people
Writing this article inevitably made me think about my own definition of happiness and how it has changed over time. After giving it some thought, I have a pretty good idea of what happiness is for me, but what about other people?
In order to figure out other people’s ideas of happiness, I sent some of my friends a very simple question: “How do you define happiness?”. This is in no way a reliable and valid study, given that it was conducted entirely on Messenger. The sample mostly consists of working professionals in their late twenties, but I got some interesting answers nevertheless.
Most people I asked named contentment as an important part of their happiness. A fellow psychologist writes:
Happiness is being content with the different aspects of your life, and even if there’s something that needs changing, you shouldn’t be critical about it, but approach it in a kind and considerate way.
A certain kind of acceptance of both the good and the bad in life was also a common theme in the answers. One respondent wrote:
Happiness is being able to enjoy life and accept things the way they are
Another one added that it’s unrealistic to expect to be ecstatic and smile all the time.
On the topic of expectations, one friend wrote:
You could say that happiness is when your expectations are in accordance with reality. And I have the power to make sure that they are.
Another common thread was having security or being secure in your position in life, with two respondents relating it to the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Right now, happiness for me means that my loved ones and I are in good health and still have our jobs.
The other one went on a bit of a rant too long to quote here.
Among the more abstract answers were some quite simple ones, which illustrate a point made by one respondent: “You’ll find happiness where you seek it.” One person named warm and sunny weather as a key to happiness, while several named a comfortable bed, and good food. Cats, dogs, other pets, and the incredibly specific “that feeling when you manage to revive a houseplant you thought was dead” were also named as definitions of happiness.
Happiness is subjective
What my slightly shoddy survey demonstrates is that even though the people I talked to are of a similar age and come from similar social backgrounds, happiness means different things to everyone. There are common themes in the answers, but despite this, no two answers were the same.
And that’s what makes happiness so difficult to define on a larger scale: it’s entirely subjective.
Known attempts at defining happiness
Despite this, attempts to define happiness within certain groups have been made. For example, a 2015 article found that self-esteem, academic success and financial security had the most influence on university students’ happiness. For young adults with schizophrenia, the definition of happiness included material, relational and health happiness, as reported in a 2013 study.
According to a study published last year, children find happiness in self-fulfillment through activities and hobbies, and relationships. A 2012 article reports that for elderly Chinese people, happiness is living with a grandchild, while living with one’s child can be detrimental to happiness.
Just like in my impromptu survey, there are some recurring themes in these definitions of happiness, but they are still unique to the specific demographic groups.
Subjective well-being as an alternative definition of happiness
Of course, psychologists and researchers are aware of the subjective nature of happiness. In fact, one of the most common measures of happiness is subjective well-being (SWB).
SWB, first developed by psychologist Ed Diener in 1984, is a self-reported measure of two components: affective balance (the ratio of positive and negative emotions a person experiences) and life satisfaction in 15 different domains of life. The model is quite simple: frequent positive affect, infrequent negative affect, and generally being satisfied with your life means that you’re a happier person.
SWB allows researchers to study how different aspects of life influence happiness and to compare these results within different groups, while still accounting for the fact that no two people’s ideas of happiness and satisfaction are the same.
The meaning of happiness changes over time
There’s another problem we run into while trying to define happiness: the meaning of happiness is constantly changing and shifting.
As stated above, I know my definition of happiness pretty well, but I also know that it’s not the same as a year or five ago. And most likely, a few years from now, it will have changed again.
The shifting nature of happiness was also reflected in some of the answers I got from my friends, a few of whom started their answers with the words “I used to think…”.
A similar narrative of finding the “true meaning” of happiness is often used in books and movies, which also illustrates that our ideas of happiness are prone to change.
Our definition of happiness can change in response to different life events and experiences, but there is also a systemic shift in the meaning of happiness over the course of our lifetime. A 2010 article reports that while younger people are more likely to associate happiness with excitement, older people are more likely to associate happiness with peacefulness.
The true meaning of happiness
Happiness may seem pretty easy to define in the moment, but coming up with a general definition is much harder and the definitions we do manage to produce are always tied to the context of the situation we find ourselves in.
But what does this mean for our own pursuit of happiness? If happiness is always changing and subjective, can you really find “true happiness”?
Well, yes and no. There is no one “true” definition of happiness, so by definition – pun intended – you cannot find “true happiness”, because it doesn’t exist. However, because there is no generally accepted meaning of happiness, everyone’s individual definition is equally true.
The last point carries an important connotation: your happiness is entirely up to you. You are free to define happiness in whatever way works for you.
And, if you’re wondering about my definition of happiness – right now it’s a day without a single email, but if you ask me again in a week, it might be something else.
Happiness is difficult to define because it’s entirely subjective and dependent on the context. There are common themes, but asking 100 people for their definition will give you 100 different answers. And not only will the definition differ between groups and people, but the meaning of happiness is also constantly changing in time.
This does not mean that your definition is insignificant – in fact, it means that you are always in charge of your happiness.