Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Defining Happiness

I think in some ways, we get to decide what happiness is.

The word can mean a lot of different things. It can mean pleasure. It can mean satisfaction. It can mean joy. It can mean contentment. And whatever it happens to mean for us, our brains will turn life into a project to find more of that.

If happiness means pleasure, then life will be able seeking pleasure. Happiness as hedonism. There is nothing wrong with pleasure and nothing wrong with seeking it, though we can all think of examples (Charlie Sheen comes to mind) of people who might have gone a bit overboard. The issue with hedonism is that pleasure is by its very nature fleeting. If this is our definition, then our life just becomes an endless pursuit of whatever happens to feel good. And sometimes this has consequences, both for ourselves and others.

Happiness might mean satisfaction. I know this is the definition that resonates with the hard-driving professional side of me. This definition of happiness is about goals, and about striving, and about hard work and winning. And there is no doubt that we can find a great deal of meaning in this version of happiness. To find something that stretches ourselves and to meet that challenge is indeed fulfilling.

But what happens when we don't meet our goal? Or what happens when the goal is too easy, and even meeting it is not satisfying? Again, this definition seems to fall short. Those moments may feel much more meaningful ("I got my degree!" "We won the business!") than in the hedonistic model, but anyone who has been on the goal path knows that the satisfaction does not last, because there is always another goal. The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl just over a month ago, but you can be sure that by now they're only thinking about how to win another one.

Joy feels like it comes closer to the mark. We experience joy in laughter, in the smile of a child, in the smell of flowers or the peace of a sunset. Through mindfulness and other practices, we can cultivate our ability to experience joy more frequently. While joy has a timeless quality, it too comes and goes based on our circumstances.

That leaves contentment. Contentment can feel the least "happy" of the options. Contentment can feel like "settling." In our hard-driving society, the idea of being content can feel like a cop-out, like giving in and even giving up. But I think we can define contentment a bit differently.

To me, contentment is accepting each moment as it presents itself, no matter what is happening. Sometimes, the moment is joyful, and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes there is physical pain. Sometimes there is struggle. Sometimes there can be incredible energy and activity. Contentment accepts all of these with equanimity.

We can be content in any moment. Contentment is always available to us. It is the one form of happiness that does not depend on outside circumstances, and that can always be here, even when the other forms of happiness are not. Contentment can be cultivated, and yet it also has this wonderfully paradoxical quality. It often arises when you aren't looking for it.

It is this definition that I'll be writing about when I write about happiness. Happiness as the ever-present possibility of accepting things exactly as they are.


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