Can the real happiness please stand up?

In my 2nd post, I wrote about some of the work I have done to develop and test interventions to improve  happiness with a specific focus on the workplace. In this post, I expand on this topic by describing what we (‘we’ being researchers, psychologists, philosophers, economists and other professional pontificators) mean when we use the term happiness. So, what is happiness?

The answer to this, seemingly simple, question has been a topic of hot debate for centuries.  I say ‘hot debate’ literally; some quite well-known academics have had very public disagreements* about this topic.

*Read: Academics throwing their toys out of the proverbial pram for the good of science

At its core, happiness is a subjective experience. What this means is that happiness is personal: how you define happiness depends on  how you experience happiness within yourself. This may or may not be how I, or anyone else, experiences happiness.

Despite its subjective nature, academics have tried to define and, in turn, measure, happiness (or to use it’s more scientific term, ‘subjective wellbeing’). Some view happiness as akin to feeling good (called the hedonistic approach). In other words, you are happy if you experience positive emotions like joy, contentment, excitement relatively more often than you experience negative emotions like sadness, anger, boredom.

The second approach to defining happiness (and probably the one that I relate most to) view happiness as a process rather than an outcome. We call this the eudaimonic approach to happiness. Here, well-being or happiness comes through the process of doing the best we can with our life, living life in line with our values, and ultimately, fulfilling our unique potential.

Discourse on this school of thought can be traced back to the likes of Aristotle (d. 322 BC). Aristotle’s contemplation on happiness – described in his work  Nicomachean Ethics – centred on happiness as the pursuit of a good life rather than a state of being.

Some identify Happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with a kind of philosophical wisdom, others add or exclude pleasure and yet others include prosperity. We agree with those who identify happiness with virtue, for virtue belongs with virtuous behaviour and virtue is only known by its acts.

ARIST. Nico. I.8.

In other words, Aristotle believed that in so long as we are living our life well and virtuously, we will be happy.




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