Skip to content

Happiness, Part 1: What are we talking about, anyway?

April 5, 2010

I can tell right now that this post is going to need multiple parts, to avoid a novel-sized chunk of words.

A recent LJ entry from rainbow_goddessCures and happiness–got me thinking again about happiness–and, as I mentioned in comments there, how perceptions and expectations of the happiness of whole groups of other people can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.

This kind of thing happens a lot with Prejudice, Stereotyping, and Discrimination.

Before I get ahead of myself here, what is happiness?

One online dictionary tells us:

hap·pi·ness [hap-ee-nis]
1.the quality or state of being happy.
2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.

1520–30; happy + -ness

—Related forms
o·ver·hap·pi·ness, noun

1, 2. pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction. Happiness, bliss, contentment, felicity imply an active or passive state of pleasure or pleasurable satisfaction. Happiness results from the possession or attainment of what one considers good: the happiness of visiting one’s family. Bliss is unalloyed happiness or supreme delight: the bliss of perfect companionship. Contentment is a peaceful kind of happiness in which one rests without desires, even though every wish may not have been gratified: contentment in one’s surroundings. Felicity is a formal word for happiness of an especially fortunate or intense kind: to wish a young couple felicity in life.

1. misery.

Just from this short definition, it’s not looking like a simple concept, at all; the term can refer to a variety of emotions/experiences. As AnneC described so well in her post on “empathy”, people are not always entirely clear with what they mean when they use the word–and some of this confusion (both in expression and interpretation) can harm other people.

Looking for more in the way of definitions and descriptions, I ran across The Happiness Formula series on the BBC’s site. It seems to provide a reasonable overview of what people mean when they talk about happiness.

What makes people happy? A brief summary, from this page:

What makes you makes you happy

To understand life satisfaction scores, it is helpful to understand some of the components that go into most people’s experience of happiness.

One of the most important influences on happiness is social relationships.

Social relationships greatly influence your happiness levels

People who score high on life satisfaction tend to have close and supportive family and friends, whereas those who do not have close friends and family are more likely to be dissatisfied.

Of course the loss of a close friend or family member can cause dissatisfaction with life, and it may take quite a time to bounce back from the loss.

Another factor that influences the life satisfaction of most people is work or school, or performance in an important role such as homemaker or grandparent.

When the person enjoys his or her work, whether it is paid or unpaid work, and feels that it is meaningful and important, this contributes to life satisfaction.

When work is going poorly because of bad circumstances or a poor fit with the person’s strengths, this can lower life satisfaction.

When a person has important goals, and is failing to make adequate progress toward them, this too can lead to life dissatisfaction.

A third factor that influences the life satisfaction of most people is personal – satisfaction with the self, religious or spiritual life, learning and growth, and leisure…

For many people these are sources of satisfaction. However, when these sources of personal worth are frustrated, they can be powerful sources of dissatisfaction.

One major theme that keeps popping up here is contentment:

What they have in common, it seems, is not fighting yourself.

You are content when the different parts of yourself make friends with each other.

Discontent, on the other hand, is the result of a discrepancy between what you want and what you get.

However, nobody can have everything they want.

A rich person may not have youth and a young person may not have money.

And even one who is both rich and young, may be not as carefree as a hermit.

So does it mean that we can not be content?

Fortunately not. The trick is that what really matters is what is going on the inside rather than the outside.

In other words, what we want depends on us, rather than the situation, so by changing our perspective we can affect our level of contentment as much, if not more, as we could do by changing the situation.

As a famous saying goes, change what you can, accept what you cannot and have the wisdom to know the difference.

This is pretty basic stuff, but “something that many experts undervalue or ignore completely” (from same article). It’s not just experts.

Given some other messages about happiness common in our society, there is lots of room for cognitive dissonance here: “When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance”. What we believe to be true and the evidence in front of us do not always agree. This dissonance will influence people’s perceptions and behavior, and it is very tempting to dismiss the evidence in favor of the prior belief, thus dismissing the experiences of the person/people in question.

That kind of thing seems to drive a lot of ‘splainin’, and other hostile behavior. Narcissistic rage is a particularly blatant version of this, but most people do this, to a lesser extent.

How this can drive perceptions of happiness–especially in conjunction with stereotypes and prejudice–is central to the upcoming second installation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: