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Definition of Happiness

Definition of Happiness: the Experts’ View

Where better to look for a definition of happiness than in the words of the experts? However, don’t expect just a few words, in one, single definition. Happiness is not as straightforward as that!

Neither do our selected experts all agree on definitions. Their differences aren’t necessarily limitations though. Rather they provide range and richness to our understanding of happiness. Read and think about our choice of expert views on this complex but fundamental subject. Then decide for yourself which of these top thinkers has written your favourite definition of happiness.

Richard Layard

Richard Layard brings the perspective of a leading economist to the debate on happiness. In his challenging book:”Happiness: Lessons from a New Science” he tries to answer a paradox. Why, despite being wealthier, healthier and owning more possessions than ever before, are people still no happier than they were fifty years ago? Layard suggests a succinct definition of happiness:

“So by happiness I mean feeling good, enjoying life, and wanting the feeling to be maintained.”

2 Jonathan Haidt

In the “Happiness Hypothesis”, Jonathan Haidt draws on ten ancient ideas, blending them with modern research findings, to identify what makes us happy.

Haidt asks some intruiging questions. Does happiness come from getting what we want? Does it come from within? Perhaps happiness comes from without, from external conditions? Haidt suggests that in reality, happiness comes from “between”.

“People need love work and a connection to something larger. It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself.”

3 Tal Ben Shahar

Harvard academic Tal Ben Shahar highlights 6 elements of happiness based on his excellent book: Happier. This book includeds research, theory and numerous practical activities, all combined to help you find a happier life.

Ben Shahar’s definition of happiness is: “The overall experience of pleasure and meaning.”“Pleasure” is immediate or present benefit whilst “meaning” has a goal of future benefit.

4 Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi

In trying to answer the question: “how can each person create an excellent life?” Csíkszentmihályi discusses the importance of
“flow”. Finding “flow” in what we do is an important step in finding happiness. It involves living and working in fullness, and performing work that enables us to express our uniqueness.

Csíkszentmihályi’s work therefore suggests a different focus for a definition of happiness:

“It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure… But this kind of happiness is dependent on favourable external circumstance. The happiness that follows flow is our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.”

5 Sonja Lyubomirsky

Sonja Lyubomirsky has distilled much of the research on happiness into her focus on how to be happy. In her book: “The How of Happiness”, she explores ideas and practical ways to happiness.

Alongside the more technical and elaborate ideas on this page, Lyubomirsky offers a pithy, charged definition of happiness: the aim of “a joyful, contented life”. An elegant definition of happiness which underpins both the feelings and judgements necessary for overall happiness.

6 Ed Diener

This definition introduces the idea of subjective wellbeing. This is a concept which suggests that happiness is determined by what people self report. According to Ed Diener:

“Happiness can mean pleasure, life satisfaction, positive emotions, a meaningful life, or a feeling of contentment, among other concepts. In fact, for as long as philosophers have been discussing happiness, its definition has been debated.”

“A person is said to have high (subjective well-being) if she or he experiences life satisfaction and frequent joy, and only infrequently experiences unpleasant emotions such as sadness and anger.”

7 Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman sheds a different light on happiness. The Noble Prize winner stresses the differences between the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self”. He believes that social science research should pay more attention to people’s actual experiences rather theirreflections on their experiences.

Why? Well in a number of experiments, Kahneman has shown that our view of happiness can be quite different when we reflect and remember. We have a natural tendency to more easily remember high points, beginnings and endings. This natural selectivity tends to colour bothhow we reflect, and what we say about our feelings of happiness during the we’re recollecting. Although not a definition of happiness, Kahneman’s work is still a thought-provoking reminder that this is a complex subject!

8 Martin Seligman.

In contrast to Kahneman, Martin Seligman places more emphasis on the remembered self. “I think we are our memories more than the sum total of our experiences.” For Seligman, studying moment-to-moment experiences puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures.

Seligman describes how “Authentic Happiness” can be achieved by combining and balancing three approaches to life:

  • The pleasant life: a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past, and future.
  • The good life: (or the engaged life) using your signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification (activities we like doing) in the main realms of your life.
  • The meaningful life: using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.

If we combine and balance these we’re likely to find authentic happiness, in a full life. In particular Seligman stresses recent research indicating that:

“the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning.”

9 Michael Fordyce

To Michael Fordyce, happiness is:

“… nothing more than an emotion. Psychologists define it as a longer-term sense of emotional well-being and contentment – a general “feeling” that one is happy.”

10 John Nettle

In his book “Happiness. The Science Behind Your Smile”, John Nettle suggests that there are three levels to understanding happiness:

  • Level 1 is our momentary feeling, our sense of joy and pleasure;
  • Level 2 reflects our judgements about feeling, relating to our sense of wellbeing and satisfaction;
  • Level 3 is associated with quality of life, and conveys the idea of flourishing and fulfilling one’s potential.

Definition of Happiness: Pleasure, Goodness and Meaning

For more on this subject, you may find it useful to read our article Happiness Definition. Here we explore the ideas of three leading thinkers, explaining the progressive development of happiness from pleasure, to goodness, to meaning.

Or follow this link to read more of Michael Fordyce’s definition of happiness, and his excellent discussion on that most complex of subjects!

Where to go from here:


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