“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances […] under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them…, your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.”-Martin Seligman – Authentic Happiness
What emotions should people strive for to be happy?
Is happiness only about feeling good in the moment?
Or is there something more to being happy?
In the pursuit of happiness we are taught from a young age to seek out good-feeling emotions and avoid stress and negativity.
According to traditional subjective well-being research, the more pleasant the emotions we experience the happier we become.
But is that true?
Today, happiness seems to be something that is elusive for many. Modern ideas of happiness tend to focus on how to get it rather than concerning themselves with understanding its true nature.
So is happiness just a myth or is there a better way to determine what happiness really is?
More words have been written about defining happiness than any other philosophical word.
Happiness is often defined as “a state of well-being and contentment.”
It is probably one of the most prominent pursuits of human over the last 30 years.
But how can we consistently reach this state of well-being?
Philosophers believe that happiness is not by itself sufficient to achieve a state of wellbeing; however, they agree that it is one of the main factors found in individuals who lead a ‘good life’.
They contend objective happiness involves capitalising on pleasant emotions and decreasing unpleasant emotions. In theory this means the quality of our life can be determined by the quantity of the good moments minus the bad moments.
Yet, this ivory-tower viewpoint of a good life has fundamental limitations.
Life never plays out the way we want
If you consider daily life we are constantly confronted with challenges out of our control that impact us emotionally.
Overcoming these issues cannot be achieved by running away and avoiding them. We have to become very good at tolerating emotional turmoil. By achieving this outcome we allow ourselves to stay in control and navigate these experiences.
Bearing this in mind, contentment or happiness can be seen as a meaningful engagement with life and all it offers- From the good, the bad and the ugly.
Therefore, the secret to happiness might be a case of striving to feel ‘right’ instead of just feeling ‘good’.
At times, sadness, anger, or being optimistic and hopeful, might be the right thing to experience, and that’s ok.
But in reality what does that look like?
Good feelings never last
When you consider both states there is a crucial point of difference- longevity.
Feeling ‘good’ relates to a subjective state of mind. This could be when you watch a movie that makes you laugh or you witness an amazing sunset. It’s a fleeting moment in time.
Alternatively, feeling ‘right’ relates to the entirety of your life. It is not something lost or gained in a short-lived period of time. When we do what’s right, the positive effects last much longer.
Hence, maybe the key to a fulfilling happy life might be the ability or character to acknowledge and work through both positive and negative feelings during challenging times.
There can be no better example of this than the adults who endured the hardships of World War 2. They found the strength within to stay strong through dark times.
What does history offer as guidance to better understand this idea?
Philosophers throughout time have carefully examined the meaning of happiness. A majority arrived at a broad idea that often goes beyond short-lived feelings.
Aristotle was one of the first to argue this point when he said: “It is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
For Aristotle, happiness is not a brief pleasurable moment in time. It is a goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It relates to being true to one’s inner self.
For Aristotle, happiness entailed feeling the ‘right’ feelings.
“By living our life to the full according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to become happy regardless. For this reason, happiness is more a question of behaviour and of habit—of virtue—than of luck; a person who cultivates such behaviours and habits is able to bear his misfortunes with balance and perspective, and thus can never be said to be truly unhappy”.- Pyschologytoday
In practice this means authentic happiness is not derived from something you emotional experience or obtain, but rather from something you learn to habitually do.
This means a happy life involves identifying one’s virtues, cultivating them, and living your life in alignment with these values.
Yet how does his theory hold true with the ‘happiness’ scholars of today?
What the research tells us
Recent research tends to agree with the ancient philosopher Aristotle’s view of happiness and the “good life”.
One good example is research conducted Dr. Maya Tamir and her colleagues. They published a paper in 2017 titled: “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?”
It validated the unique importance of feeling ‘right’ for happiness. We don’t have control over life’s circumstances, but we do have control over how we relate to them.
They argued that happiness is more than just feeling pleasant emotions. Their research identified people are happier when they feel right even if they do not feel good. This highlighted the importance of both internal personal characteristics, as well as external factors such as income and health.
Their study tested a cross-cultural sample of 2,324 participants from 8 countries around the world. They assessed experienced emotions, desired emotions, and indicators of well-being.
“Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won, but instead it’s a practice which we hone, imperfectly, in circumstances only partly of our making”.– BBC
So is Happiness Possible?
The answer to whether “happiness” is possible is dependent on how we define happiness. If we consider happiness as a subjective perfect, pure, perpetual state with the complete absence of negativity, then it seems unreachable.
However, if we endeavour to follow a path similar to the one proposed by Aristotle we all have the opportunity to find a life that feels right.
Philosophy can be complex, but it’s worthwhile for humans to strive for wellbeing and ‘true happiness’.
We all have different ways of being happy and do not need to conform to a universal formula.
As much as it is tempting at times to find happiness through learning from others – and being accepted by them – if it’s someone else’s version of happiness, it might not fit with you.
In fact, it is very possible that the social norms about what constitutes happiness make many of us miserable.
Perhaps the key to happiness is truly getting to know yourself and having the guts to do what makes your life worth living.
What can you do today to embrace the ‘good life’?
What ideas do you have about happiness – what does real happiness look like for you?