If you want to live happy, you first need to define happiness. Over the past few years, we have traveled to more than 50 countries researching and speaking on positive psychology, and after spending time with farmers who lost their lands in Zimbabwe, Swiss bankers in the middle of a banking crisis, owners of NBA teams and schoolchildren in South Africa, we observed that every culture and individual has a different conception of happiness. So how can we study something when we cannot agree on a definition of it?
How do you define happiness?
First, let’s recognize that there are enormous differences in what causes happiness and unhappiness among individuals. While hours of watching Desperate Housewives might be a guilty pleasure for some, for others, it’s their version of hell. The same goes for pets, chocolate (heaven forbid!), football and touch. Some cannot be “happy” if their stock price is down, while others cannot be “happy” knowing that companies are making profits while underpaying their employees. A big, juicy hamburger might make a Happy Meal for some Americans, but is a sacrilege to many in India. Even smiling at the wrong time in certain East Asian cultures can create unhappiness instead of spreading more positivity. Our own triggers of happiness are as varied as our fingerprints.
However, while the triggers of short-term happiness are different, what sustains long-term happiness, we would argue, is universal across all cultures.
There are four main qualities that sustain happiness:
1) optimism (believing that our behavior will eventually matter)
2) social connection (the breadth and depth of our relationships)
3) the way we perceive stresses (as challenges instead of threats)
4) meaning (the connection between our actions and our values)
In order to sustain happiness, we need to redefine it for the world. We need to differentiate pleasure from happiness. In The Happiness Advantage, we use the ancient Greeks’ definition of happiness: “the joy you feel striving toward your potential.” Happiness in this definition cannot be stripped from meaning and from growth. This definition changed the way we pursued happiness and is linked to all four of the sustainers of happiness.
Joy is something we can experience in the ups and downs of life, even when things are not pleasurable. A long run can be tiring and painful, but you can feel joy and happiness as you use the body you’ve been given to explore your potential. Childbirth is one of the most painful things humans can endure, but, as our baby doctor told us, there is a difference between pathological pain, like breaking your arm, and meaningful pain. There is a joy throughout pregnancy, childbirth and parenting that, while not always pleasurable, is linked to us achieving our potential as parents, lovers and contributors to this world.
We feel happiest when we feel we are growing in our relationships or our ability to change the world for the positive (optimism) or when we see life as a challenge instead of a threat. This definition also solves the problem that we have with studies that have shown that people who have children are less “happy.”
Happiness versus pleasure
We got married last year, and as we thought about having children, we reflected on these studies that have scared many people away from parenting. As we looked deeper, we realized the questions they asked the participants were about pleasure, stress levels and workloads, not about happiness. We must not confuse having work, stress and challenge as the opposite of happiness. In fact, happiness requires all of those because those are necessary to achieve our potential.
It’s time to move away from defining happiness as simply pleasure, and know, like the ancient Greeks, that it’s so much deeper: It’s the joy we feel when we’re striving toward our potential.
So, go out into the world and continue this conversation about redefining happiness with your family, friends, co-workers, neighbors—anyone who will talk to you. Together, we can lead a movement to change how our schools, our companies, our government and our families define what being happy truly means.