Happiness is something we all seem to want more of in our lives, but what exactly do we mean when we say that we want to be happy? The way each person interprets the meaning of happiness is as unique as every manifestation of life on the planet. When you think about the word ‘happy,’ it likely invokes a certain emotional response which I can assure you is quite different from what your neighbor might be feeling when this particular word is used. It might make you think of other words such as joy, peace, contentment, pleasure, bliss, or amusement. Perhaps it provokes pleasant memories or inspiration for a better tomorrow. The definition of happiness is complex, dynamic, and even nebulous. While there are many ways of defining and understanding the meaning of happiness, all of them are valid and complementary. Together, they create a full picture of something which all of us want more of in our lives in one way or another.
Happiness is sometimes thought of as a trait. A trait is something with which we are born; in other words, some people have a lot of it and other people don’t have very much at all. We don’t have a lot of choice or control over our traits because they are gifted at birth. We can make the most of what we have, but the traits that have been entrusted to us are for the most part fixed and can’t be further developed over time. While situations and our behavior may influence our traits, ultimately they are automatic set points to which we return after these stimuli end.
Conversely, happiness can be understood as a part of our personality. Our personality emerges from within but can evolve over time. It is shaped by relationships, circumstances, and choices. When our personality reflects an intrinsic sense of happiness, it shows through our word choice, tone of voice, body language, and ways of connecting with others. A person who has a cheerful disposition or a positive attitude is emanating her or his happy personality. Thinking of happiness as a component of our personality rather than as a trait offers two advantages: it connects this aspect of ourselves to the whole of our character, and it offers us some degree of flexibility and control over how we adapt to, and function in, the world.
Happiness can also be identified as an object, or a thing that exists outside of ourselves. According to this view, happiness is something we chase and try to both acquire and achieve. It becomes a possession, or something we grasp and claim as a part of our personal identity. Because it is an object, happiness can be accumulated, hoarded, and leveraged. The more happiness we have, the more power we possess. Unfortunately, when we chase after things they typically evade us and when we hold on too tight we can suffocate them. If happiness is a thing, then it is one which should be appreciated and savored rather than pursued and used.
Happiness is also a feeling or emotion. As a feeling, it is something we experience in the moment while as an emotion it is something felt on a much deeper, more sustained, level. Either way, like all feelings and emotions, it can be difficult to understand and to describe to others. Although much of our emotional response to the world is innate, it is heavily influenced by our circumstances, choices, behavior, and relationships. Our emotional framework can shift and expand over time by intentionally becoming more aware of our feelings and making ongoing choices that redirect our emotional response in a way that creates more happiness, or less, in our lives.
Happiness can also be a skill, or something we learn to do through repeated practice. Writing, for me and most others, is a skill. I may have been born with a flavor for words, but my ability to write well has been developed throughout my life by continually practicing and expanding outside of my comfort zone by trying new topics and styles of writing. Similarly, we can develop our capacity to experience happiness through practice and application in different situations. The more we practice applying happiness in moments of difficulty, the more consistently we will feel a sense of contentment and inner peace regardless of the circumstances in my life. Happiness is a muscle that grows when it is used. The more we feel a sense of happiness, the more we will want to experience it rather than something that causes us repeated pain and anguish.
Similarly, happiness can also be a repeated pattern of behavior. It is not just something we think or feel, but something we actively do in the world. Being happy means to act happy; not in a phony way, but in a sincere way that connects our innermost desires with what we do in our daily lives. When we allow our passions the freedom to grow by taking steps to share and nurture them, we become happier both in the moment and in general. People who are happy consistently act in ways that perpetuate a sense of happiness. When our actions result in more love and peace in the world, we are creating happiness not just within ourselves but for all others to enjoy as well. We are choosing to live in a happier and more loving world, and those behavioral choices are contagious.
In contrast to thinking of happiness as an object, or as something that can be acquired, happiness can alternatively be thought of as a process. It is something that emerges from moment to moment in our life journey. We experience happiness as we go about our daily lives; it ebbs and flows with our attention and intention. Happiness cannot be defined because it is always evolving, growing, and transforming. It is always with us as we search for meaning and for love. The happiness journey is traveled throughout life, until we completely give up or die.
Finally, happiness can be thought of as a sense of connection — to ourselves, others, the planet, and spirituality. It is knowing deep within that all of our thoughts, feelings, and actions have a magnificent consequence because everything is interconnected. When we are happy, we are connected to our planetary purpose and are able to discover and create abundant opportunities to share our special gifts with the world. Happiness revels in the curious joy of relationships, risking security to reveal the prosperity of love. We trust that we are loved, appreciated, and understood, and we easily love, appreciate, and understand others. Restoring internal and external connections and developing nurturing relationships feeds the happiness in our souls.