What Does It Mean to Be Happy?

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Happy emoticonThe goal of making a life change is, if not happiness, a sense of a satisfaction and accomplishment. What is happiness? Psychologist Ed Diener, author of “Happiness: Unlocking the Mystery of Psychological Wealth”, claims it is a combination of life satisfaction and more positive emotions than negative emotions. Martin Seligman, another psychologist, author of numerous books on happiness, and past president of the American Psychological Association, describes happiness as having three parts:

  • Pleasure. The sense of simply ‘feeling good”
  • Engagement. Living the good life of work, families, friends, and hobbies
  • Meaning. Contributing to a higher purpose than ourselves

Seligman claims that engagement and meaning are by far the most important to the sense of being happy.
It is not just psychologists who think about happiness and what is necessary to achieve it. It has been the subject of philosophers, poets, writers and leaders since Man has been able to think about more than survival:

  • Aristotle, writing almost 2500 years ago, said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
  • Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher in the mid 18th Century, claimed “It is not God’s will merely that we should be happy, but that we should make ourselves happy”
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote that “most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
  • Helen Keller wrote “Your success and happiness lies in you.”

There is clear consensus among thinkers throughout the ages subsequently confirmed by psychological study after study, that the feeling of happiness comes from within one’s self – it is not dependent on other people’s actions or inactions, but in our perceptions of life as we progress through it.
Nancy Etcoff, psychologist and cognitive researcher at the Harvard Medical School, has spent her career researching such subjects as happiness and beauty. As she points out, the differences in one’s circumstances and appearance to those looking in at our lives from the best hours to the worst are slight. It is our own perception of ourselves that undermines our confidence and causes wide swings in our emotions and sense of satisfaction. If we can change our perceptions, we can change the latter.
Etcoff, speaking before the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference in 2004, reinforced the claim of Balise Pascal – the 17th Century scientist and inventor of the earliest form of a computer or calculating machine – that human beings “are wired for happiness” and said her research indicated that three quarters of people say they are generally happy with their lives at any given moment. Following an extensive research by the University of Edinburgh in Australia in 2007, head researcher Timothy Bates agreed. “The research also shows that most people consider themselves happy most of the time. We’re wired to be optimistic. Most people think they’re happier than most [other] people.”
Even happy people have periods where they experience sadness, frustration, loneliness, and disappointment. Bad things happen to everyone during the course of one’s life. The death of a parent, a spouse or a child can be devastating, sending us into a deep, black hole of misery and sorrow. A divorce, the loss of a job, rejection or criticism by others lead to self-recriminations and doubts. Sometimes our expectations are so exaggerated, even success leaves us hollow and wanting more.