The Definition of Happiness

The nature of happiness, and how to obtain it, has been a debated topic for centuries.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy brings some clarity to opposing sides of this issue. From one perspective emphasis is placed on our psychological state. Here pleasure is an essential ingredient to our happiness (Happiness (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) .  Another view purports that happiness is a matter of well-being. The claim being that if things are going good for you (prosperous, physically healthy, affluent, etc.)  you have entered into the realm of happiness (Well-Being (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). You may not feel content, but you are deemed to be happy since good things are present in your life.  While this latter view does make a value judgement about someone’s life it does not take into consideration moral values (kindness, humbleness, self-sacrifice). The moral perspective concerns itself with a life of virtue to obtain happiness. From this standpoint, things such as humility, service, patience, and gratitude are essential for happiness.

So, what is the true meaning of happiness? Is it about having as many pleasurable experiences as possible? Is it getting all the things this world and our culture deems as good and profitable? If I am a good person serving others and being kind will I be living out the definition of happiness? I would like to propose that happiness can involve all the above. However, the ordering of what has been named is important. In my humble opinion these definitions on the meaning of happiness do not have to be mutually exclusive but there are some aspects of happiness that carry more weight than others. Let’s start with the least weighty.

The pursuit of pleasure for the obtainment of happiness ends up being futile. Have you noticed the temporal nature of pleasure for the sake of pleasure? If you are interested in sustained happiness pleasure ought not be the primary goal. The problem with pleasure alone is that there is no reason for the pleasure you are experiencing. I can have a pleasurable relaxing experience spending time on the couch talking with friends after a hard day of work or I could feel the same relaxed state because I have not been off the couch all day. One has more substantial meaning than the other. As Frankl has stated, “Pleasure is not the goal of our aspirations, but the consequence of attaining them” (35).  Pleasure as happiness can lead to more of an escapism than happiness. Pleasure can be sought as avoidance of responsibility. Yet it is the pursuit of what you are called to do that puts you on the path towards more sustainable happiness where pleasure than follows.

This brings us to the second stance on happiness. Does the accumulation of health and wealth equate to happiness? After all, if you do live responsibly with your gifts and talents there is a good chance you can make a lot of money. And money gives us the freedom and power to accumulate more things and influence more people. If you tend to your physical well-being chances are you will reap the benefits of feeling and looking good. The rich and famous certainly come to mind and we tend to idealize such individuals. We can easily think that they have the “good life” and have therefore reached the pinnacle of happiness.

It is interesting but not surprising that one study shows when the accumulation of wealth is prioritized the ability to experience happiness decreases (Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness – Ashley V. Whillans, Aaron C. Weidman, Elizabeth W. Dunn, 2016 (sagepub.com).  King Solomon sends us a warning in Ecclesiastes that all the work that is done, all the possessions and pleasures is meaningless and “chasing after the wind” (Ecc.1-2). It is not that we cannot and should not enjoy such things. It is just that if these are ends in themselves, we tend to end up disappointed. Like the pursuit of pleasure, material possessions are temporal. They are here one day and gone the next and so are we. Perhaps, the materialist view is motivated by a desire for omnipotence. That is to say that happiness comes about by an attempt to be grandiose and all powerful. Yet, “. . .the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!” (Ecc.2: 16). Happiness does not come by railing against our finite nature but by entering into a relationship with the Infinite God who brings joy, comfort, pleasure, play, laughter, celebration and rest into our lives (Phil.4:4, Psalm 16:11, Zech.8:4-5, etc.). I got ahead of myself with that last statement. I do believe that happiness is ultimately found in a relationship with God through Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). It is in this relationship that all other approaches to happiness come together.

This leads to the final definition of the meaning of happiness, the virtuous life. I believe this is the foundation where other ideas of happiness can build.  All of the approaches considered involve some kind of relationship. The first two are subjective relationships (pleasure is based upon individual experience and one could argue for differing views of when is enough health/wealth enough to be happy) to things that are temporal. The virtuous life is based upon objective, universal values that are consequently non-temporal.  As a reminder when we speak of virtue we are particularly concerned with pursuing service, sacrifice, love, grace, faith, compassion, self-control and the like.  Viktor Frankl comments that, Objective values become concrete duties, are cast in the form of the demands of each day and in personal tasks” (42).  If we stopped here we could say that the foundation to the meaning of happiness involves a relationship to and manifestation of objective moral values that can be classified as virtues.

However, as I stated above the greatest relationship we can have that is essential for the core meaning of happiness is a relationship not to the moral law but with the Moral Law Giver. It is a personal relationship where we can say with the Psalmist, “You will make known to me the path of life;

In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11). Notice the order the Psalmist presents. God provides a “path of life”, a moral framework to live by that is truly life giving. He then mentions how this relationship brings about joy and pleasure. God is very generous and provides things for our enjoyment (Eph.1:3, 1Tim.6:17). My hope is that you will experience the meaning of happiness through living a life of virtue that opens up the treasures of the generosity and pleasure He longs to provide.

-Ken Grano, MDiv. CFBPPC – work with Ken here!

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