What is it to be happy?

As inevitably happens this time of year, I was prompted to think about what I am thankful for.  I worried a bit about how ungrateful I might actually be when I initially struggled to answer the question.  But the the truth is that picking any specific thing is the hard part.  So I thought to myself “Well… if I’m happy, then I just need to pick what makes me happy.”  But then the realization came to me:  I’m not happy.  I’m content, even cheerful, but regularly happy?  No.  Or am I?  On the other hand I am by no means unhappy.  Overall I’m pretty pleased with myself and the world around me.  Certainly I have a number of misgivings about that world around me and my own lack of progress in many areas thus far, but I have been depressed, miserable and even suicidal before and I am nowhere near any of these things.  I’m “good”.  But is that happy?


Dave Matthews Band in Tampa 2014 – I was happy.

I have most certainly been happy in moments.  There are many moments in recent and distant memory that can only be described as love and/or unadulterated joy.  This can be attributed to anything ranging from Dave Matthews Band Concerts (pretty consistently.. at least once per concert..) to some sort of amazing food (often involving cheese or ponzu sauce…) to memories of when certain people looked at me the right way and it made the center of my chest warm and tingly…  I’m also a sap for certain movies / shows to where I am so happy about the story I’m almost in tears.  But all of these moments are spikes, high points that only last so long as the moment does, and then it’s back to being “good” or “alright” or “content” (with occasional low points as well… we all have them.) None of those terms sound like regular happiness so it makes me wonder… what exactly does consistent happiness feel like!?

My first inclination is to say gratitude.  Indeed I am typically in a better state of mind and feel things are going my way when I can genuinely count my blessings and be grateful for the things I have.  Admittedly (though I’m not where I want to be and/or going there fast enough just yet,) I realize I have a huge number of things to be grateful for, but it simply isn’t enough to allow me to hold on to that “happy” feeling for more than a short time.  Perhaps this means I really don’t appreciate what my life has given me, maybe real happiness is a matter of being endlessly grateful for all this life has provided you no matter how much or how little you have in comparison to others.  If such gratitude should be relative then despite having grown up relatively poor, I and most others living in this country should indeed be happy pretty much all the time.  That would also mean, though, that in order to be consistently happy we would have to compare and contrast our lives against either (or both) our own previous misfortune or that of others.  In a sense that’s almost like celebrating the fact that I have it better than so many people around the world.  I realize that I actually do.  But I can’t imagine that recognizing and celebrating that is the secret to happiness.

Some gifts make folks happier than others...

Some gifts make folks happier than others…

Naturally the way around that dilemma is giving.  I like to give selfishly, meaning that I do so because it makes me feel good to give things to those who are either important to me, have earned it or sometimes are just in the right place at the right time (such as the homeless I usually feed during Ramadan.)  All of these things give me a temporary sense of accomplishment or pride.  However, I also really hate being indebted to people (again pride I believe.)  When I was younger I was forced to rely on others for basically everything.  Now that I don’t have to, I hate to be in a situation where I feel as if I owe somebody something.  Giving to others helps me even the “score” (again generally speaking) or even shift it as far to the other side of owing somebody as I can.  That sort of standing is very satisfying, but is that happiness?  Even if it is, like all the other situations it is fleeting.

I suppose then that I want to see an example of somebody that is visibly, obviously in an elevated mood (as in “happy”.. like Pharrell?) as a regular state of being.  What’s the secret? At what point do you meet the criteria that you can be honest when people ask you “Are you happy?” and you can honestly reply “Oh yes! Absolutely!”  Maybe it is really something we all strive for as often as possibility but we are hard-wired to be unable to grasp it constantly.  Perhaps it is (as we say) “the pursuit of happiness” that continues to give us purpose and causes us to seek out new and meaningful experiences.  Having been in an emotionally grey state of mind for many years now, I’m trying to figure out if it’s just me who isn’t sure about this sort of thing, or if in fact it’s part of the human condition.  In all honesty I try to avoid classifying myself as “human” whenever possible, but some concepts come with the territory of this life and maybe the secret to happiness is accepting that it will never be a regular thing but instead the one universal goal or ideal each individual can shoot for in their own personal (sometimes really twisted) way.  Regardless if you feel you are generally happy all the time, share you secret with me!  But if you’re more like me, as the holidays descend upon us, let’s make it a point to have as many happy moments as possible.  If it can’t be all the time, let’s make it as often as possible.


  1. I read a study (Daniel Kahneman, I think) where college students were asked two questions:
    (a) how happy are you?
    (b) how often are you dating [I suppose ‘how much do you get laid?’ is a little too blunt]

    They asked the questions in rotating order… What they found was that when they asked (a) then (b), there was almost no correlation between the answers (r=0.11); when they asked (b) then (a), the correlation was something like 0.66.

    I think people make way too big a deal out of this whole “pursuit of happiness” thing… frankly, as long as you (a) don’t harbor hate, (b) aren’t sick, and (c) have your basic needs fulfilled, there’s no reason why happiness can’t be your default state if you choose for it to be.

    Just my 2¢

    1. That sounds ideal, Nik. And I agree that we should be grateful simply for not harboring hate and being healthy. But it seems to me that happiness is not inherently automatic, or we wouldn’t have to chase it to begin with. I am more inclined to believe it is fueled by experiences, but I’ll likely elaborate on that in the future.

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