Happiness Explored

What makes you happy? What do you consider to be happiness? Is happiness having a particularly good day, or is it a deeper contentment that underscores your life? We may not often ask ourselves these questions when caught up in our daily routines. On December 1st, 2016, the LYAC held a discussion on the nature of happiness, led by Ward 12 Youth Councilor Raghad Elniwari.

Who Should Read This?

  • Anyone who has ever wondered about the nature of happiness

Happiness Defined

Raghad began the discussion by asking the group: what do you consider happiness? A variety of different definitions came forth:

  • Happiness as a state of content
  • Happiness as a sense of fulfillment
  • Happiness as a feeling of being at peace, and that regardless of your struggles, having a feeling that everything is going to work out
  • Happiness as a sense of purpose
  • Happiness as an absence of suffering
  • Happiness as having confidence in who you are and where you are going

For some in the group, the immediate definition of happiness had to do with an absence of distress or suffering, and for others, happiness is something beyond, reaching for an essential self-confidence or purpose to achieve happiness. These definitions of a more surface-level contentment versus a deeper personal fulfillment as being happiness would come into conflict through the discussion.

Happiness: The Ultimate Goal?

After laying some ground in terms of what happiness is, Raghad’s next question for the group was about whether happiness is essential. This question led to some debate within the group in regard to our primary pursuits in life as human beings. One councilor started the conversation by naming the pursuit of happiness as our primary goal as people. We only pursue things that make us happy. Another councilor countered with the idea that happiness is not everyone’s goal. Some people instead strive for goals such as career advancement and wealth, to which another councilor asked if those aren’t just mechanisms for happiness. The group spoke about other instances where happiness might not be someone’s primary goal, at least on first appearance.

  • Raghad shared that in the Islamic faith, many believe happiness is less important because this life is temporary. Being a good person now will ensure that the next life will be great. Grace shared the belief in Buddhism that we are born to pay off what we did wrong in past lifetimes, with the goal being a better life in the next cycle. While both of these may not necessarily be focused on earthly happiness, the goal is still an ultimate happiness or nirvana in the afterlife.
  • Some people seem to spend their lives making other people happy, being a people pleaser, but that still is a means for happiness
  • One member of the group brought up lachesism, the desire to be struck by disaster, in order to create meaning in one’s life. This could still be understood as trying to find happiness, particularly if we conceptualize happiness as having a sense of purpose.

Raghad then asked the group, do you work towards happiness everyday?

  • McKenzie shared his belief that happiness is not the goal, but the process. He gave the example of woodworking with his dad – the final product is not as enjoyable as the process of making something together.  He explained that he doesn’t necessarily strive for happiness, rather satisfaction and comfort.
  • Grace spoke about working on lowering desires rather than building desire to attain happiness, whether that is consumerist desire by going to the mall less often, or a more philosophical desire by trying to compare herself to others less often. She noted that it’s difficult when people constantly compare you to others, and society pushes it on you as well.
  • Asala explained striving for happiness as balance of setting goals and trying to achieve them while living in the present, noting that happiness has to be constantly cultivated.
  • Mike and McKenzie had differing opinions on whether happiness is the goal we always work towards – Mike believes that happiness is a goal we work for, where McKenzie felt that the limits of different circumstances people face can prevent happiness from being a goal. Both noted that people can tend to fall in a pattern of going through to motions without really considering their happiness.

Happiness in Our World

Raghad turned the lens on the external factors that can shape our happiness, asking the group: do you think that the society we’re in right now prevents us from being in that state?

  • One member of the group spoke about consumerism as a challenge to happiness – we are told that we will gain fulfillment from buying endless goods, when the happiness we get is often extremely fleeting. They also noted that it is easier to exploit unhappy people.
  • One councilor argued that we still have freedom of choice when it comes to shaping our happiness, but there are definitely social pressures

Thinking of challenges to achieving happiness, Raghad asked the group whether they thought that feeling what we might consider ‘negative’ (sadness, anger) are part of happiness. Here are some thoughts the group shared:

  • How would we define happiness without sadness or anger? Emotions are complex and multifaceted.
  • Suppression of ‘negative’ emotions can make people unhappy, so a roundabout happiness is gained through emotional expression of sadness or anger because it provides a release
  • Another councillor suggested that we don’t need to be sad to feel happy, if we are conceptualizing happiness as particular spikes of happiness as opposed to a deeper underlying happiness.
  • One member of the group brought up the idea of blissful ignorance in regard to this topic – one might be able to achieve happiness by ignoring negative happenings in their communities and lives, but what’s the cost of that happiness?

Happiness still remains somewhat hard to define, at least in terms of finding a single answer to the nature of happiness. Happiness is one of those concepts that we may never quite pin down despite our best dictionary definitions, because as seen from this small sample, happiness is different for everyone. Even if the goal is some form of happiness or contentment in everything we do as some members of the group suggest, the drive for happiness and the means for achieving happiness change from person to person.

Personal Stories

Asala shared a call she received from Statistics Canada where she was asked to rate her level of happiness. When she gave the surveyor a 9, he laughed. The group discussed whether it might sometimes be rebellious to be happy, or whether being outwardly happy can be seen as boastful and bring about resentment.

Reporter’s Notes

Thinking about one of Raghad’s last questions, while my first thoughts are also that it would be great to never feel any sadness, anger, or pain again, I do wonder if that happiness might flatline with no precedent to suggest that it even is happiness. Perhaps this is where that lachesism, the desire for disaster comes from – a sense of feeling like one’s life has flatlined. Certainly no one ever wants to feel pain, but it’s difficult to say what our lives would be like in a world without sadness or anger. Is it truly “happiness” if there is no other state to compare?

The idea that presenting happiness is somehow boastful or worth resentment is definitely interesting – in some ways, because of the conflation of happiness with material goods, perhaps being happy is seen as a position of privilege, which is where the resentment can come from.

Big Questions

  • What is happiness?
  • We often use the term “true” happiness. What makes that happiness “true”? Is that level of happiness attainable?

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • How does someone’s level of happiness (according to Statistics Canada) correlate to other demographic data in their lives? What are the connections to physical and mental health, income, and other factors we might think of as influencing happiness? What makes one person’s happiness level a 5 while another’s might be a 9?