Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Happiness: A Pattern of Positive Emotion

This is part two of a series that looks at what happiness is and where it comes from. Click here for part one, “What is Happiness?”

In part one I proposed this working definition of happiness:


In a series of blogs we’ll break this definition down and take a look at each of the elements. This part is a look at the phrase, “pattern of positive emotion.”

The formal definition of the word happy is, “feeling pleasure or contentment.” When we’re experiencing¬†positive emotion, we are happy.

But one experience isn’t enough. We want to stack up the positives. We want to string them into a series. To feel “happy” is to experience positive emotion in one moment, but “happiness” is more about feeling positive emotion on a regular basis. We want to feel consistently happy, not just happy in one moment. That’s why happiness is a “pattern of positive emotion.”

A Thousand Moments a Day

Every day is a series of moments. A whole bunch of moments. Let’s say we wake up at 7am and go to sleep at 11pm. Those sixteen hours add up to 960 minutes. If we assumed, for simplicity, that each minute is a moment and do some rounding, we’d have a thousand moments a day.

Each of these moments have emotions, even if they’re subtle. There’s a positive and negative (and neutral) reaction to pretty much everything we experience and imagine. This graphic shows the moments of the day and the positive and negative emotions we experience in each of them.

The tall bars on top of the line are the extreme positives, situations where we believe something really good happened. The lower bars on top are the milder positives, where something “pretty good” happened.

Side note: Right now I’m having a happy moment as I watch a grey squirrel out my window try to jump through four inches of snow. It’s making a series of high hops which look really funny. So mark down a high bar for 7:48am on Monday…

The tall bars on the bottom are extreme negatives. Say we felt deep despair around 11am, then slowly recovered into a mild anxiety, seen in the smaller negative bars shortly after.

This is how the moments of our day play out. The day is a series of moments, each with an emotional measure attached to it.

Evaluating the Moments

When we say we want “happiness,” we’re looking for positive patterns on this graph. We’re looking for a lot of bars on the top of the line, and less bars on the bottom of the line. We evaluate our day as “good” or “bad” or “fantastic” or “terrible,” and what we’re really doing is looking back over the bars on the graph and summing it all up.

We don’t just do this for moments in the day. We stack up the days too, telling ourselves “it was a good week” or “it was a bad week.” Weeks extend into months and years, and now we’re evaluating our lives, looking for patterns of positives.

The pursuit of happiness is the quest to create “patterns of positive emotion.”

Which brings up the question, How can we create more positive moments in our days, weeks, months and years?

There’s more to the happiness story than this, but understanding the way we look for patterns is a good start.

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