Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Are We Happy for the Right Reasons?

This is a sixth entry in a series about happiness. Start at the beginning here.

Everyone is asking, Are we happy?

  • Happiness Works surveys employees to determine how happy they are to create more happiness at work. There are dozens of research organizations doing the same thing.
  • Researcher questionnaires often ask, “How happy are you?” From the answers they work to build a “subjective happiness scale.”
  • The World Happiness Report studies the happiness levels of citizens in 156 countries, using surveys to rank people’s overall sense of well-being. Denmark is always near the top, by the way.

I think surveys like these are fine. Happiness research is helpful and I support it.

But I don’t often hear the researchers asking, Are we happy for the right reasons? Strange as it might sound, people can feel happy for the wrong reasons.

  • Men use “being happy” as an excuse to break faith with their spouse and break up their families.
  • Juvenile vandals feel happy as they break into a house and smash all the mirrors.
  • People feel happy when they see other people fail.

In this series on happiness, I define happiness as “a pattern of positive emotion that comes from seeing good things happen at a good pace.” The key phrase for focus today is, “seeing good things happen.” Happiness isn’t based on true goodness, but perceived goodness. Happiness is subject to our point of view, and our subjective definitions of what is good.

“Happiness appears to be relative,” writes social scientist Roy Baumeister, “in particular, relative to the standards set by various expectations and norms….You appraise your circumstances and then compare these against what you had expected or wanted….Put another way, happiness is achieved when reality lives up to your desires and expectations.”[i]

Take this video as an example. This gal is in agony, and someone decided to “Celine a Scene” it.

Some people felt really happy that day, while others felt really sad, and others like this poor gal felt complete agony, because happiness isn’t dependent on true goodness, but only our perception of goodness. If happiness came only from true goodness, people would react to situations the same way. They’d all be happy about Trumps inauguration or sad about it or angry about it.

Clearly, this is not the case.

No question, our happiness depends on our point of view. The upside is that we can create happiness by creating a better view. And the caution is that we can misperceive reality and feel happy about the wrong things.

We must always remember that happiness comes from perceived goodness, not necessarily true goodness. We must figure out not just how to be happy, but how to be happy for the right reasons.


[i] Roy F. Baumeister, Meanings of Life (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991), p. 214.

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