It’s a big question. We all want to be happy. We all have a vague and intuitive sense of what it is. But when asked, most can’t define it.
- “It’s about having fun,” says one person.
- “It’s about success,” says another.
- “Relationships are what make us happy,” says another.
Then someone says back, “These are things that make us happy, but they don’t define happiness itself.” They pose the question again, and people are stumped.
This makes happiness hard to achieve. If we don’t even understand what it is, how can we intelligently pursue it?
Problem is, even the experts have difficulty agreeing on the definition of happiness. One describes it as “subjective well-being,” while another describes it as “experiences that create joy or contentment.”
“There are thousands of books on happiness,” writes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, “and most of them start by asking what happiness really is. As readers quickly learn, this is approximately equivalent to beginning a pilgrimage by marching directly into the first available tar pit, because happiness really is nothing more or less than a word we word makers can use to indicate anything we please. The problem is that people seem pleased to use this one word to indicate a host of different things, which has created a tremendous terminological mess…”1
How do we sort out the “terminological mess”? I devote a chapter to it in my recent book Automatic Influence, where I write, “I’ve had my chance to muck around in this mess for a while, and I’ve landed on a working definition that not only describes happiness, but more importantly, where happiness comes from.”2
Here’s my definition:
Happiness is a pattern of positive emotion that comes from seeing good things happen at a good pace.
Then I invest the rest of the chapter to support and explain and apply the definition, which I will do in upcoming blog articles.
If we want happy lives, it helps to get clear on what happiness is.
1Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 33.
2Erik Van Alstine, Automatic Influence: New Power for Change in Work and Life (New York: Stone Lounge Press, 2016), p. 123.