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Happiness, the universe and a slippery fish

September 24, 2018

Happiness is a slippery fish.

This problem would almost be easier to solve if I meant that literally. At least we understand the properties of a slippery fish. We know what to expect so we can work out how to handle it. Happiness on the other hand, is, well, far slipperier.

I’ve spent this week trying to find an agreed upon definition of happiness. Although this type of theory is rarely helpful in the grand scheme of messy life, I find that crystallising my thoughts around an idea helps me make sense of things. I figure it’s easier to ‘find happiness’ when you know what it is.

Turns out, I’d have been better asking “What is the Universe?”


The Universe: all existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos. The universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light years in diameter and contains a vast number of galaxies; it has been expanding since its creation in the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago.

Excellent! I can work with that.

The answer to “What is Happiness?”

Happiness: the state of being happy.

Great. Super helpful. That clears it right up.

It turns out the concept of happiness is so perplexing that, despite years of investigation, researchers can’t agree on what it is or how it’s created.

It’s amazing to me that something like the universe, defined as “all existing matter and space”, is easier to explain than something that features in millions of day-to-day conversations. Is it possible that we’re all talking about it without any of us truly knowing what it is?

It may have something to do with the fact that we cannot directly investigate it. Happiness isn’t a thing. When investigating it, the best we can do is look at events, actions, decisions and behaviour and speculate about the presence of happiness in the spaces between these things. The problem is the same events in one person’s life may result in actions, decisions and behaviour that lead to happiness and in another person’s life lead to misery. Happiness is as abundant as the universe but only available to those who know how to access it and  once they have it, it’s slippery nature becomes apparent. Having it doesn’t mean keeping it.

I’m no closer to a definition but my search for answers led to something useful this week, something that gives rise to interesting thoughts about how each of us creates happiness in our lives. I learned about hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to wellbeing.

According to Ryan and Deci (2001), the hedonic approach to wellbeing focuses on happiness and is all about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The eudaimonic approach focuses on meaning. They don’t use the word happiness in their explanation of the  eudaimonic approach which makes me wonder…Is happiness just one element of wellbeing? Is a life in pursuit of pleasure a life without meaning and how does that affect happiness? Is a life in pursuit of meaning absent of pleasure and is that ultimately more rewarding and therefore happier? Is wellbeing different from happiness? Am I asking questions about the wrong thing?

Catch Episode 2 of the Big Happy Life Podcast – out on 26 September – for more on this topic.

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