“The idea that humans can capture a mere mood – ‘happiness’ – and somehow preserve it seems absurd. As an aim for life it is not only doomed but infantile.”
Sebastian Faulks – A Possible Life
The idea of ‘happiness’ seems to have been popping up everywhere recently. The 20th March was the International Day of Happiness. This was established by the United Nations General Assembly who said in doing so that they were ‘conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal‘.
Later that same week I attended the launch of a new information app for young people in London called WellHappy. The twitter hashtag conversation for the event was ‘what makes you #wellhappy?. In attendance at this event was CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and Mindapples (five a day for your mind) – both of whom aim to promote action against misery and towards wellbeing. One of the (very impressive) creators of WellHappy Kat McCormack ended her speech with the wish ‘that all young people would be well happy’. Her app, a directory of mental and sexual health resources in London, was described as a step in that direction. But what would any of the people there, charity representatives and young people alike, have described as a ‘happy life’?
The notion of happiness deserves some unpicking. This is particularly true in the context of mental health where I think we tend to think about it more than most. I have written before about how easy it is to make comparisons, comparing our actual experience with how we feel our life ‘should’ be. An example of this might be ‘I am on holiday, I should be happy’. In that post I explore the fact that these kind of thoughts actually make us feel worse. We start to question ourselves and make further negative thoughts and judgements about why we are not feeling how we think we should be. In this post, I’d like to look more closely at what we really mean when we say we should be happy. Do we know? What is it that we think we should be?
If we don’t know then the kind of comparisons we find ourselves making become even more dangerous. We may be imagining we ‘should’ be something that turns out to be an intangible and unachievable aim.
Anthropologists and psychologists have identified at least six ‘basic’ emotions; joy, distress, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. Some people use happiness and sadness in this list too. Others disagree – suggesting that ‘joy’ and ‘distress’ refer to emotions and ‘happiness’ and ‘sadness’ to moods. The definition to the left describes emotion as an instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances or mood. If I am going to define happiness as either an emotion or a mood then defining it as a mood makes more sense to me. If I am in a happy mood, I am more likely to experience the emotion of joy and it would take a lot to create the emotion of distress. If I am in a sad mood I am likely to experience distress more easily and with less provocation. In the context of my mental health: if I am in a depressed mood I am also more likely to experience distress or perhaps fear. This echoes the experience I talk about in my post on the mental trickery caused by depression. I can experience exactly the same event in different moods and it can cause different emotions in me.
Faulks in ‘A Possible Life’ seems to agree. The quote above suggests that happiness is a mood similar to sadness or irritability. A mood is described as the way someone is feeling, something temporary but not as temporary as an emotion. Moods influence emotions and presumably vice versa. However, what Faulks seems to want to emphasise is the fleeting role of moods within a whole life. His character regards happiness as something she will feel sometimes. However she feels that aiming to have a ‘happy life’ doesn’t make any sense in the same way that aiming to have an ‘irritable life’ sounds odd. Even if you spend most of your time being irritable you are unlikely to describe your experiences by saying ‘Ah yes, I have had a very irritable life’. In the same way, are we using the word ‘happy’ wrongly if we say ‘I have a happy life‘ to describe the fact that we regularly experience the mood happiness?In reality I think most people want to use the notion of happiness to refer to more than just a mood. They want to see it as something more complex – as the United Nations suggests, something they pursue.
But this causes questions too. If happiness is a goal we still need to define it. What kind of goal? What would achieving this goal actually look like? Would achieving the goal of ‘a happy life’ mean that at some point we found ourselves in a happy mood all the time. At this point could we say we have ‘achieved happiness’? What would being in a happy mood all the time be like? Would we even know we were happy if we had nothing to compare it to?
Intertwined with the project of defining and exploring happiness is that of identifying what causes us to be happy. Mill and utilitarian philosophers assert that happiness is as a matter of fact the ultimate aim at which all human actions are directed (and therefore the ultimate standard by which to judge the rightness and wrongness of actions). I explore utilitarian ethics in the context of relationships here. Mill goes on to distinguish between lower and higher pleasures, saying that ‘higher pleasures’ such as pleasures of knowledge and intellect, artistic and cultural activity are all ‘ingredients’ which make up a life of happiness.
But Mill is perhaps mixing up two different definitions of happiness. And maybe that is part of our problem too – that we need more words in our language to describe different types of happiness. As we see above, sometimes happiness is defined simply as a mood or experience (a hedonistic conception of happiness) and sometimes as the objective character of someones life (a eudaimonistic conception). This latter conception links happiness with the fulfilment of ones potential.
But how are they linked? It is certainly possible to have a whole life which is described as ‘happy’ without constantly feeling the mood of happiness. But one couldn’t have a eudaimonic ‘happy life’ without ever feeling the mood happiness.This brings us back to the idea of happiness as a goal. Faulks is right that it doesn’t make sense to try and preserve the mood of happiness constantly – that is doomed to failure and is only going to make us feel worse if we try to achieve it. The world is not set up to allow us to be in a happy mood all the time. If nothing else then external factors and influences will ensure our mood is not always a happy one.
But despite this we can still work towards a life which is fulfilling, manages difficult times well and contains joy and satisfaction. In fact, there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained in overcoming difficult times and knowing that we can manage them well if they come again. Perhaps knowing we are safe in the ability to cope with most external or unexpected difficulties is part of feeling happy? Perhaps there is something in the nature of this project which gives us a better definition of happiness?
Interestingly ‘eudaimonia’ is described as the state of having an objectively desirable life. I wonder if this is problematic. In this age of social media, many people seem to put a lot of work into creating an impression of their life as objectively desirable. In fact, as we all know, this is often an illusion – and one that can cause others distress. Many peoples’ Facebook pages in fact suggest they have achieved what Faulks said was impossible – they are in a happy mood all the time. No wonder others beat themselves up when they make those comparisons and find they can’t reach this unachievable goal.Instead, lets think about a subjectively satisfactory life, one which we ourselves feel is fulfilling and enjoyable.
Happiness by this definition seems to be something that takes practice (you can’t practice a mood in quite the same way) and involves learning about yourself, recognising what it is in your life that gives you joy and seeking it out where you can. I wonder if the process of learning itself is a vital ingredient of this sort of fulfilment and satisfaction.
This is what Mindapples is starting to help people think about. Similarly, CALM is perhaps recognising that individuals can achieve happiness in many ways – and its role is to help them move towards this and away from a more miserable life.It also perhaps involves feeling an element of control, knowing that you are not at the mercy of the whims of moods and emotions but have the ability and awareness to maintain a level of life satisfaction in the face of external difficulties. I think this is part of the reason I would tend to say I have a happy life despite managing depression and the difficulties that can bring. This brings me back to Kat’s app – and TheSite.org of course. In helping young people find information and start to overcome difficulties they are helping in this process of growing self awareness and the ability to manage our lives.
There is an enormously complex range of philosophical and psychological writing and research on emotions and happiness. This post tries to explore a few of these issues from a mental health perspective but I’m aware that it simplifies some concepts and barely scratches the surface of others.
For an insight into some of the ways people think about and view happiness – and some responses from philosophers have a look at the AskPhilosophers site under happiness. One question that struck me as relevant was one that said:
“If philosophers are asked ‘what makes people happy?’ why do they sit around and speculate on what should make people happy instead of walking out into the street and asking people ‘are you happy? if so why?'”.
You can read the answer given by Allen Stairs here. He says that of course there is a lot to learn about happiness by getting out or your armchair or away from your desk – but to do this we need to have some well thought out ideas about what we are asking and what counts as an answer.
In the same way, to find our own happiness and manage our own mental wellbeing we need to read and think about what we want and what we mean by it. We also need to go out and chat to others – friends, loved ones, family, peers, others who are experiencing similar things – and find out what they think and what works for them.
I hope that this is what this post has got you thinking about. The concept and language of happiness is used in a whole range of ways in our day to day life and it’s worth thinking about how you use it and whether your definition, or lack of it, helps or hinders you.