What does it mean to be happy?
When I started writing this piece, it was supposed to be an exploration of what it means to be happy. The World Happiness Report 2022 had just been published. Finland topped the list once again. The Netherlands was fifth on the list and Afghanistan came last.
I began to wonder how the report’s authors had measured happiness. And more importantly, how had they defined it. The report’s authors said that the rankings are based on data covering 2019 through 2021. They stated that they relied on three main well-being indicators: life evaluations, positive emotions, and negative emotions. They based the happiness rankings on life evaluations and paid special attention to the emotions the respondents felt on a daily basis.
However, I still felt unsatisfied as it was tough to understand from the report what these rankings mean for defining happiness. All of us know that the pandemic negatively affected our happiness, but what does it mean to be happy?
I next went to what should have been my starting point: The Cambridge English Dictionary. I found that the dictionary defines ‘happiness’ as “the feeling of being happy.” But then how do they define ‘happy’? As ‘feeling, showing, or causing pleasure or satisfaction’.
I had planned this article to be an academic exploration by looking at how researchers have defined happiness. However, midway through the piece, I got stuck. I missed the deadline (sorry, Lara!) as I struggled to find my way through this question. I began to doubt myself: had I taken on something that was beyond my scope of understanding?
Darrin M. McMahon wrote in his book Happiness: A History, that he struggled to define happiness even though he was writing an entire book on it, since it is elusive and intangible. He called it, “a ‘thing’ that is not a thing, this hope, this yearning, this dream.” The process of writing the history of happiness was not exactly a happy one, he admitted.
If, indeed, it is something elusive and intangible, then how do we go about finding it?
The answer came to me a day after the deadline. I was in my room, struggling with this question and this article, and someone suggested that I should take a walk instead. I live near the Nieuwe Maas and the sun was about to set over the Erasmusburg. I sat on my favourite bench and watched the sky change colour. That’s when the answer came to me.
The reason I was unable to find what it means to be happy is because I was looking for one fixed, universal definition. However, human emotions are messy and ever-changing, and they vary from person to person. At that moment, I was happy simply watching the sun set and its light being reflected on the buildings on the river bank. That doesn’t mean that if I watch the sunset every day, it will make me happy every day. Or if you, dear reader, watch a sunset, it will make you happy too.
Happiness cannot be found outside of ourselves. In the end, it is a feeling, an emotion, a state of mind which can be triggered by something we experience, but the experience is not a fixed, determining factor. The experience outside of us makes us happy because of the way we interact with it. And our interaction is always changing because of our moods, because of our past experiences, because of our emotional baggage. We change as a person with every experience and what makes us happy will change as well. As a result, the way we define happiness will change as well. And that’s okay.
I also realised that since we are dealing with a human emotion, I have been conducting my research in the wrong place. Instead of Google Scholar, I should look at Poets.Org. When it comes to expressing universal emotions, no one does it better than a poet.
In his poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, British poet William Wordsworth describes feeling a sense of joy when he saw a “host of golden daffodils”. Even though he had the experience an indeterminate amount of time before he wrote the poem, “my heart with pleasure fills” every time he closes his eyes and brings the memory back into his mind.
The sentiment that a feeling of joy can last longer than the experience itself is echoed by American poet Lucian B. Watkins in his poem ‘The Flower At My Window’. He starts his poem by saying how he is happy because a flower at his window is in full bloom and how it is radiant, cheerful and has a sweet fragrance. He goes on to say that he will cherish the memory of the flower even after the flower itself has died.
I’ll leave you with the four lines of his last stanza, as that is what I wish for all of you reading this piece:
Oft I gaze upon this flower with its blossoms pure and white.
And I think as I behold its gay costume,
While through life we all are passing may our lives be always bright
Like this flower at my window in full bloom.