Happiness Defined: a Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness

There are many ways to slice and dice the idea of happiness. In spiritual terms, happiness is a felt sense of inner peace. There is no greater satisfaction then to be content regardless of the circumstances in which you may find yourself. Feelings of broad universal love, complete forgiveness, and total acceptance of “what is” are all foundations of inner peace. This may, however, feel a bit esoteric, so let’s consider the way scientists define happiness. My favorite approach is that of Barbara Fredrickson.

Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. Arguably, she is the foremost scholar on the topic of positive emotions. She defines happiness as the presence of one or more of the following positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. When we are experiencing any one of these feelings, we are happy. I quite appreciate her most practical and understandable framing of the idea of happiness. It allows us to get real about when we feel good. Take a moment to consider each of these distinct feelings.

Joy — Imagine a time when you were clearly delighted with some positive event that was realized in your life. You won a prize in a game of chance! Or you got a big bonus and a very sincere acknowledgement of your value from your boss. Perhaps you received big accolades following a performance. You were with friends and the mood was light, with much laughter and good cheer. Pause for a moment and consider a time when you had a clearly delightful moment. Feel joy.

Gratitude —   Imagine a time when someone did something for you that was unexpected, generous, and of genuine assistance to you. Your neighbor scraped the frost off your windshield. Your spouse cleaned the house and had dinner ready when you came home from work. A courteous driver allowed you to merge in busy traffic. Your friend cheerfully lent a hand ina yard project. Can you remember a time when a real kindness was given to you that made your life a bit more pleasant, perhaps your day became easier?Feel gratitude.

Serenity — Think back to a time when you were in nature and were simply amazed by a beautiful scene—a rushing water fall, a gentle brook dappled with sunshine through summer trees, a gorgeous sunset falling behind mountains. Perhaps you can think of a time when you were safe at home with a cup of warm tea and a beautiful piece of music playing and you had not a single care or concern in that moment. Ahhh! Serenity is relaxing, peaceful, and gives comfort like coming into a warm fire on an autumn day. Consider a past experience of serenity. Feel it.

Interest — Your curiosity is piqued. You feel engaged and have opportunity to explore. Remember a time when you listened to a fascinating speaker. Or when you discovered a new and better way to approach a familiar task. You have heightened attention and most often you are building a skill. When have you felt deep interest? Remember what that felt like.

Hope — You have confidence that things can change, that there are possibilities that spark your imagination. Hope arises when current circumstances are undesirable, yet you can sense that there is a way out. Consider when you have felt hope: perhaps you were struggling with a work task, but began to sense a way forward. Or you ended a relationship, but had a reservoir of confidence that in spite of the pain, there were other people out there that you now had time and opportunity to get to know. Hope motivates action. Can you stir the felt sense of hope?

Pride — There can be swollen, inappropriate and unhelpful pride, but here consider only genuine and kind-hearted pride. When you are being good and honest with yourself, you see your best qualities. Or at the conclusion of some task, you look at your work and see that it was done well and has made a positive difference in the world. For example, you finish painting a room in your house and it looks fresh and the color is pleasing. Or you finished a presentation to your boss and got the endorsement for your proposal. You come across a person outside a store who has dropped her bag. You unconsciously stoop and assist that person. After which you rightly feel good about your actions. Can you remember a time when you felt healthy, well-earned pride in your accomplishment?

Amusement — Surprise! Your co-worker makes a very witty observation. Unexpectedly, you and your friend see a frog hop onto your walking path. Amusement is generally spontaneous and out of the ordinary. You are caught off guard, but not in a threatening way. Rather you feel alive and have heighted mood when you share a laugh over a funny experience. Call to mind a time when you were amused. Can you feel the levity and pleasantness of the experience?

Inspiration — When humanity in some form or fashion rises above its usual experience and does something truly amazing, then we are inspired. Imagine a time when you saw an act of great compassion. Often scenes on the news following a natural disaster show ordinary people doing their utmost to rescue and tend to the wounds of strangers. Perhaps an artist reveals a work so exquisite that you are given pause to see the world in a different light. What has inspired you in the past? Can you recreate that felt sense in your mind?

Awe — Dumbstruck, you gaze at the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. Or you gasp at the sight of an ancient monument, like the Egyptian pyramids. Awe is the witnessing of something that stops you in your tracks and causes you to fully experience amazement. Awe is powerful and bigger than one’s ordinary life circumstances. It is an experience of mental transcendence where you are instantly carried away from usual states of mind, and instead experience something that generally defies expression in words. Visualize something that causes you to be blown away. Feel awe.

Love — Professor Fredrickson does a splendid job of explaining how love is a separate and yet inclusive positive emotion. It is the experience of more than one of the previously described emotions felt in the context of a personal relationship. Can you recall the time your first child took his or her first step? You experienced interest, hope, awe, gratitude, and pride all at once. Or do you remember when a very good friend graduated from school and she was overwhelmed with the relief and pleasure in her accomplishment? Why did you empathetically share her many emotions? Your love gave rise to the experience of her accomplishment being a source of your own happiness. Love is an especially powerful form of positive emotion. Can you bring to mind your feelings of love for someone close to you: your parent, your son or daughter, or a life partner? Feel love.

I am grateful for the grounding that Barbara Fredrickson’s 10 positive emotions give to the meaning of happiness. When we think about each of these feelings, we know that indeed those emotions are what make life rich and beautiful. Joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love are what we all want.

You have quickly toured the 10 positive emotions from which we feel happy. Now perhaps savor one of the memories you just recalled. Take a minute with the experience and be happy!

🙂

Paul Krismer 2016

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