What is happiness?


This post’s title question might appear a little surprising at first. Does “happiness” really need to be defined? After all, we all seem to know quite well what it is. We know when we are happy, and when we are not.

However, on second thought it turns out to be not that simple. Stating selected moments where we feel great or terrible are just sample states where we would use the expressions “happy” or “unhappy”. They do not actually define what it is (for requirements of a definition see below) and leave several questions unanswered, e.g. can it be considered “happy” if we are not feeling significantly positive or negative?

For the purpose of this blog (and every discussion on happiness for that matter) I believe it is important to ensure that we have a solid definition and common & clear understanding of what we mean by happiness.

Existing definitions

I’ve done research on definitions of happiness that are used today, and found that most of them are not suitable as a basis to analyze happiness for one reason or another. For example, a common type of a happiness definition is the following, found on wikipedia.org:

"Happiness is a state of mind or feeling characterized by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy.”

The problem with definitions like this is that they use expressions which need definitions themselves. For example, in the definition above, what does “joy” exactly mean? Defining “joy” is no easy task either, and we run the risk of using the term “happiness” again when defining “joy” (Wikipedia actually redirects to the “Happiness”-article when you enter “Joy”), i.e. going in circles.

Another common form to define happiness is stating examples. For instance, when people were asked on what is happiness for them, they replied along the lines of…

"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony."

“Happiness is living in a state of freely choosing to create and exchange one's rational values with others.”

“Happiness is when you balance your emotions with your thinking ability, constantly facing life's challenges with the thought of "something better" coming your way. Happiness is being able to face challenges and overcome them with a smile on your face and a smile on your heart.”


These examples are certainly pointing to different elements of happiness but are no comprehensive definitions, at least not in a scientific sense (although it is interesting to hear what makes different people happy…).

Requirements/ criteria for a good definition

So what needs to be in place for a good definition, i.e. what is the definition of a definition?

To serve the purpose of the discussions on this blog, the definition should allow happiness to be analyzed in a scientific way, which implies that the following criteria have to be in place:

  • Measurable & scalable: The extent of happiness should be able to be measured and – in principle – be able to put down various states of happiness on a numeric scale
  • Comparable: The “points on the scale” should be able to be compared to each other, i.e. answering the question how many “slightly positive moments” are required to compensate one “very positive moment”. This is already implied by the first criteria but may be worth mentioning explicitly
  • Comprehensive: Every moment we live through should be able to be attributed to one point on the scale, which implies that it is not only the “positive direction” but also covers unhappy moments and suffering
  • “Agreeable”: It should reflect our existing notion of what happiness is and not be entirely different

The key question, of course, is how a subjective feeling like happiness can ever be put on an objective scale as mentioned above. Can happiness be “objectivised” at all?

Before thinking about how to make this shift, we should be clear about what we are trying to shift into, i.e. what “objective” actually means. At this point, different world views may collide, but I would like go ahead and use the world view that I share with all other people who believe in science and the view that the world is basically made up of physical and chemical processes and reactions.

Objectivization, in this respect, therefore means to state physical and chemical constellations and reactions (down to atomic level if we want to be very exact) that would qualify as the phenomena we want to define (and which don’t). In other words, defining means nothing else than “grounding in the physical world”.

The challenge with defining happiness, however, is that the physical constellations and processes that occur in the brain are a “black box” for us. Today, our knowledge about the brain is very limited, and we are far from stating the exact happenings in the brain that could be considered as happiness. Although we have some knowledge of emotional centres in the brain and their functions, we are far away from describing what exactly happens when we are “happy” (which is also tightly linked with being “conscious”, another term that will be left to the future to define).

Therefore, a “perfect” definition of happiness is not possible at this stage. Although disappointing, it is nevertheless important to point out that eventually it will be defined in this way. Today’s restrictions, however, force us to find another way that also fulfils the criteria mentioned above to the most extent possible.

Proposal for a “preliminary” definition of happiness

As understanding means to know how it came about, it makes sense to remind ourselves that happiness and suffering, “feeling good” and “feeling bad”, “pleasure” and “pain” fulfil a clear evolutionary purpose: to steer us in a way that is most beneficial for our (to be exact: our genes’) reproduction. It’s a punishment/reward system based on nature’s experience on what actions (most likely) achieve this goal and which don’t.

In other words, this punishment/reward system is designed to convey to us whether we should aim to strive for similar moments in the future or not, i.e. whether we should strive to re-live them or not. The proposal put forward in this post is that this element, whether we want to re-live the moment (if offered to us “for free”) should be used as basis for defining happiness.

Consequently, if the answer to the question “Would you choose to re-live the moment if offered for you for free?” is “Yes” we are in the positive area of the “happiness scale”, if the answer is a “No” then in the negative, or, if we are indifferent, we are on the “0”.

Happiness scale and definition 

The advantage of determining happiness this way is that it brings different emotions down to one common basis. Instead of distinguishing between pleasure, joy, comfort etc. as different happiness states (which would make it tough to directly compare them), the only thing that matters is the answer to the “happiness question”.

Phrased as a “definition”:

“A person can be considered to have experienced a “happy” moment if the person chooses to re-live it as an end in itself if offered at no cost.”

First I thought that a weakness of this definition is that often it does not feel easy to answer the “happiness question” and that it requires some thinking. For example, if asked now: would you want to re-live the last second again? For me, I would think a little, and then come to the conclusion that I would, but it’s not a clear and strong “yes”.

Now I believe that this phenomenon does not point so much to a weakness of the definition, but more to the fact that most of the time, we are actually on the “0” of the scale or very close to it (at least that is the case for me).

If we accept this definition for the moment, we now know whether we are in the positive, negative or on the “0”. We still need to answer the question “how much positive” (or negative) we are, making the moments comparable to each other.

Here again, the proposal is to ask the person who lived through the (at least two different) moments for his preference. For example, if we take two moments that have been voted as worthwhile to be re-lived if offered for free (i.e. on the positive part of the scale):

  1. Would you rather re-live moment I or moment II?
  2. If the answer is “moment I”: would you rather re-live 2 of “moment II” or one moment “I”?

And so on. If it ends up that the test person values one “moment I” as much worth as 3 “moment II”, for example, “moment II” will be on “+1” on the scale, while moment “I” is on “+3”.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting anyone should perform this cumbersome process for every second he or she lives. It should only demonstrate how, in theory, different happiness states can be set in relation to each other, thereby deepening our understanding of happiness.

Critical appraisal of proposed definition

On the positive side, this definition fulfils all the criteria as defined above:

  • It makes happiness measurable and scalable
  • Different “happiness states” can be compared
  • It is comprehensive, as the happiness question can be applied for every moment we live (there is always an answer)
  • It is “agreeable” as it matches our existing perception of happiness well and makes sense from an evolutionary perspective

Further, as mentioned above, it provides a simple and common basis for all emotions, thereby reducing complexity. However, there are also some critical questions:

  • What if you ask an individual with mental illness or who identifies as a masochist who is in significant pain but still says that he wants to re-live the moment? Can that be called “happiness”?

Assuming that the pain is really the predominant emotion (which for masochism often isn’t; from the outside it looks like pain but the person may get a strong counter-emotion, e.g. sexually, which overcompensates the pain, making him indeed “happy”) this example shows the disadvantage of not measuring the “real thing” but doing an approximation with an experimental question. This case, however, can be considered as rather unusual and exceptional.

  • What about animals, who are clearly capable of feeling pleasure and pain and who cannot respond to the “happiness question”?

Response does not have to be verbal but can be through behaviour in other forms as well. For example, a mouse that is staying away from the electroshock stick demonstrates that it does not want to re-live the experience of touching it. It is possible to set up experiments that clearly show the animal’s preference for one situation or another.

  • It still does not provide full transparency on how happy we are overall as we would need to run this process (asking the happiness question) for every single moment of our lives.

The unit that’s getting measured does not have to be restricted to a “short moment” (e.g. a second), but can be over a longer period of time, in the extreme case asking “would you chose to re-live your entire life again if offered (with exactly the same emotions, know-how etc.)?”.

The risk with extending the measured period, however, is that there can be substantial distortions as our assessment of the past is very much influenced how we feel at the time we make the assessment. For example, if we are feeling great our assessment of our past will most likely be substantially more positive than if we just had a major stroke of fate, while there should be no difference as the life we’ve lived so far is fact and cannot be changed. This distortion and how to deal with it will be addressed in the following posts.

This is a first shot at defining happiness. Before continuing further and addressing the logical questions that result from this, I would like to stop here and ask you what you think about this “preliminary” definition. Do you spot any flaws in thinking? Did I miss out anything important? I would love to hear your thoughts.


  • Warren says:

    Hi Nick!

    Enjoyed your article, thanks for writing that up and pointing me to it! Haven’t seen a happiness measure like that before.

    Compared to what I wrote in my article of the same name, I think we’re on the same ground here. I also thought about things like the masochist, and how to explain someone like him or her returning to a situation where they will be in pain, but enjoying it.

    You make a good point that there might be a positive element that is overpowering the pain, (sex in this case), and that might indeed be part of the picture. I think happiness as partly cognitive, or a judgement.

    So you’d have the feelings on one level, such as the masochists pain and sexual pleasure, but on another level you’d have a judgement, such as whether he is happy to feel the pain.

    So your way of measuring would get around problems like this, because if he decided he’d do it again for free, he’s judging that pain as worth going through. It’d be interesting to see how your measure here correlates with other measures, and actually you mention that it’s a problem that this could only measure happiness at one specific time, but I think it’s actually a strength because the life-satisfaction questionnaires that measure judgements of happiness tend to be about life as a whole.

    So you might have filled a gap with that one!

    Looking forward to your future posts,

  • Amod Lele says:

    Hi Nick,

    It’s an interesting idea. Some comments: I would say that what you’re defining here is not actually happiness, so much as satisfaction. That’s not a problem in itself – I think one could make a reasonable case that satisfaction is something better than happiness – but it’s worth noting. (The masochism point is an example of this.) Notice especially that we might want to relive moments for their beneficial consequences: I might like to relive a moment spent on the treadmill, say, so that it would make me healthier afterwards, but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy in that moment. (Related point: what do you mean by “no cost”? Simply no financial cost, or no negative consequences at all?)

    Next, measurement error always remains an issue here. What you’ve got is an operational definition – a definition for the practical purposes of measurement in social science – but that’s different from a definition of what it actually is. Again there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily – if we’re going to do empirical research on happiness we need operational definitions – but it’s also worth keeping in mind. People lie on surveys; a survey measures whether people say they’re satisfied, not whether they actually are.

    Finally, lying to a survey is one thing; lying to oneself is another. That leads to the further question that I explored in my post: do we know whether we’re really satisfied? We may well change our minds about whether we’d like to relive a particular moment. That’s certainly the case if we’re counting beneficial and negative consequences, as above. But even if consequences are ruled out of this account, consider this example: I remember accidentally drinking a Gin and Limca cocktail as a child, and finding it vile and foul tasting. Now I really like Gin and Limca cocktails. So the experience of drinking that cocktail without consequences is one that I would happily relive now – but at the time it made me unhappy.

    Hope this is helpful,

  • Very interesting post indeed (especially because I do not share the same physicalist presupposals). If I want to understand whether I’m happy, I usually ask myself questions such as “would you like this moment to last forever (=for a long time)?” You might also consider Goethe’s definition in Faust (wenn man dem Augenblick sagt ‘verweile doch, du bist so schön!).
    I have a minor question concerning the “end in itself” part of the definition. Sometimes we might be happy, even very happy, because of the consequences of the single moment. A typical example may be the day of one’s wedding (one might want to re-live it again and again because it is the beginning of a satisfying life together) or, even more, the moment of giving birth. One does not necessarily want to re-live the pain of giving birth, but one definitely wants to re-live the moment of giving birth to one’s child. In the latter case, one wants to re-live the moment not as an “end in itself”. Still, I would not ban one’s most significant moments from the happy moments!

  • A further problem came to my mind. The author of the text might be quite young, but I guess that starting from, say, 48, one would like to re-live most moments of one’s life (even the “0″ ones) just because one feels that the time one has left to live is reducing. Hence, one would just refute to re-live very painful moments.
    Maybe the requirement “at no cost” should be somehow adjusted, but the problem has also a lot to do with memory. In fact, a 55 years old may be happy to re-live his twenties, although at that time he did not find them great (as with Amod’s Gina and Limca cocktail). Short, it seems that measuring happiness is hard both in the present (because happiness can arise also later on, depending on the act’s consequences) and in the past (because memory may trick us). At most, one measures the present happiness/unhappiness in regard to a present or past event. But this means that measurements about event X may vary from day to day (right after finding out that his wife has an affair, a man might be very upset in remembering his wedding day). I really look forward to read the author’s comments.

  • Nick says:

    Dear All,

    Thank you very much for your good comments!

    I especially appreciate that you pointed to the unclear and misleading wording “at no cost”. What I actually meant was “ceteris paribus”, i.e. all other things being equal. That rules out wanting to re-live an unhappy moment because it may have positive consequences on other moments (Amod’s comment) or that it is life-prolonging (Elisa’s comment).

    Thanks Elisa for pointing out that the actual measurement of a moment might change from day to day. Amod has addressed this in his post, and I will also take it up again in one of my following posts as it is crucial in measuring happiness in practice.

    Thanks again,


  • We enjoy your article very much! We have quite a lot in common. So, let’s go together! We will study yours carefully in detail. The following is our rough idea:

    Happiness comes from propagating one’s DNA.
    Suffering from things being not at the optimal points to him/her.

    Happy life requires instincts:

    (1) VALID HAPPINESS (including love, sense of beauty, symbiosis (good conscience, upholding justice, moral courage, helping others…) bravery….) must be the feeling of things being a step better for propagating one’s DNA.
    (2) WELL-BEING is the ongoing feeling of things going better and better for propagating one’s DNA.
    (3) VALID SUFFERING must be the feeling of things being harmful to propagating one’s DNA and calling him/her to prevent or rectify it.
    (4) SOUL (including: personality, inspiration,….) is the computation results of both one’s instinct and pre-instinct data-programs in the brain.
    (5) LIFE GOAL is to propagate DNA.

    All these are our instincts (ancestors’ successful experiences saved on DNA).
    Everything in the world has its optimal point for human, who suffers from the thing being not at this point, the more the farther from it.

    Socrates’ “happy pig” lives on instincts, but people who suffer from invalid happiness do not.

    Tal Ben Shahar’s “Six Tips for Happiness” also simply requires valid instincts:
    1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, ….. (Instinct 3)
    2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. ….. (Instinct 1. Symbiosis)
    3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind,…. (Instinct 1, 3, 4)
    4. Simplify! …. (Instinct No.1)
    5. Remember the mind-body connection. … Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and menta health. (Instinct 1,4,5)
    6. Express gratitude, ….. (Instinct 1. Symbiosis)


    (http://blog.sina.com.cn/happywellness,in Chinese;
    http://validhappiness.blogspot.com,in English, to be updated due to technical problems)

  • Hi Nick!

    I would suggest that you include a factor of novelty or curiosity in you good definition of happiness. Because “re-live” usually decease the happiness due this factor.


  • Adrian says:

    Hi Nick, your post raises a lot of issues, and my reply won’t in any way do it justice — there’s too much to say! But here’s some random thoughts:

    “The problem with definitions like this is that they use expressions which need definitions themselves.” — I suspect that *every* definition will ultimately suffer from similar problems. For instance, how do you define a centimetre? Can you do it without employing concepts like “length” or “quantity” which themselves require definition? How can you ever arrive at something that doesn’t require definition?

    “These examples are certainly pointing to different elements of happiness but are no comprehensive definitions” — Socrates made objections along similar lines. He’d ask someone what courage was, and the person would give examples, but Socrates would insist on what might be called “necessary and sufficient conditions”. However, it could be argued that natural language concepts and nouns should be seen more as a matter of paradigms and “family resemblance”, are irredeemably vague, and that it’s misguided to search for necessary and sufficient conditions.

    “It should reflect our existing notion of what happiness is” — This might be something of a vexed problem in contemporary philosophy. What exactly are you doing when you provide philosophical elucidation of a concept. Is the task in essence lexicographical? If so, then you have all the vagueness, ambiguity, and continually-shifting meanings of natural language to contend with, and how are you really improving on the what the writers of dictionaries are doing? Or is the task stipulative? But in this case, what stops you from letting the term to be defined mean anything whatsoever? Why can’t “happiness” mean “lazy long-haired teenager wearing an onyx signet ring”?

    I guess what I’m saying is that, when you provide the sort of definition you have done, it’s possible to say that this reflects some of what’s meant by the everyday word “happiness”, but it seems problematic to claim that it captures all of it, since I think you’re not trying to capture all the multidunous, vague, and confused ways the word is used amongst all English speakers, but rather are trying to bring order to this mess.

    There’s a popular view at the moment that analyzes happiness as meaning something like “satisfaction with one’s choices”. If there were a fight between this definition, say, and yours, how could the argument be arbitrated if they are both, in essence, stipulations of how the word “happiness” should best be used?

    “defining means nothing else than “grounding in the physical world”.” — Just thinking out loud about this… Say you want to define “chair”. Assuming it’s possible to define in terms of string theory, would you really want to? Our preparedness to label something a “chair” might be affected by: its shape and appearance (a purely ornamental chair, or a chair in a picture); the function it’s put to (a milk crate could be a chair); its origin/the intention of its maker. Should one try to re-express all of this in terms of physics?

    “This case, however, can be considered as rather unusual and exceptional.” — Does an exception prove the rule, or invalidate it? After all, such people are still part of the human race.

    “A person can be considered to have experienced a “happy” moment if the person chooses to re-live it as an end in itself if offered at no cost.”

    Firstly, are all intrinsically valuable moments happy moments? For instance, some people seem to hold the idea that variety of experience, in itself, is valuable. From such a perspective, an unpleasant experience might still be intrinsically valuable, but perhaps we wouldn’t necessarily call such a moment a happy.

    Secondly, is “choosing to relive” an objective enough standard? In real life, it seems that people’s choices change all the time. What today I regard as a good thing tomorrow I might regard as a bad thing.

    Now, assume, for the sake of argument, that I’m an archangel with perfect knowledge of past and future, and perfect reasoning abilities. Still, might not two archangels disagree about what moments are valuable in themselves? Doesn’t “choosing to relive” simply defer the question of objectivity, because what you regard as intrinsically valuable in turn depends on some presumably subjective system of valuation?

    Thirdly, what if intrinsically valuable moments differ not only in quantity, but also in quality? How then are they to be compared? Just speaking in everyday terms, it’s not self-evident that the experience of playing basketball has much in common with admiring a sunset.

    Fourthly, how do you define a “moment” (is it a second, half a second, a quarter of a second), and is it desirable to try to break time into atoms in this way? Might it be the case that, in everyday life, often we value not moments but collections of moments? Is it possible that there are sometimes emergent properties such that a whole is more than the sum of its parts, or the parts are only valuable in terms of the whole?

    Fifthly, I just wanted to mention (without saying much more) that a lot of what you’re writing relates to utilitarianism, one of whose goals was to quantify happiness. There’s many strands of utilitarianism and many criticisms of them amassed over the past century. Might or might not be worth looking into.

  • Steve M Nash says:

    Very interesting and in depth post on meaning of happiness. Well done, and thanks!

    Howeverm *I* disagree with your definition. I think this is *your* definition of happiness, because this is how you want happiness to be defined, it is not how I want it (or need it) to be defined.

    I believe happiness is the (admittedly nebulous) act of accepting the moment for what it is, without pain if the moment does not contain X or Y. And as this definition of happiness (that I believe in) is about the moment it is NOT about comparing moments; happiness is not a comparitive experience full stop!

    If you are happy you are happy. If you love you love. And if you are pregnant you are pregnant! So if you have to compare your ‘happiness’ then you’re simply not happy.

    I agree that it would be nice to know what the definition of happiness is, but I suspect that happiness (like love) is undefinable and would not exist if that were not so.

    Still, thanks for your post. It allowed me to share my thoughts that I did not realise, until this moment, that I had…



  • Prithwish says:

    Hey Mike. It’s quite a unique effort on your effort to measure happiness. I will give you some pointers on my understanding of the topic. Rest is unto you to construe.
    Happiness is one of the many emotions we feel. Hence the first step to experience happiness is to open yourself to other emotions. Sometimes we are so closed about loss/ failure / disappointment that we end up literally throwing out all emotions except apathy and indifference from our lives. We have to feel other emotions also to feel happy.
    Scientifically speaking happiness is chemically induced. Hormones like the Oxytocin or the attachment hormone have a lot to do with our feeling of happiness, contentment.
    I will continue with story I am trying to weave. So firstly happiness is an emotion induced by chemicals. It is the period when time seems to disappear and your actions just flow with little or no effort. With it comes the feeling of being at one with your surroundings, almost a state of bliss.
    Secondly I believe in the quote – you don’t deserve to be happy. You decide to be happy. Let me build on this from the scientific point of view. If you go through my article (http://lateralviews.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/can-we-manufacture-happiness/ ), I have written about Haidt’s work on the Happiness formula. What is interesting to note is that voluntary activities or the conscious choices you make have a larger impact on your happiness than the conditions of living or winning a lottery. From your point of view of measuring happiness, there are cognitive tools of measuring happiness or dissatisfaction. May be you can do more search on this. What I wanted to tell you is that there are tools available for the same which helps an individual to increase his happiness reference point.
    This gets me to the third point, if we know what is right, why are we not doing that. I think partly the problem is that we are not good at being able to judge accurately what will make us happy. You should read Gilbert’s work on this. The basic hypothesis ( Haidt and Gilbert ) is that the conscious mind is not so evolved as the unconscious mind and hence the conflict between the two lead to lots of confusion and tension. In fact this is for me a big revelation and it actually tells us that we miss happiness on three levels –
    1. We are bad at simulating the future and also bad at remembering all previous experiences. In fact I thought I had a good memory and remembered emotions and experiences very well. I realized I was wrong. I was watching the movie 12 Angry Men and Henry Fonda, who plays Juror # 8 asks his fellow juror to tell him the names of the movies which he had seen the previous night and the night before that and so on. The juror realized he could not remember after a point of time. I tried the same with myself. I realized I could not too. There is no doubt that our memory is finite and we donot accurately remember all the experiences. This would lead to a bias. Hence we are not able to decide for ourselves all our good experiences and replicate them in future.
    2. We are most of the time seeking to confirm out beliefs rather than open ourselves to new ideas. This is partly because of out constant search for security. Child hood upbringing I believe is an important factor for this.
    3. The third level is the hard wiring of the brain. The brain is hardwired for a certain negativity bias where we over estimate all the wrong things that can happen to us. This leads to non – action and depression. If you see a lot of depression is because the unconscious mind wants more activity more sensual pleasures more status and the conscious mind is confused.

    May be after reading this you will also be confused. May be such is the nature of happiness.


  • Helen Lee says:

    I think, happiness consists in contentment.

  • [...] a common and seemingly well understood phenomenon we don’t see any point asking (just like with what is happiness?). We know it from experience; however, this is only an observation. This article aims to initiate a [...]

  • Wifetellsall says:

    That is sure a lot to think about. I think I need to think about it for awhile to get it all digested. I’m still working on my definition of happiness. If you want to follow my happiness journey check out my blog. Right now I’m reading “be happy” by Robert Hoden Ph.D. In his book he asks his readers what happiness means to them. We’re suppose to ponder it and get back to him after reading the book. Check out my blog and follow my journey: http://wifetellsall.blogspot.com/ I’m currently on ch 4.

  • Very interesting!

    I was struck by the first of your critical questions about the masochist. What that clearly raises for me is the subjective nature of feeling happy. A masochist feels happy when in pain, I don’t. This is an extreme example but shows that happiness is essentially experiential and I can only understand your experience of it by asking you about it – and you describing it.

    I like your scaling questions, and I see this as helpful in getting some idea of what meaning different experiences have.

    I’m not fully convinced by your definition of an admittedly difficult concept to define. The main reason is that I choose to relive some experiences even though they are far from happy and they have cost. Visiting the dentist comes to mind as an example. Other things might be ones where I’ve learned a huge amount but were painful.

    I enjoyed the depth of the article and look forward to reading more from you!

  • VS says:

    I agree your definition is comprehensive, but that’s the drawback also. Its very comprehensive and does not make distinction between different types of moments people would like to re-experience. It appears that it would only differentiate between positive and negative emotions.

    I think happiness is an individual quest, others may point the way, but the journey and experience shall be distinct. Thus a definition to compare happiness would serve only a limited purpose like being used in a study. As a quest I feel that a definition of happiness should help chart the way forward, which should be incorporated in you proposed definition.

  • Barry says:

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for visiting my blog.

    The concept of happiness is a difficult one…one that must differentiate between being “happy” and having “pleasure/fun”. While having fun is “Fun”, it will not make one a happy person. Based on your definition, “A person can be considered to have experienced a “happy” moment if the person chooses to re-live it as an end in itself if offered at no cost.” does just that…it defines a “Happy Moment” not a happy person or a happy life. Actually, I think that it is a better definition of “Fun” than “Happiness”.

    I’m a science oriented person. Nothing makes me “Happier” than to be able to qualify and quantify something. Happiness is not something that is truly quantifiable or measurable on a finite scale. Being happy means different things to different people and is therefor impossible to define or quantify for others…Happiness is a very personal emotion that is definable only to the person defining it.

  • Theresa says:

    Hi Nick

    Love your scientific approach to measuring happiness, in particular the observation about the masochist who might in fact be in tremendous physical pain but yet, very happy. So happiness cannot be directly linked to your physical comfort level. I think of those Tour de France cyclists in agony as they attempt to finish the race – I would not be happy if I was on that seat, but they seem very content with the situation. On the other hand I take my husband who at the first sneeze of flu, climb in bed and complain about how sick he is. This is the same man that jumps out of airplanes and participate in combat sport – so I suspect the physical environment plays a minor role when it comes to a person’s happiness – it’s all in the mind!

    Big hug xx
    T xx

  • [...] “strength of an emotion” means. In accordance with the definition of happiness in a previous post, I propose that one “happy moment” is of equal strength to one “unhappy [...]

  • Deb says:

    Nick, Thanks for stopping by Counting My Blessings. I enjoyed your post, I just have one small problem with your definition – if I understand you correctly. Using your analysis of reliving a moment if you could do so “for free” falls short when we consider things that are inherently bad for us. I want my life to be filled with good positive things that also have good and positive results. That makes me happy. You might find The Happiness Project an interesting read. I think Gretchen does a good job of pursuing positive changes toward a goal of greater happiness. Thanks! I hope you visit CMB again!

  • Thanks for leaving your comments on Corinne Rodrigues’ blog Everyday Gyaan where i had posted a short story about happiness, upon her request. Your post here deserves praise for in-depth study and an attempt to make what appears to be immeasurable to a measurable entity. It is human nature to want to relive one’s good moments and want to forget one’s painful and sad moments. There is just one point i would like to add here. When one wakes up each day, you have a clean slate, a plain canvas. It is in such moments when one can choose to be happy or sad. We find street children playfully smiling and laughing without a care in the world – they are deprived by society but still choose to be happy. Some individuals face several adverse situations in life but choose to be cheerful at work.

  • Murat says:

    Dear Blog,

    I found a little bit of Joy and Happiness in reading about your exploration and understanding as well as your definition of happiness itself. A very cool blog, creative, entertaining and thought provoking. However, if given the option to re-live this moment as an end in itself if offered to me for free? Perhaps, I mean considering I already carry a slight memory of your brief synopsis another read would simply deepen its engraving in my memory. If offered the decision to read an article of this nature without prior recollection of already doing so, would I, perhaps, only because I ChooSe for a Greater Understanding and Knowledge of Happiness only because I wish to BE HAPPY.

    I believe “Happiness” is a state of mind. No different than hatefulness, anger, being jealous, greedy or even being in Love. It is a state of mind. “People are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Lincoln. There is no right or wrong way to pass through this Life, and I am in no place to pass judgment on another man’s choices and the way that he choose to live his life whether happy or unhappy. We are our own.

    Do I approve of your Happiness Scale and definition?

    I approve.

    It does carry a loop to it unless i’m ignorant of understanding. I mean we’ve all seen Bill Murray’s Groundhog’s Day, right? Putting a definition on happiness is similar to putting a definition on the color Green. We all recognize green to be the color it is but if you changed the name to blue, red or even brown that wouldn’t change the original properties of the color green. Green is not the name but instead what is perceived through our visual sense. Just as happiness is perceived through our emotional sense, the more you recognize it the more you’ll see it. Your definition fly’s, its more of a simple experiment to test yourself with.

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss.

    I’ve always liked to consider myself “Lucky to Know that I am Happy and Happy to Know that I’m Lucky.”


    Murat Orhan Suleiman


  • [...] that counts. So let’s ask the question directly and explicitly: is happiness (as defined here) the only goal we should be striving [...]

  • Papa Sez says:

    Thanks Nick for leading me to this blog. I appreciate your effort to “objectivize” the definition as a requisite for better understanding of this subjective concept. Comments from your visitors were also eye openers. The discussions reminded me of my days in the academe when I studied animal behavior.

    I found that my academic training and work had fed on my natural tendencies (leaning towards analytical, introvert and unemotional) to be serious and pessimistic that somehow affected my relationships and contributed much to stress in my life. I resolved to correct this and pursued my interests on blogging and happiness.

    I am telling you this to provide context as to why I am sticking to the how of happiness and the subjective aspects of this topic at WANNABEHAPPYNOW.COM instead of digging deeper to understanding it scientifically. I am just starting to train myself to “see the bright side of life” and now already seeing some positive impact :)

    Now to add to the discussion: to truly “objectivize” it, one needs to drill down to the lower levels of organizations (especially because people may consciously or unconsciously deceive oneself so that one can be happy–this is as a big challenge to research through questionnaires or surveys). Measurements on interplay of hormones (as Pritwish mentioned) as well as recent & later developments on brain research would allow one to link the subjective feelings of happiness and the physical manifestations in the molecular level. And “exceptions” such as the masochists that many visitors pointed to and questions about animal instincts would be instructive in defining or choosing among the proposed definitions of happiness (and even consciousness). Later on, linking this to the ultimate reason of life (propagating one’s DNA), i.e. whether one’s subjective happiness (which I imagine can be objectively linked & measured at the molecular level) is evolutionarily “valid” (as Kang & Ying pointed out), is much more interesting as we know from everyday experience that individuals’ actions or decisions vary even to a similar set of circumstances. Again this might be due to the “confusion” Pritwash referred to when what the conscious and unconscious minds say collide.

    I hope to read more of your blogs.

    This is it for now. Regards,

    Papa Sez

  • Francois J. says:

    «Values» are what I find missing in all theses comments.
    Happiness, and other feelings are an «automatic/real time» evaluation from our brain of the situation accordng to our integrated values.

    So in this context, happiness would be a «value achievement meter». The more important, integrated and reached a value, the more will the happiness be.

    This way, a masochist who values pain ( for whatever reason… ) can still be very happy.
    Giving birth to a child is pain, but can be a real important and integrated value.

    Like an internal brain computer, this process can’t really be controlled. Say, you can’t decide to be sad, or happy.
    You have to thing about sad et happy memories to (maybe..) have the emotion, that is you have to «feed» that computer.

    But the «values» are up to us.

    So, the way to happiness is thru values. Having a good and solid base of integrated values, paving a way thru life is a shure way toward happiness.
    Having multiple unintegrated values, whims instead of values, no solid value base, no «target» in life renders happiness a «chance occasion» or a fast dying emotion.
    Having un-human, non-social or very different values than the majority will surely put happiness one or many steps higher than others ( if reacheable at all. ).
    And an unreacheable important value is shurely not good for happyness.

    Finallly, a value, once reached (and integrated), will no longer be a source of happiness ( but can still be a value ! ).
    So, as an example, without an integrated set of values ( values build upon other values as a guide in life ), the girl next door, after a few night, will not bring the same happiness and will be dumped for the one at another door.
    Wouldn’t that explain why happiness ate stillness.

    High degree of happiness is reached when happiness is no longer sought out of starvation but only used as a guide to asserts and correct one’s values…

  • Jeff Mason says:

    Hi Nick,

    This is Jeff Mason from the Philosophers’ Magazine replies to your question. I looked at your blog and enjoyed it very much. It reminded me of Nietzsche’s ‘Most Terrible Thought” which is the thought that we are all fated to lives out the same lives to the uttermost detail that we live right now. It is the “Infinite Repetition of the Same.” This is terrible if one cannot will to live each moment for all eternity. So I must ask myself if I can will to write this letter to you over and over again. If the answer is “Yes!”, then one has discovered the secret to life. As for your happiness test, what about cases like going to the dentist where I really do not want to relive the experience, and yet I return regularly to get them checked and cleaned? Would this be ‘zero’ on your scale? Thanks for your comment, too. Jeff

  • Nick says:

    Hi Jeff,

    thank you for your very good comment!

    Regarding your question: if you would not want to re-live the experience being at the dentist (I believe most people would not) then your “happiness state” would be in the negative. However, we still go because we know that if we don’t, we will later experience a state which would be much more (and much longer) in the negative end of the scale (e.g. severe tooth pain).

    Same is true for many other decisions: we sacrifice short-term happiness for the sake of more long-term happiness. I believe this is also an important “human” capability (not seeking immediate pleasure for the sake of the long run).

    Thank you,


  • ckirk says:

    Very interesting piece you have here. I enjoyed your viewpoint and the “Happiness Scale”, good stuff. I did some research myself on the meaning, and this is what I came up with. The dictionary defines the word ‘happy’ by delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing; or characterized by or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy. If any point in your day you experience any one of these feelings you should visit http://www.WhyLifeDoesntSuck.com. We are about promoting all that is happy and want to share it with the rest of the world. I really like what your doing here.

  • Sonny says:

    Great article! I’m sure this definition of happiness fits most people but I have to agree with Steve. Everyone’s definition and interpretation of happiness varies and it is only until you find your own meaning of happiness when you discover how to be happy. Great article however none the less!

  • Suresh says:

    Happiness is that state of well-being which one would like to revisit and return for the sheer happiness of being in that state.

    Hindu scriptures elucidate that it is the state of no-return and the final aim of all objects (living or non-living) in the entire world. It is that state of equilibrium and the original state of all (which is otherwise also called Brahman (- poorly translated as God)). This is that state where everything has come and will return finally (again to return if the state is disturbed by any external force – like the sine-wave function in Mathematics).

  • Harkishan says:

    Honestly,Why would you think that your death would bring a lot of happiness?Are you onixobous and wealthy so that family would be pleased that you were dead?Not from what I know.People will either feel saddened, or they just won’t give a damn but nobody will derive any great joy from your death. And, once you were dead, you would be incapable of being happy (at least if you deal with the struggles of life, some moments of happiness are possible).Yes, life can be very difficult/painful to deal with but it can improve (as long as you’re alive).You have even noted on EP that you were hurt when a friend lost her life at her own hand (and asked others to avoid committing suicide) why would you think that nobody in your life would feel that way? Why wouldn’t you want to consider that at least one person might actually care and might be deeply hurt?As De noted, you should be aware of the true consequences of your actions. -10Was this answer helpful?


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