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.

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