“How would you define happiness?” I asked friends and family in an e-mail…
The first reply was from my mom, “Happiness is seeing my grandson, and him saying ‘Grandma,” she wrote.
So, Mom’s definition is on par with Webster’s. My friend John is a library director.
“I think of happiness as momentary and uncertain. It is joy (a more spiritual value) that sustains me even in the darkest times and in the most painful circumstances,” he wrote.
The difference in how one defines happiness while looking at a baby’s face is strikingly different than how one defines it while looking at a wall of books.
John added an important layer to the discussion. Is happiness different than joy? The joy I write about in this column often points to more substantial events like a baby learning to walk than fleeting, funny moments, like said baby slipping on a banana peel and then landing on a whoopee cushion. But is there a difference between the two in the moment?
“This is a stream of consciousness rather than a definition but here goes,” my mother-in-law writes. “I really do believe that happiness is a state of mind and a decision. ‘Things’ give me transient satisfaction but the feeling that I am contributing to the world in some way, whether it is through paid employment or how I treat the people I meet or deal with everyday, I am happy.”
Actually, many philosophers agree that this is an integral part of deep happiness. To illustrate this they concocted a thought experiment in which there exists a pleasure machine.
Much like the movie The Matrix, the perfect pleasure machine allows people to plug in and experience whatever experiences they think will make them happy. Want to be a rock star? Poof! You’re a rock star.
The experience would be perfect. It would seem tactile and real in every way to those who are plugged in, and yet the majority of people say they would opt out. They would rather live their real lives. Philosophers believe this is because people want their lives to add up to something.
So it is more than a positive emotion about your current condition. Life only adds up to something through our toil and that means that happiness is more than being satisfied. It’s not just a situation that we find ourselves in—we have to contribute to it.
If Aristotle had e-mail, I am sure that he would love to contribute at this point in the discourse.
“Happiness would be the result of living a just life,” he’d click out on his keyboard before spilling his late night coffee across his open-toed sandals.
A just life, in Aristotle’s view, would be a life that is built on careful decisions, in accordance with one’s beliefs.
“Living a life that is loving and giving in the light of eternity,” writes poet Sander Zulauf who was one of my great teachers in college.