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What is happiness?



So–what is happiness?  Notice I didn’t ask what makes you happy.  What is happiness itself?  For instance, a baseball Cardinals victory is not happiness, though it usually makes me happy. 

Having trouble?  Well, happiness is a subjective state, so that’s not surprising. As Dan Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness it’s a little like trying to tell someone what a color is.  Given that happiness is subjective it’s a bit of a challenge to study.  How can you and I know we are talking about the same thing?  Can we even think of happiness as singular?  The happiness I feel from listening to Dar Williams on Pandora right now (Ok, I like folk music. Want a different genre?  Well, find a different blog.)  seems of a different kind than the happiness I expect to feel when I am doing the dishes in a short while.  Two different subjective states, given rise to by two different contexts.  Maybe I should have called my course “Psychology of Happinesses.”

I assigned a 2013 paper by Oishi and colleagues that, among other things, looked at dictionary definitions of happiness across 30 countries.  In 24 of the 30 some element of luck was part of the definition.  Oh happy day! 

The United States was one of the six exceptions.  Oishi argues that happiness is a subjective experience that we in the US have been come to believe arises from our own actions, where for centuries before and in other cultures even now it is seen as a subjective experience that is  due to our good fortune. 

That’s about as far as we went with that work in class today.  But I am left wondering about the implications. There’s an argument to be made (and we’ll have a day on that later this semester) that the experience of happiness is a byproduct.  We’re doing things for some other purpose–to make the home tidy; to communicate to friends and strangers; to understand a hard problem–and there it is–happiness.  Making happiness our goal can perhaps make it elusive.  (Imagine ourselves as little children in the back seat of a car asking loudly “Are we there yet??” How would we know?  Does the asking interrupt the happiness?  If happiness is not the goal perhaps we won’t spend time checking our progress, our distance from that which we imagine we seek.) Does our language usage here in the US shift us from accepting the good and finding happiness in it to the restless pursuit that perhaps more often leaves us frustrated?

Not many answers today.  This was just the second day in Psychology of Happiness (about which I hope to blog all term), and we simply started to lay the foundations by pondering what happiness is.


1 Comment

  1. ahrens317a says:

    If any of my grad students (or others interested in studying gratitude) happen to read this…I wonder about the implications of Oishi et al.’s work for the relation of gratitude to happiness. For instance, the authors write that Australian English carries with it an element of luck whereas United States English does not. Given that gratitude isn’t about one’s own doing, will, for instance, gratitude bear a closer relationship to happiness in Australia than the United States? Dunno. I suspect it would be hard to figure out how to tap into this.

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