What does it mean to be happy?

Walking to the library recently, morning tea in hand, I paused a moment and watched snowflakes powder the branches of a nearby stand of pines. The air was quiet–that vacuum-sealed hush that pervades winter dawns–and the sun glowed through the cloudy sky like flashlight through a fogged window.happiness

“I’m happy,” I said suddenly.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what happiness means, but it’s a slippery word. Images and expressions clutter its meaning, twisting and warping the word beyond recognition in some cases. There’s the tranquil happiness of a retiree feeding pigeons to pass time on a warm Sunday morning. Then, there’s the hedonistic thrill of a teenager, beer in hand, slipping into a throng of dancers in some dim, crowded corner of a house party. Then there’s Stoic and Buddhist joy, a sort of peaceful equanimity.

Fortunately, they do have a few things in common, I think.

In all cases, happiness is positive. I’ve never heard anyone be upset that they were happy. Along with this, it’s often associated with an elation of some sort. When someone’s sad, they may say, “I feel down.” We may even reply, “How can I cheer you up?” Mood isn’t horizontal; it’s vertical. And somehow, some linguistic hierarchy exists, with happiness up top, sadness down low, and “so-so” or “not bad” somewhere in the blurry border between.

Also, people often associate happiness with escape, whether it’s a changed activity, a changed sphere of our life, an altered perspective, or a different place. For example, many people have a glass of wine in the evening to draw a line between their work and their home. Other behaviors can reflect this separation: changing clothes, taking off socks, or relegating work to an office. It’s a deliberate separation.

More examples of this exist. Television and popular novels entertain us in with dynamic plots and characters, giving us an excuse to turn off our brains for a bit or leave the sphere of everyday life. Vacation resorts create a fantasy that could never exist in the work sphere by burying the ugly or the mundane behind the glamorous, carefree, and positive.

Sometimes, I think, this separation is simply an escape from problems. We want to forget all those unpaid bills, unfinished reports, ungraded papers, and unanswered e-mails and bury those responsibilities like dirty laundry inside the corner closet of our lives, at at least for a bit, at least until “tomorrow.”

But other times, this escape is more pervasive: we want to escape our self. Sometimes, we want to leave the weight and confinement of our self and slip into a freer, more connected experience. I often talk to people who love the thrill of “loosing themselves” on a dance floor. Caught up in the rhythm and crowd, people find release.

However, I don’t think this escape is a necessary part of happiness. It is just the dominant way many people experience it today.

This outlook resonates well with the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, our natural state is unhappy, and happiness breaks the norm. For Schopenhauer, this unhappiness stems from a force he calls “The Will to Life,” a yearning, pushing force that makes us strive for life, even when we should be content. It’s like trying to fill a void.

Moreover, for Schopenhauer, there is no ultimate meaning or end to existence, so we’re simply being tugged along against our will to produce more life without any reason. Add to this the ennui, physical suffering, and emotional anguish that happens in the world, and you have Schopenhauer’s bleak worldview.

One means to escape this suffering is through the contemplation art, says Schopenhauer. For brief spans, while we absorb ourselves through artistic contemplation, we feel uplifted. Music and tragedy in particular have this ability, allowing us a meaningful escape that connects us to something deeper–the Will of Life itself.

Nietzsche expanded this idea further through his concepts of the Apollonian and the Dionysian in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. “Apollonian” stands for Apollo, the God of light, truth, harmony, etc., and is summarized by the Delphic proclamations “Not too much” and “Know thyself.” “Dionysian” stands for Dionysus, the god of wine and tragedy.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses how Apollo symbolizes the harmony and aesthetic balance that characterizes some art. Such art is intelligible, clear, and beautiful. It fits best as sculpture. The Apollonian also captures “individuation,” the act of people becoming individuals, and a sense of solidity. Dionysus symbolizes unity and vagueness, and is best connected with music. The power of the Dionysian is that it allows one to break out of individuation, escape the self, and find some deeper, primordial union.

To me, this duality captures two major forms of happiness we seem to encounter. The Apollonian is the measure and balance of a well-structured existence, where we have a clear purpose and sense of self. This can indeed be fulfilling. Dionysius captures that hedonistic longing for escape and union, an urge to break the quotidian.

As Nietzsche argues, the ideal is a healthy union of the two, captured by the Attica tragedies, like the work of Aeschylus. Perhaps this is the ideal for life as well, a healthy balance of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

My own thoughts on happiness have tended to make a finer distinction, with three main forms of happiness: Hedonistic, rhythmic, and harmonic.

“Hedonistic happiness” captures the pleasurable elation or satiation we get when something gratifies us in a very basic sense. We eat a succulent steak, we buy a shiny new iPhone, we draw stares in some new outfit, we enjoy a beer and a funny sitcom before going to bed. Something very basic gratifies us or distracts us. We don’t need to reflect on it. We don’t need to be fully aware of it. We just feel it with immediate causes and results.

Hedonistic happiness is the easiest to create, but it’s the most shallow and brief, a moment-based escape that doesn’t really leave us with much. But it’s easy to manufacture and commodify, so it’s pretty common.

“Rhythmic happiness” is like the notion of “flow,” from positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For me, rhythmic happiness captures the feeling one has when caught up in the fulfilling rhythm of a particular activity. Like an athlete “in the zone,” a writer in the heat of inspiration, a cook lost in the cooking experience, or a musician playing a great rift, one loses oneself in a productive, meaningful sense. No longer self-conscience or anxious, one has a very cathartic experience.

However, this can also be short lived and difficult to attain. The key is to construct an existence that allows such moments as often as possible, letting one “flourish,” another positive psyche idea that reflects a life where we can reach our full potential.

“Harmonic happiness” reflects the joy we feel when at harmony with ourselves, our lives, and the people in our lives. Now and then, reflecting on life, recalling memories, counting blessings, and making plans can be very fulfilling. I often feel like I’m doing the right thing, that my life is meaningful, that I am loved and provided for, and most importantly, I have the ability to contribute to or feel at home in my own existence. Like the harmony of a beautiful chord, the harmony of existence can soothe and elevate.

This may be the deepest and most satisfying feeling, but it is the hardest to create and maintain. One can’t simply create or consume harmony. It arises naturally, after a careful consideration about what truly makes one happy. In general, studies seem to show friendship, meaningful activities, family, and positive memories all contribute to long-term happiness. These all take investment and planning, but in my opinion, they are well worth it.

13 thoughts on “What does it mean to be happy?

  1. I think this is so beautifully written, Brett. I like your three-pronged approach, and would definitely like to exist in a state of Harmonic Happiness! I think your most sage remarks were, “But other times, this escape is more pervasive: we want to escape our self. Sometimes, we want to leave the weight and confinement of our self and slip into a freer, more connected experience. I often talk to people who love the thrill of “loosing themselves” on a dance floor. Caught up in the rhythm and crowd, people find release.”

    1. Thanks! Yes, if only harmonic happiness were easier to achieve. I would love to exist in it all the time, haha. And that particular part was one of my favorites, too. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Haha! I don’t why people take Schopenhauer seriously. He was a comedian whom everyone mistook as a solemn philosopher. I read him when watching reruns of Seinfeld becomes too depressing.

    1. I do agree for the most part. Schopenhauer’s pessimism is so severe–especially his notion of “the best of all possible worlds”–that I laugh sometimes. But some of his metaphysical, aesthetic, or ethical points are fairly interesting. For example, his ethics of compassion is pretty dynamic and surprisingly redemptive. He’s at his best when his views are not too tainted by his pessimism, I think.

      Thanks for stopping by, by the way.

  3. Brett, thank you. As usual a very thoughtful post. I particularly like the concept of harmonic happiness and as you say this is the most difficult to achieve because all or most of the components of one’s life have to be in the right place, something that takes time and effort.

    1. Thanks, Malcolm. I appreciate the comment. I appreciate what you say about harmonic happiness. I often get someone irked by most of America’s contemporary outlook. While neurology and psychology continues to debunk much of that outlook and find more fruitful, joy-inducing alternatives and modes of living, we often still accelerate in the same old direction. Oh well. I suppose it’s hard to change. I know I find it hard, haha.

  4. Wonderful post Brett. I am really intrigued by your outline of the forms of happiness you mention: hedonistic, rhythmic, and harmonic.

    These forms of happiness is a way can be seen as stages in life. The reckless young minds can get easily enamored with the hedonistic form. Rhythmic happiness which I think brings me the greatest feeling (as I now understand its power): popping in and out of this zone makes me appreciate life, and teaches me to learn more about who I am and what I can be. And I hope to be able to discuss harmonic happiness at some point. I do not think I am there yet, but like to think I am now ‘wise’ enough to begin nurturing this most valued form of happiness. Nirvana.

    1. Thanks, for the comment, Dalo. I didn’t think of the breakdown that way, but I can definitely sense a resonance with maturity and and the sorts of happiness we gravitate toward.

      Moreover, I think as we learn to appreciate other forms of happiness, the more basic forms are less sustaining or potent. I, too, am largely in the rhythmic stage, and while I can appreciate hedonistic happiness, it’s not nearly as meaningful. I, too, hope one day to reach a level of harmonic happiness.

  5. Pingback: What does it mean to be happy? | Welcome to the home of the POET and MASTER STORYTELLER - Thandiubani

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