We all want to be happy, but are actually very confused about it. Here is how we break it down.

Feelings V Happiness

In order to think about our own happiness, we need to consider what happiness means for us. This isn't universal, but highly subjective and personal. Within our own framework, most of us haven't even considered what it means for us. The answers aren't always obvious.

For example, you might think about it and define your happiness as

  • having a career that allows you personal growth

  • having enough money to live comfortably enough

  • having a loving family

  • being fit and healthy

  • having a good social life with some close friends

This is just an example - you may reject some of these things, you may add others - it is very personal. But let's consider somebody for whom happiness is defined this way. If you ask them now, "are you happy?", they might consider the list they've just written, and answer, YES. I have all of those things, and, when I think about this, I'm pretty happy. Great.

Now let's go back in time one week, when this same person had semi-welcome house guests and felt terribly crowded and encroached upon. They slept badly that week, and struggled to get on well with people at work. They worked more slowly than usual, which meant having to catch up in some evenings, missing out on precious rest and relaxation, getting to the weekend too exhausted to really enjoy it.

If you observed the person at that time, you'd probably conclude they weren't very happy. They were stressed and in a bad mood. If you stopped and asked them, they'd likely tell you "I'm not very happy right now". That week, they likely didn't feel happy. Without thinking about it, they lived through each day, not achieving this nirvana we call happiness.

Yet, on the criteria above, they should have been just as happy as any other week. Their career, family life, social life - the things that really matter to them - were all fine. And here we see the confusion that normally arises for most people - we confuse how we feel with our state of happiness. They are not one and the same thing.

That is to say, there are two fairly separate discussions we could have. One is around what we believe constitutes happiness for us, and whether we are in that circumstance at present. This is a dispassionate, almost purely intellectual discussion; it does not vary day-to-day. The second is how we are feeling. Here we are more observing than rationalising. It can change literally from minute to minute, and is driven by myriad random events that happen in our lives each day. That is not to say we cannot manage our emotions - this is another blog post altogether - but this is a different process. Our happiness, therefore, is something that should be viewed as more static - it can change, but over far longer time horizons - a straight line, with our "emotion curve" oscillating up and down around it.

How we feel at any moment is more a function of the latter - we feel bad because something locally bad has happened. But if we step outside ourselves, we are in fact still "globally happy" - our checkbox is fully ticked - we're just not feeling amazing right now. This is a very important perspective to maintain, the ability to separate happiness from emotional volatility; and acknowledge we are still happy, even though we may not be feeling great right now.

State Of Happiness

The first thing to attack is what happiness actually is. This is obviously very subjective, but one useful suggestion is that happiness is actually a lack of something. To wit, a lack of problems.

Think back to periods in your life when things have been rolling along ok. Work was going fine, family life, social life. You generally felt pretty ok with the world, and would probably have referred to yourself at that time as "happy". Note, that this did not involve winning the lottery or launching a manned mission to Mars. It is simply the case that, when nothing is materially wrong, we feel quite happy with life.

This is a relatively profound notion, because most of us, if asked, would associate happiness with a positive - I'll be happy if I get a promotion; I'll be happy if I make $ 1mn; I'll be happy if I find the partner of my dreams.

But, as discussed below, a lot of those things are drivers which are ephemeral in nature. They will cause a positive emotion for a certain period of time; but they will not necessarily affect your overall level of happiness. Happiness can be viewed as a lack of negative developments in your personal prioritised areas. It speaks to how we perceive happiness, and how we generate it - it is more about removing negatives, than creating positives.

Internal And External Drivers

Another thing to consider is how we perceive internal and external emotional stimuli. Here it is very useful to borrow from Buddhist teachings, which differentiate between those things the world imposes on you, which you cannot control; and those things which you impose on yourself, which you can.

So for example, you get home, tired and hungry after a long day. As you step through the door, your partner bombards you with their news and trivial problems. Your children have managed to block one of your toilets, which you'll have the pleasure of dealing with at some point. You do your best to tune out as you cobble together some food. Inside you are worried about a row you had with your manager today, and fretting over a promotion that may be veering away from you.

How are you feeling?

Probably not great. But here's the not-so-secret secret fact - from what life has to offer you, this is pretty much par for the course. In reality, these type of things will happen frequently. So will nice things - a seat on the train, an unexpected pay rise, a huge deal. All of these, nice or less nice, are to some extent outside your control. Imagine you are pitching for a new client. The deal is huge, and will make your year if you win it. You work day and night in preparation. The big day comes, you pitch, and go home that night, waiting for an answer the next day. From this point on, the outcome is outside of your control. You have done what you can - you controlled the bit you could control. A positive answer, and you'll feel like a master of the universe. A negative one, and you'll feel hopeless. Every day, the world brings you stimuli outside of your control that affect your emotion.