Understanding Happiness

understanding happiness

Happy. We use this word as though happy is a goal unto itself. An elusive objective, indeed.

The meanings of happiness and pleasure are used interchangeably in our world. Happiness and pleasure are not the same concept and to think so is dangerous. Pleasure seeking will not bring us happiness. Conversely, happiness is rarely found in pleasant activities, or activities designed to avoid pain or hardship.

In the dictionary, the word ‘happy” has sparse company along with its root word, hap, meaning luck, fortune, chance or an occurrence. Happiness, happen, hapless, haply, happenstance are happy’s only companions. From its original Old English roots, happy relates to having good luck or fortune.

Our American idea of “the pursuit of happiness” pertains to the right to participate in activities that bring us good fortune. It is about the right to keep our life moving in a positive direction. Our forefathers saw the “pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right. We have the right, and the corresponding responsibility, to take advantage of the circumstances that “happen” to come our way. We have the right to make events happen in our lives. We have the right to search for our luck, or as we say nowadays, follow our bliss.

As we go after the ‘hap’ in our lives, it is not guaranteed to be pleasurable.

As we follow our bliss in the pursuit of happiness, we are energized as we work in the direction of our dreams. When we are fully engaged in activities that are purposeful to our pursuit of happiness, we experience a feeling of being connected to something larger than ourselves. Obstacles and hardships are endured and overcome as part of the journey.

These experiences of being fully engaged create happiness.

The completion of a meaningful task brings us pleasure and confidence to choose the next thing to “happen” to us. In the words of Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”

True pleasure is the end product of choosing activities and successfully completing tasks that give meaning to our lives. Trying to recreate this “natural high” feeling of satisfaction and purpose without the corresponding activity or work can create addictive behaviors. The abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex, or food to simulate satisfaction can tragically lead to a downward spiral of pleasure seeking that separates a person from the ability to choose what “happens” in his or her life. Addictive behavior ultimately destroys a person’s ability to pursue happiness.

What does this pursuit of happiness mean to us as we work with our children?

We need to help our children learn that positively participating in their lives by making choices and taking full responsibility for those choices is the path to happiness. We need to help our children see the “hap” or luck inherent in each situation, and help our children learn to have the skills and confidence to follow those opportunities.

Let’s show our children that it is not the pursuit of pleasure but the enthusiastic participation in activities that fully engage us that brings enduring happiness. Happiness is not about feeling good all the time. It is about choosing to do good with the opportunities we happen to have. Happiness is about having the right and responsibility to make life happen.

6 Responses to “Understanding Happiness”

  1. Really excellent education about pleasure and happiness. Just what I needed to read! Thank you for your good writing and important thinking.

  2. Marge Ellison

    Thank you, Maren … this is one of my favorite of your articles. It helps us understand how we often misuse words whose meanings are anchored deep in history. Our protected right to the “pursuit of happiness” as you so importantly indicate, refers to opportunities, not a state of bliss each moment of the day. Overprotective, helicopter parents have a great need to understand that concept so children may have the opportunity to fail occasionally.

    • Marge,

      I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

      “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” – Albert Schweitzer

  3. Vidya Shankar

    Wonderful article, am sharing with our families and staff. Especially the part about what we think when we are pursuing happiness within and for our children.


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