Defining Happiness

This is the second of two posts on the question of happiness.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence is among its most remembered words. Embedded within this sentence is a statement of human rights and of natural law. It is a summary of why America was declaring her independence, even at the cost of war. There are many potential topics of discussion from this sentence that have been examined by philosophers, historians, and political scientists.  Of particular interest to myself, as a psychologist, is the “unalienable Right(s)…the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of happiness has been a large part of the human and, in particular, the American experience. We seek to capture it when we don’t have it. Grasp it when it seems before us. And hold onto it when it appears to slip away. We style our families, leisure activities, and careers to accrue as much happiness as possible. There is very little doubt that pursuing happiness is of high, if not highest, importance in our society. The problem therein is two-fold: One, we unwittingly utilize multiple definitions of happiness. Two, regardless of how we define happiness, we do not know what would be useful to pursue to attain it.

This post will focus on the first problem of defining happiness. Happiness is a common word that even our young children know and understand. It, however, can be defined in at least two related, but distinct, concepts. To help explain I will utilize nomenclature developed by others.  There is what can be called Level I happiness. This is the emotional, affective portion of happiness and is, by nature, typically temporary and fleeting. This can be encapsulated with the internal feeling of happiness, and the typical external representation of a smile.

The second type, which we will call Level II happiness, has to do with a more broad sense of happiness. Level II happiness has more of a “satisfaction with life” sense to it. How satisfied (or happy) are you with your current life? How satisfied are you with your past? How satisfied are you with your future options?  This conceptualization of happiness has a more global nature than Level I happiness.

Level I and Level II happiness are interrelated. They are, however, also distinct from one another. We could imagine a person, who has lived a rather unpleasant, unsatisfying life (low Level II) still enjoying the emotion of happiness and even joy (high Level I), or vice-versa.

To further complicate the issue, psychologists and philosophers also discuss a Level III happiness. Level III happiness is perhaps best summarized by the Greek term eudaimoniaEudaimonia is Aristotle’s equivalent to happiness, and it can be defined as “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

A life well-lived from this perspective is filled with activities that promote virtues, often times at the cost of wealth, honor, and power. This type of happiness is neither an emotion (Level I) nor a general satisfaction with one’s life (Level II).  Happiness from this perspective is virtuous activity. I summarize this for students as “Do good. Do it well.”

Now, back to the opening quote from the Declaration of Independence, “unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To many people in America today, this implies the individual’s unalienable right to be, do, or gain whatever they may desire (with the typical caveat of not impinging on the same right in others).  Our Founding Fathers, however, would likely disagree with this interpretation.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The order of nature [is] that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue.” John Adams stated, “The happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.”

To better understand our right to the pursuit of happiness, we should examine Greek philosophy like the Founding Fathers did. Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, makes the argument that the just man is happier than the unjust man. Socrates also highlights the characteristics of the good society, which are later called the four cardinal virtues by philosophers and Christian theologians alike: temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. Aristotle’s aforementioned eudaimonia, or happiness, is explicitly linked to the exercise of virtue.  From these perspectives, happiness is inseparable from virtue.

What, then, does this understanding of happiness mean for the current American citizen today? How does this change how we should pursue happiness? How does this substantial shift in defining happiness change how we live?

John Lu is Associate Professor of Psychology at Concordia University Irvine