Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present. – Jim Rohn

So what is happiness? What does it look like? How can we tell if we really have it? How can we get it? These questions and many more describe one of the age-old quests of humans during their lifetime. A lot has been written about happiness, but it seems that despite all the poetry, the books and talks on happiness, and the studies conducted, very few of us really actually know what it is and how to be happy. It seems elusive – always just a little out of our reach and at the same time ephemeral.

How then can we capture this quality or state of being? Can we appropriate it for ourselves once and for all? It comes to us and we grab on to it and then, suddenly it is gone again into the wind and we are left with fleeting memories of what we think we had. Some of us pursue it relentlessly. We entertain ourselves and others, we fill our agendas with activities, we chase after opportunities and exciting careers, we fill our minds with thoughts of “if only…” and we  – fill in the blank –  with our desires.

Many definitions of happiness have been put forth to help us understand what this quality or state may be. Everyone has an opinion or idea about it. For example:


“Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.” -— Ralph Waldo Emerson


We know it when we see it. We can tell by the faces of people. We can even tell, to a certain extent, by the lifelines on a person’s face whether they have generally been happy in their life. Our mothers probably even told us when we were scowling to “not make that face” or else it would freeze that way. Does anyone remember this advice? Ask many people what they want most in life and often they will say “I just want to be happy”. Songs like “Don’t worry, Be Happy” or “Happy“, among others sing of the happiness factor. So, what is the happiness factor?

The Harvard Study of Adult Development

In 1938, probably the longest ever study on happiness was started tracking the lives of 724 men over the course of 74 years. At intervals during this time period, participants were asked several questions pertaining to their health, home life work, etc.

There were two groups; one group consisting of Harvard students who subsequently went off to war and one other group of underprivileged boys from poor and troubled neighborhoods of Boston.

The main finding that came out of this study was that overwhelmingly, the main factor for happiness was, bar none, that good relationships keep us happier, healthier and longer living. They found that it was the social connections and the quality of the relationships that determined the presence of happiness.


If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” Andrew Carnegie


The Surprising Science of Happiness (TED Talk)

Dan Gilbert, in his TED Talk, called The Surprising Science of Happiness, talks about natural happiness and synthetic happiness. He says that natural happiness is “What we get when we get what we wanted” and synthetic happiness is “what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”. Dan Gilbert says that synthetic happiness is not as popular or as widely understood as natural happiness because it is not profitable for the economy. It doesn’t depend on a “buy everything now mentality”

Dan Gilbert goes on to say that freedom is the friend of natural happiness because it allows you to choose endlessly, but it is the enemy of synthetic happiness. Ultimately, we work better and are more satisfied when we are “stuck” in a situation and need to find our own solutions.


If you start to think the problem is ‘out there,’ stop yourself. That thought is the problem. – Stephen Covey


Want to Be Happier? – Stay in the Moment (TED Talk)

In his TED talk, Matt Killingsworth talks about the paradox of happiness. We expect things to bring us happiness. Today, in North America, even though living conditions and the standard of living have improved and we have better access to more things, we haven’t gotten any happier. Factors such as marital status, wealth or working status have not had a significant impact on making us happier.

Matt Killingsworth is the creator of trackyourhappiness.org, a research project, and application to track your happiness minute to minute. Essentially, it collects data with basic questions:

  • How do you feel right now?

  • What are you doing?

  • Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

Then the app users are prompted to assign an emotion or feeling to their answers.

From the data, they found that people are happiest when they were focused on the present moment than when their mind was wandering off (positive or negative). They hypothesize that it is the wandering of the mind that leads to the feeling of being less happy.


We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill


To be Happy is to Give Happy

Author and leadership speaker, Chris Brady explores this subject from another perspective. He says that a lot of us are very poor at knowing what it is that makes us happy. We have an expectation that something outside ourselves such as experiences or other people ( our spouse or children) should make us happy. We spend a lot of our energy toward trying to be happy. Many go from career to career or from relationship to relationship trying to capture happiness once and for all. The grass is always greener on the other side.

In the end, he says, the things that we think will make us happy, generally don’t and the things we don’t think will make us happy actually do.

Chris Brady talks about 4 theories of happiness (there are many more).

The first theory breaks down into four factors for happiness:

  1. Having a certain degree of control over things and events in life.
  2. Having a perceived amount of progress- the idea that we are moving forward.
  3. Having connectedness-a shared experience
  4. Having vision and meaning – a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves

The second theory put forth is Maslow theory based on meeting and fulfilling needs.

  1. Physiological needs are met (food, water, air, etc.)
  2. Safety needs are met (shelter, security)
  3. Self-esteem needs are met ( achievement, responsibility, accumulation of things such as money)
  4. Self-actualization needs are met ( creativity, morality, authenticity, etc.)

The third theory, which is very simple. states that we need:

  1. Someone to love
  2. Something to do
  3. Somewhere to go

Without these three requirements for happiness, boredom starts to kick in and we end up going down a path of destruction in an attempt to fill the void.

The fourth theory consists of three components that build on one another:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Passion
  3. Purpose

It is this last theory that Chris Brady focuses on to help us understand what happiness is. He points out that people tend to pursue pleasure as a means to an end, but these stimulating activities are only short term in the pleasure they can bring us. It doesn’t matter what the activity is. It could be extreme sports, it could be movies or other entertainment. The actual pleasure of the activity is short-lived and often will need to be repeated or repeated at greater and greater levels of stimulus to gain the same feeling.

So pleasure-seeking is really the baseline in terms of the pursuit of happiness. The next level in the pursuit would be the pursuit of a passion. This is where our individual talents and gifts line up with our interests. It is no longer about seeking pleasure for the sake of something exciting to do, but it is more about diving into projects, goals, limit breaking. It is about being in the zone, completely absorbed by what we are doing, doing it because we love to do it no matter how much work is involved.

The purpose is the third level in this theory where we are involved in a movement a reason outside of and greater than ourselves. We are pursuing a higher calling where it is no longer about what we want or about our goals, but about making an impact and leaving a legacy.

If we begin our pursuit of happiness at the level of seeking pleasure, it is highly unlikely that we will get very far. We will get stuck in the cycle of chasing the next thing and the next thing which is always temporal and fleeting. The happiest people are those who feel called to do something or be part of something bigger than themselves. They find within this greater purpose a place to discover and pursue their passions and, ultimately find pleasure and happiness in doing so.

Happiness Vs. Unhappiness

It there is such a thing as happiness, there is also unhappiness. If happiness depends on things such as our ability to live in the present, connect with others, sustain quality relationships, and have purpose and meaning in our lives, then it would make sense that unhappiness is the absence of these. Happiness it appears depends on the degree of our willingness to move away from our own desires, problems, situations and be outward focused. It depends on us being other-focused.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Chris Brady’s talk is called “The Only Way o Be happy Is to give Happy”. In the end, that is really what it is all about, isn’t it? We reap what we sow and if we sow happiness, we will also reap happiness in good measure. Unhappiness is really a result of being too focused on ourselves and our problems. the more inward we turn, the less connected and relational we will be and the less happy we will be.

In his talk, Chris Brady highlights the importance of serving others as the key to being happy which is why he favors the last of the four theories. Happiness finds its presence when we have a purpose for our life. When we are working and living within the framework of a greater goal and vision while pursuing our passion and utilizing our natural gifts and talents then happiness will be a natural byproduct. We won’t time to spend moping around and focusing on our own misery. He emphasizes that ultimately, it is joy, that should prevail whether or not we are “happy” at any given moment.


Live with intention. Walk to the edge. Listen hard. Practice wellness. Play with abandon. Laugh. Choose with no regret. Do what you love. Live as if this is all there is.” Mary Anne Roadacher-Hershey


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Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, living a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. You can connect with her through Livingandstuff.ca