What is "happy"?
May 4, 2006 12:07 PM   Subscribe

What is "happiness"?

I went through a pretty rough couple of days this week, what with the dark pit of depression sneaking up on me. And it caused me to wonder, what is this "happy" that people claim to possess? I can identify my depression once it hits the obsessive wrist-slitting thoughts, but that's a damn scary place to be.

How can I better identify the state of my brain and take care of myself before things get to a bad point? I think one of my bigger problems is that I don't have any "normalcy metric" by which to judge... I'm so seldom what I think others would call "happy" that I don't really recognize its absence. But maybe only a gifted few are happy, and the rest of us just trudge through life bearing it all as best as possible?

This isn't a well-focused question, mainly because I'm not entirely sure what it is I need, other than some understanding as to how your brains "feel" both in ordinary boring day-to-day life, and when you are particularly happy.
posted by five fresh fish to Health & Fitness (82 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Happiness is a Warm Puppy.
posted by Rash at 12:09 PM on May 4, 2006

Well philosophically, if you wish to take the Aristotle take -- happines can only be judged by a dead man. That is you might be happy today with your Maserati and model girlfriend, but if you spend the next 50 years in a concentration camp you can't be said to be more happy. There's also the concept that because of this, women and the crippled or sick cannot be happy (due to their imperfect form). The basic idea of happiness though, as in "pursuit of happiness" stems from this.
posted by geoff. at 12:14 PM on May 4, 2006

I suppose it's probably all just the right balance of neurotransmitters.
posted by borkingchikapa at 12:15 PM on May 4, 2006

Let's see. I wake up in the morning and look forward to the day. If it's a work day and I don't feel like working, I still think "My job's a little tedious now and then, but it's not so bad, and I have fun plans at the end of the day."

At any point during the day, if I stop to think about it, I'll usually smile and think "Gee, my life is pretty good."

Once in a while I'm beset by what I consider depression. On those days I feel like I'm no good, my life is a waste, nothing is worth doing, and no one likes me. I don't usually feel that way, so it's usually a little bit of a surprise when I catch myself feeling like that.
posted by agropyron at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2006

I don't think I've ever been what 'happy' is portrayed as on television and in the movies. I'm never jumping for joy or smiling for no reason, etc.

Happy is different for all of us.

I'd say I know I'm 'happy' when I'm not crying. When the thought of going to work doesn't make me thing of any possible excuse to get out of going to work. When I look forward to seeing my girlfriend/the cats/a friend, etc. When I don't have 'dark thoughts'.

I guess, for me, I'd replace 'happy' with 'content'. And yes, there is a difference. But I think content is more long-lasting and more of a state of mind/being than happy. Happy is occasional and brought on by something.

Does that make sense?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2006


But seriously, what is normal anyway? I think life is supposed to have ups and downs, there is no constant "happy" emotion. There are things to be happy about, and those things are different for different people. Finding those things can be difficult at times & you might need help, and what kind of help you should also varies from person to person.
Basically, if you're having more bad days than good - something isn't right. Life shouldn't be that hard & you shouldn't have to feel like you're just trudging through. It takes effort to find happiness, and a change in your way you view the world sometimes - NOT an easy task.
Sorry, wish I had a better answer. I've felt the same way too.
posted by Alpenglow at 12:17 PM on May 4, 2006

One theory (forget where I heard it) is that happiness is what you feel when you think things are getting better. People can be happy under pretty awful circumstances - the key is that they think life is improving, not that it's great.

Conversely, if life is OK by objective standards but doesn't seem to be going anywhere, you probably won't feel very happy. Think about all the affluent people who feel depressed all the time. Maybe that's because when you already have everything, it's hard to improve your life. At least, in things that money can buy.
posted by Quietgal at 12:23 PM on May 4, 2006

This is more "what happiness isn't/what isn't happiness," but there are mood/depression inventories/checklists (meant to be taken frequently, not just once) you could seek out that might be useful. (Offhand, I know there is one in The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:24 PM on May 4, 2006

Happiness is having a moment that you wish you could stretch out for an eternity and stay in forever.

Wow that was mushy.
posted by patr1ck at 12:25 PM on May 4, 2006

maslow, yo.
posted by kcm at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2006

A mix of what Quietgal and agropyron said, really. I'd say my life is generally happy when I have something to look forward to and when I know I can surmount the tedious and frustrating. When I feel like I have a destination that I will enjoy, a destination that makes the annoying stuff worthwhile. For instance, taking up competitive swimming has made my life about a million times happier: I have a set of goals (and plenty of new ones whenever one is achieved); I look forward to practice, and even when I don't, I have reasons to still go (friends + endorphins + goals).
posted by dame at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2006

Good thread -- but be careful....it might get pulled.

As for depressive symtoms look at the non-emotional aspects of depression: lethargic feelings, poor sleep (either too much or not sleeping well enough), weight gain or appetite changes.
posted by skepticallypleased at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2006

Happiness is fleeting. No one lives in a state of bliss: that's for movies and television spots.

As for managing ups and downs, over time, in my experience, you get to a point where you can feel the onset of a crash or a high - for me, it's rising irritability, followed by a nice cold bath of depression that lasts anywhere from 24 hours to a week. The highs are sudden, and frankly, just as annoying as the lows. But if your symptoms are mild enough for you to ride, well, you'll learn to ride them out. If that sounds like too much to handle, then it's time to talk to a pro - don't hesitate to do that - it helped me get a handle on my own little roller coaster.

One last piece of advice: find something that is yours and yours alone, be it painting, running, writing, whatever - it'll give you some solace whenever everything else feels like it's going to fall apart.

Hang in there. And don't let the popular myth of a life of happiness make you believe that you're missing out on anything. It's an evil lie.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 12:35 PM on May 4, 2006

As someone who's struggled with depression, I would say that happiness is, for me, feeling "connected" with another person--knowing that the other person knows exactly how I feel and I know exactly how the other person feels, and we feel the same. I guess that's because for me, depression is loneliness. They're synonymous.

E.M. Forster: Only connect.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 12:35 PM on May 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

I agree with Alpenglow that life is supposed to be an ebb and flow. I was profoundly, suicidally depressed for 30 years. I had happy moments, but most of my life was spent waking up and a having a feeling of despair rush in. That's different now. Meds. I wish I had some story about a deep insight I had. But I took Paxil and two weeks later I felt reborn. Now, over the years, my moods have ebbed and flowed, teetering on the darker side. But, because I had that experience, since I felt "content", "happy", "grateful", all feelings I had never experienced before, I became much better at identifying the early warning signals to a crash. I knew what the absence of joy meant. I knew that living in that was not good, and it meant I needed to see the headshrinker and adjust meds. Prior to experiencing good feelings, I had no way of recognizing that things were getting worse.

Now for a more direct answer to the question. Happiness is a sense of well-being, a sense of connection to the world. For me, it was a feeling that my soul filled up into my body, and I could feel things more intensely, even physical sensation is heightened. Touch, sounds, vision. Still, it's a fleeting thing. I agree that "content" is the best emotion. I like it. Happiness is a little too intense for me over too prolongued a period. Stasis is what I strive for.
posted by generic230 at 12:43 PM on May 4, 2006

...how your brains "feel" both in ordinary boring day-to-day life, and when you are particularly happy

w/r/t the latter, I would point to the feeling I get when I unexpectedly hear the beginning (or I guess any recognizable part) of a song I really like.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:44 PM on May 4, 2006

"A warm gun" -John Lennon

pretty sure this will get edited.
posted by Gungho at 12:45 PM on May 4, 2006

happiness is not a warm anything. it is a cold beer.
posted by jonmc at 12:47 PM on May 4, 2006

"How can I better identify the state of my brain and take care of myself before things get to a bad point? "

It's my understanding that this is exactly the sort of question that cognitive-behavioral therapy helps patients answer. And I mean exactly. You might want to talk to a therapist.

I'm not saying this in a reflexive he-mentioned-suicide-gotta-tell-him-to-talk-to-a-shrink way; I seriously think it's the best way to find an answer to your question.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:48 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: So far, no good answers. I'm wanting to know what it feels like.

Right now, I'm feeling bummed. If there's any expression on my face, it's probably sullen. I feel like hiding. I don't feel like doing anything productive. I dread the idea of going outside. I'm a little hungry, but I don't want to eat. My brain feels foggy. I'd like to have a nap, but it wouldn't accomplish a thing. I've got a bajillion things to do, and it's all too much to even begin getting a toehold on it all. Yesterday was bad: I was wholly incompetent at everything I tried to do, and I kept having annoying thoughts of self-harm.

Most of my life is lived in a null emotional state: I don't feel particularly happy or sad or excited or disappointed or anything. I attribute this to the meds, but I'm okay with it for now: it's better than being exclusively depressed.

I know I've had happy moments, but they seldom last long and I inevitably forget what it feels like. Which I think probably makes it really damn hard to feel it in the first place.

Anyway, what I'm wanting to read is going to look more like what I've just written than what others have written already. There must be a way to describe what happiness feels like, so that maybe I'll start to recognize it again.

Yes, I'll be getting a doctor's appointment and checking into a meds change. Something has gone wrong and I'd like it fixed. It's probably time to get a referral to someone who really has expertise in the field.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:49 PM on May 4, 2006

I'm generally pretty cheerful. I scored a 4 or something on that depression test posted here a while back when other people were reporting scores of 36 or whatever.
Pretty cheerful for me means: I'll find myself humming to myself, I'll smile absent-mindedly at amusing thoughts while walking down the street, I'll be looking forward to getting to work/the bar/the restaurant/the movie, I'll find it easy to laugh and generally think things are going well and life is good. When I undergo setbacks, I can laugh them off.

Like agropyron, now and then I get bummed out - like, say, the last few weeks - and then it seems almost bizarre to me how I can't shake the sad feeling and I just want to sit alone and cry and feel sorry for myself. (Often, it turns out to be the time of the month and when I realize that, my spirits generally lift.) I'm in that zone now due to a confluence of personal troubles all piling up at once, but it's so very rare that I'm assuming it will lift soon. I was actually thinking to myself yesterday, "is this how depressed people feel all the time?"
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:56 PM on May 4, 2006

I would describe 'happiness' as the mental state of least dissonance.
posted by Gyan at 12:57 PM on May 4, 2006

I can't believe that the recent hooha around Martin Seligmann and his predecessors' work into the psychology of happiness has passed you by. Google him and Cszikentmihalyi (sp?) They've been getting a lot of press in the last 5 years or so.

But briefly, their thinking is that happiness, in the sense of lasting contentment, rather than transient pleasure, is:
- a consequence of the regular experience of "flow", ie engrossing engagement with a challenging but masterable activity
- a consequence of a learned or innate optimistic outlook
- something that you can learn or at least get closer too through the regular practise of contemplation, flow-inducing activities, positive self-talk, learned optimism, and the practise of gratitude.

You say you can identify depression once you've reached the wrist-slitting stage. Mmm, maybe that's because it's obvious then. Maybe if you took a little time for contemplation regularly you would spot the signs sooner.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:57 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: Holy crow, a half-dozen new messages in the time it took me to write that. Some of them are getting closer to helping, thanks.

CBT is on the table. I'm tired of this depression bullshit.

If "content" is the goal, is this a feeling comparable to the permeating wave of relaxation and "just beingness" that I get when I smoke pot? It's a nearly overwhelming sensation of relief from internal pressures that I'm normally not even aware of (much like when the fridge or furnace stops running and the silence emphasises how irritating it was on a subconscious level.)

A cold beer on a sunny patio overlooking the lake would result in much the same feeling. Wanna hit the pub, jon?
posted by five fresh fish at 12:58 PM on May 4, 2006

FFF, I can tell you that for me, happiness makes me feel literally, lighter. Sure, I know I am only figuratively lighter, but that's not how I feel. I walk faster, no matter my destination, and I really notice and enjoy the trip. It becomes a cycle to some extent. When I am happier, I see more things that make me happy.

Lately, things have been great except for the work front (I can relate to agro on that point) and when I am in this state, I feel like I might emit light!

It's a great fucking feeling, I can say that much. Here's an example of one of my better moments.
posted by Richat at 12:59 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: Richat: hey, I've had moments like that with my friends' kids. I know that feeling!

It's damnably rare in my life. Or so it seems today.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:01 PM on May 4, 2006

The best answer I can come up with is this: C. S. Lewis used to say that heaven is only embracing the fact that everything that you've ever experienced, every mistake, every pain, every blunder, and know that it leads ineluctably to the moment you're in right now. (He also seemed to think that hell was the affirmed suspicion that there really was no reason, after all.) Nietzsche seemed to say a similar thing when he asked if any of us could choose the exact same life we're living, over and over again, extended infinitely.

We're not gods, and we're not bare material. We have power, but we have limits. Happiness is in accepting those limits, but accepting limits also means pushing yourself up to them. We all die, but we can try to extend the enjoyable part of our lives by being healthy; none of us can live forever, but we can experience something of infinitude by taking in the whole world around us, by loving and by experiencing friendship; we cannot be reborn, but we can have children. Happiness might be in realizing that the limits aren't quite as limiting as we usually assume.

We can't be prepared for what every day will bring. We can't reach such an extreme state of wisdom or knowledge that nothing will disturb us or torment us. Those are some of the limits on humans. But even torment can turn to joy if we see notice that it has an end; that's one of our powers as humans.
posted by koeselitz at 1:10 PM on May 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

You know, I think happiness really only happens in blips. It isn't a steady state...I would describe a steady state of well-being as contentment. Happiness, I think, is more like surprise or shock, in that it is momentary, and usually happens in response to something specific. It's a warm electric glow mixed with a sort of obliviousness toward everything other than the thing that is being reacted to. And that obliviousness means that it would not be good to be in a steady state of happiness. Indeed, when people chase happiness it often involves an attempt to escape reality, whether by immersing oneself in music or drinking or whatnot. But contentment is not achieved in the same way. I think contentment depends on understanding and accepting the reality of your condition. It doesn't mean that you'll remain stagnant, but even while you're working toward whatever goals you're working toward, you're satisfied with where you are in the moment.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:10 PM on May 4, 2006

I have been in the place you describe. I have also been quite happy.

This is all going to sound cheesy, but it's the best way I remember the feeling. It like a glorious swelling in your chest, like something's going to burst. Everything in the world is golden and shining. The bus may be coming late, the rain may be coming down, but instead of it hurting your mood you see it as an opportunity to breathe in the smell of a wet summer day and get your bearings. Every step you rejoice at your ability to walk, your ability to see, the sun in the sky and the beauty of things around you. You smile at people when you walk by them, not because you're trying to be polite but because you genuinely just feel like smiling. It's the feeling you get when a long-term investment of your time or money or emotions has paid off. It's wanting to get up in the morning--not hating sleeping in, just knowing that you're going to have to get up but not having any problem with it.

And you do feel lighter. You feel better about yourself and other people. You can brush of the negatives easily and the positives only serve to accentuate your mood.

It's a very good place to be. Thank God, it is like depression in that once you're there it's hard to move from it. I wish I was there more often.
posted by Anonymous at 1:16 PM on May 4, 2006

Okay, to me happiness feels like anticipation of something I know I will enjoy.
posted by dame at 1:20 PM on May 4, 2006

But unlike others here, it doesn't make people less annoying.
posted by dame at 1:21 PM on May 4, 2006

I think there are two types of happiness that I experience:

1. Momentary happiness - For example, yesterday at around 3 o'clock, I was walking through a row of cubicles at work and realized that a new episode of Lost was going to be on TV. I was so happy that I skipped back to my desk without realizing it. I must have looked like a gigantic tool, skipping through the office, grinning. At that moment it felt like my heart jumped and I was smiling uncontrollably. My body tensed up a little and I felt the need to jump up and down. Then I got back to work and the feeling passed.

2. Overall Happiness - This is kind of like the content feeling that other people have mentioned. I was eating dinner with my family and my fiancee's family this weekend and I realized that I was surrounded by people who I love, who love me and who love each other. It was a wonderful, peaceful feeling, all my muscles were relaxed, my mind was quiet and I was completely at ease. This feeling has stayed with me since the weekend.

I think everyone experiences happiness in different ways. This is just my experience with it.
posted by elvissa at 1:22 PM on May 4, 2006

I think happiness feels like excitement over something good to come, satisfaction in a good thing you have, and/or confidence that after that good thing comes, there will be other good things coming eventually, too.

I think when folks think of themselves as generally happy, it's because they have triggers for those good things. Like when you're driving home after a long day and it hits you that what you really want when you get home is a root beer. And you know there's one that's been in the fridge for months, and you can have it as soon as you get home. And you get home, and you have that root beer, and it's exactly what you expected. You wanted it, you got it, and you know that if this ever happens again, you can have another root beer.

I also find that there's a sense of happines in a pursuit when
I want something,
I know what it is I want,
and I know how to go about getting it for myself.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 1:24 PM on May 4, 2006

I should mention, the root beer was fantastic.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 1:25 PM on May 4, 2006

For me, happiness is the mood where I can perceive beauty and good and charming things. When I'm happy, I see beauty in things, whether it's the sky or chipmunks or small children or people with green hair and multiple piercings. I see little things and they fascinate me. When I'm depressed, everything annoys me.
posted by Jeanne at 1:29 PM on May 4, 2006

Flow: there's something to that.

I'm generally a happy person but there's nothing like the sensation of "getting into the zone". It's a meditative, trance-like experience, but rather than a passive rest state, it's an active mental or physical activity. Anything can induce flow for me: a long task at work, driving a car, riding a bike, building a deck.

Your mind clears of distractions, you focus and go. Flow.
posted by bonehead at 1:29 PM on May 4, 2006

I agree with the perception observation too: when "in the zone" perceptions become sharper, felling more intense and colours brighter. Everything delights.
posted by bonehead at 1:30 PM on May 4, 2006

In 1992, psychiatrist Richard Bentall suggested that happiness is a psychiatric disorder (warning: PDF). Tongue-in-cheek, but compelling.
posted by j-dawg at 1:54 PM on May 4, 2006

Instead of using the word happiness, because it seems to vary between joy/ecstasy and contentment, i will use the term, "not unbearably depressed."

And this is what happens when I am not unbearably depressed: I have something that i want to do, that I will be able to do now or soon. It's a desire, productivity, purpose, belonging to a reason. It might be as small as looking forward to an item of food, or as deep and wonderful as creating a piece of art in a satisfying manner. The whole thing is that I want to do it, and it's available to me. (Unlike travelling the world, having hot sex with Johnny Depp or putting an extension on my house - these things I might want, but are not available. It is also unlike reading War & Peace, eating hot beetroot, or cleaning the toilet - these things are available to me, but I do not desire to do them.)
posted by b33j at 1:54 PM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you believe Denis Leary....

Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It's a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT'S IT! End of fucking list!

...that's happiness. I'm not as bleak as that, but I do believe that "happiness" is indeed a fleeting thing - not that when I'm not, say, eating a cookie I'm not happy, I'm just...content.

Happiness, to me, is definitely a feeling - lightness, as some have said here, flow, as others said; whatever you call it, it's definitely palpable. In my experience, it comes from within, not from without; it definitely makes your day brighter.

You don't have a "normalcy metric" because there isn't one. Life is not an equation to be solved, it's an experience-driven thing that is to be, at times, endured, savored, and questioned. I've always thought it a fruitless quest to try to find a defined "normal" - normal is whatever you want it to be.

How can I better identify the state of my brain and take care of myself before things get to a bad point?

The first thing you can do is realize that you're probably overthinking the "happiness" thing. It's not a binary situation - just because you don't feel "happy" you are not necessarily on a downslide into the dark pit in which you occasionally find yourself. There are many states in between happiness and dark-pitness, and most of them are OK places to be.
posted by pdb at 1:54 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: These latest answers are exactly what I was looking for. A few of them bring back to mind memories of those feelings and the situations in which I felt them.

And I'm hearing that most of you experience these moments only occassionally. So that's interesting to me, too. It could be my wife has been a bad example all these years: until lately, she's been almost unnervingly happy. She's one of those nice, sparkly, merry people who thrive on being alive.

Thanks for the perspectives, all. I'm beginning to see that the identifiers aren't so much "happy" versus "sad" but "rational" versus "irrational." I need to better recognize when I'm irrationally morose.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:15 PM on May 4, 2006

It's not an accident that you can't remember being happy.

You know how you can study while listening to a particular piece of music, and then listening to that music will remind you what you learned? It's because you encoded your memory with the sound. It turns out that memory is also encoded in emotions.

So when you're unhappy, you have an easier time recalling unhappy memories, and you actually have more trouble accessing happy memories. And vica versa. This is why depression is so powerful and self-reinforcing -- it makes it diffcult for your brain to remember another state of being.

My understanding of CBT is limited, but I think it essentially teaches your brain to overcome this emotional memory encoding issue.

Best of luck, fff. I know something of what's you're describing, and it's a tough place to live.
posted by equipoise at 2:49 PM on May 4, 2006

I spend a lot of time pondering happiness (and how it relates to mental performance) as well, and I resonate with much of what has been said above on its definition and nature.

I bookmarked an article on a happiness a number of months ago that you may find interesting.
posted by Edge100x at 2:51 PM on May 4, 2006

I also feel several kinds of happiness that can run together.

Are happiness and joy the same thing? Over the past couple of years I've noticed these moments of what I call joy. I'm walking down the street in New York, or what have you, and all of a sudden I just feel so good that I smile for no other reason. It's like the greatest thing in the world to just be alive in that place and that moment. The moment can be very fleeting, or it can last for a while. As to how it physically feels, I do feel a lightness in my chest. It feels very GOOD--at the risk of being crude, it really feels similar to what the rest of the body feels like just prior to an orgasm.

Others have mentioned the warm puppy cliche...maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I have the Peanuts "Happiness is..." calendar on my wall. (FYI, this month, happiness is a blow-dry hairdo). When I was in high school I was in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and it was hard for me not to tear up during "Happiness" ...which lists small pleasures from "two kinds of ice cream" to "singing together when day is through...and those who sing with you." I always related to it, though it's so sticky sweet, but it basically just means that it's the small things. Anytime one thinks to oneself, "this is why I do the rest of my life," that's happiness.

There's also a more "at peace" moment of happiness that sometimes comes when I'm thinking about my life as a whole. I like my apartment, I love my partner, I have a job I enjoy, and there's reason to believe good things will keep on happening. It feels calm, like nothing's wrong.

It's weird...I never considered myself unhappy or depressed, and always knew I was lucky. But I never really understood happiness until a couple of years ago. It never occurred to me it was something I needed to learn--but it's not innate, I don't think, happiness. Finally, I think the feeling of happiness and the feeling of freedom feel similar.
posted by lampoil at 3:01 PM on May 4, 2006

At this site http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2006/04/the_happiness_formul.html ther is what purports to be a scientific study of the nature of happiness.
posted by Postroad at 3:31 PM on May 4, 2006

Eric Burdon is not dead!
posted by jacobjacobs at 3:34 PM on May 4, 2006

When I'm happy, I absolutely can't remember what it's really like to feel depressed.

When I'm depressed, I am certain that I've never, ever, felt happy within my entire life.

Like pdb said, emotions are not a binary on/off thing -- there are plenty of states inbetween, and you can make yourself comfortable with most of them. As long as a depression is only sort of a vague memory, I figure I'm doing all right.

My happiness feels like: the sun busting through the clouds, a church full of the sounds of echoing brass music, a sunny day and a bike ride when I can keep riding but never get tired. I also say WOOHOO! a lot (for real).
posted by oldtimey at 3:35 PM on May 4, 2006

From an email signature of a coworker:

"Happiness is like peeing your pants: everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth".
posted by blindcarboncopy at 3:37 PM on May 4, 2006

Nobody is "happy" all the time.

There's momentary happiness, and there's general happiness, and they're two very different things.

Momentary happiness is a current state of emotion that is positive -- maybe you're watching a movie that makes you happy, or looking at a cute puppy, or talking to a person whose company you enjoy.

General happiness is more of an over time average. General happiness is achieved by a variety of things -- most importantly, though: gaining perspective on what contentment and happiness mean to you, and perhaps adjusting your perspective.

In my now seemingly distant past, I had some pretty rough years, and was decidedly not happy. Sure, I had some bad things happen in my life back in those times, but I was also unhappy when things were probably "ok" or even "good".

In the past several years, however, I'd call myself happy. I've probably gone through more difficult times in my past 4 or 5 years than I did back when I was unhappy -- but my ability to deal with it and keep going on is what the difference is. I handle stress and adversity better now than I did then, and I value the little things that I never used to notice before.

It sounds ridiculously simple and cliche, but the big change is that I truly find happiness in looking at the things I have more often than I used to, rather than only focusing on the things I don't have.

I guess happiness is in some sense a perspective...
posted by twiggy at 3:47 PM on May 4, 2006

I think of happiness as a sort of baseline position, independent of big crazy highs of Something Wonderful happening:

Happy is when nothing is really bothering me. If I'm not worrying about something that I screwed up, or worrying about something that needs doing but that I don't want to do, I'm generally happy. I could say happiness is contentedness + optimism.

I get a little depressed sometimes, though thankfully it rarely outlives a single day—usually it corresponds with me being tired, or under the weather, or maybe just sort of exhausted after some manic creative project has sort of slowed down or been accomplished. That sort of malaise, depression, useless do-nothingness, is decidedly Not Happy, and I suppose I think of baseline happiness as being the absence of anything like that.

There are also Something Awesome moments of elevated happiness, and the quiet happiness of being with or thinking about my wife, but those are, again, sort of above the baseline of basically Being Pretty Okay.

Happiness is the absence of unhappy feelings, and the general feeling that things are going to continue being okay.
posted by cortex at 4:00 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: Y'know, I'm not so depressed now. Reading others' experiences of happiness helped me remember times when I have been happy. That, in turn, helped lift me out of my funk.

I'm not going to mark any "best answers," because I found all of them to be helpful in one way or another.

Thanks, everyone. You really helped me today.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:20 PM on May 4, 2006

And, fff, consider yourself.

No, you cretin, your username!! Five fresh fish on a grill with some new potatoes and asparagus, glasses of a crisp white wine, plus a quartet of your nearest and dearest. Simple's good.
P.S. And click on this link (courtes of fenriq) from one of yesterday's MetaChats — gotta be good for a giggle at least.
posted by rob511 at 4:58 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: I was inspired to go clean up the kitchen and make fresh pasta noodles. Supper will be Good.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:08 PM on May 4, 2006

I try to consciously remember the moment when I feel content/happy. Life is the day to day stuff and when I'm old I'll remember Saturday afternoon naps with my husband with the sun streaming in and the cats at the foot of the bed, being pleasantly exhausted after spending the morning mountain biking.

Small stuff, but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy even thinking about it.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:41 PM on May 4, 2006

I happen to be reading a debate between Skinner and Rodgers for a paper I need to write:
Rodgers: "The subjective experiencing of man, in my estimation, is a preceding dimension - it is a dimension which precedes our scientific desires, scientific behavior. It is a more primitive fact than our scientific behavior."
Me personally, I'd say go back in your posting history and take a look at all the people you've helped. You'll remember what it feels like soon enough.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:58 PM on May 4, 2006

I highly recommend the book Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. It's not a self-help book, and probably won't help you on an emotional level at all.

It is an in-depth scientific look at the phenomenon of happiness written in a humorous tone. It made me happy, just because learning fascinating things while experiencing humor makes me happy. And it has led me to stop and consider why I'm feeling what I'm feeling at any given time, which is surprisingly helpful.
posted by mmoncur at 7:02 PM on May 4, 2006

Also, a brief article I found helpful: Five things to make you happier in the short term.
posted by mmoncur at 7:04 PM on May 4, 2006

Excellent question and one I have given much thought to. The most rational answer I have found to this question comes from the new science of happiness. Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics wrote a book about Happiness surveying people all around the world as to what makes them happy and why. Here is his website and a number of relevant papers well worth reading.

The final conclusions of the book all boil down to a simple set of rules we all know about but perhaps never really sit down and think about seriously. These are NOT his opinion. These are what the empirical results show.

They are here.

Essentially the best you can ever hope for is a 6 out of 10 on the scale of happiness, otherwise known as "pleasantly satisfied". Any attempt to reach a higher state of happiness will have corrective effects.
posted by zaebiz at 7:07 PM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

For me, happiness is playing with animals, or my niece and nephews, or being out on a spring day when the flowers are just coming into bloom and the air is light and breezy and the leaves are just opening on the trees. These spring days are probably my happiest, because to me happiness is warmth and sunshine.
posted by mintchip at 8:58 PM on May 4, 2006

When I've been extremely happy, I've felt a welling-up, a glowing feeling of fullness; this feeling comes out in ways I can't control. My eyes open up a bit more, my mouth curls... the tone of my voice is different. Everyone looks better, food smells better, walking is easier, quicker... I talk faster. I notice things I otherwise wouldn't notice. Often this is accompanied by a feeling of "clicking".. every action happens at the right moment, and everything I experience feels more "right"... something as simple as, say, getting on the bus can just feel correct in a way that's hard to describe. Things that are ordinarily coincidence seem more deliberate. Other people can usually pick up on this feeling and sometimes the feedback can amplify it.

Usually it happens in conjunction with finding someone new, and getting some kind of positive feedback from them; I once felt this way for a week after meeting a new amazing girl at my college. We met on the intro day for freshmen "Dragon Days".... We talked, smoked cigs, and traded some lines from a movie (sounds simple, but every shared moment seemed like the most amazing thing...). Everything about it was so perfect, and she, so perfectly beautiful, like a dream or an angel or something I could never touch and ice blue eyes that I couldn't stop thinking about (and even now sometimes think about). When I think back to that time, that day with her, (and seven days after, and our subsequent relationship) the sun in our eyes and every traded glance and every brilliant exploding nervous thought, the busted, hammered, bird shit bench we sat on... all fucking brilliant. Just perfect and gorgeous and unbelievably happy.

And that's my happiness-gauge. The high water mark. I haven't really felt that strongly since. When it all went to hell I sat on that bench, and even in that lowest moment I still felt the warmth I felt that first day. I think I've loved since then but I haven't been so blown-up-busted-out-beaming... happy... but I can still remember what it felt like and it felt good.
posted by fake at 10:34 PM on May 4, 2006

I don't tend to conflate the idea of flow with happiness, as some other people have noted.

For me, happiness feels more like sensing possibilities everywhere, in almost everything. And you're right that it's not a permanent state, but it can stick around for a mighty long time occasionally.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:16 AM on May 5, 2006

Happiness is when your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are all in agreement. I think I have heard this definition attributed to the Dalai Lama. I suspect that the main benefit of the religion "meme" is that it makes it easier to get these things together.

Consistent with the above is my experience that certain life changes can produce a short to medium term rise happiness because you get a strong feeling of acting in accordance with your feelings. For example, when I switched to vegetarianism after feeling like I should for a long time I got a real feeling of well being. And the same was true after I switched back 4 years later. Other things that make me feel good: voting, donating to charities I have confidence in, throwing out clutter.
posted by teleskiving at 3:02 AM on May 5, 2006

Start with depression. Things are wrong. Everything I look at, something is dirty, out of place, needs fixing, sorting, replacing. In depression, everything is like that for me, all perceived with a fierce, unforgiving intelligence. It's all true of course and in that state, happiness just looks dumb.

Move to better days. Things are OK. I look at my desk, the car - sure there's a heap of filing to do, but I'll do it, just not now. I'll get a body shop to look at that scratch, no biggie. This is fine, happy-ish, workable. Up for a drink, yeah, sure.

Very occasionally. Things are amazing. I couldn't have made this world, with all its adventure, opportunity, mystery and creativity. I don't deserve any of it, but here it is, all for free. Hallowed be thy name! This tends to happen to me on a bicycle for some reason, but it's what I call happiness.

I guess happiness is the big picture. The more you consider, the better it gets.
And what everyone else said.
posted by grahamwell at 5:18 AM on May 5, 2006

I find all this happiness to be depressing.

No, really!

It is mushroom weather though. I do like me a mushroom. If I ever doubt that all life is connected, I just look at a mushroom pushing it's way up out of the soil, and then I know.

~slinks away~
posted by Ritchie at 5:33 AM on May 5, 2006

On New Year's Eve 2000, the journalist John Diamond, in the late stages of terminal cancer, wrote this excellent article on happiness, particularly about the paradox of being unhappy in such a world of incredible plenty. The article is kind of long, and the nub is at the end, so even though this excerpt itself is also quite long, I'll paste it here.... he says:

And the answer is this:

This is what it's all about. It's about reading a paper on a Sunday morning while you're thinking about whether you can be arsed to go to the neighbours' New Year's Eve party tonight. It's about getting angry with me for having different opinions from yours or not expressing the ones you have as well as you would have expressed them. It's about the breakfast you've just had and the dinner you're going to have. It's about the random acts of kindness which still, magically, preponderate over acts of incivility or nastiness. It's about rereading Great Expectations and about who's going to win the 3.30 at Haydock Park. It's about being able to watch old episodes of Frasier on satellite TV whenever we want, having the choice of three dozen breakfast cereals and seven brands of virgin olive oil at Sainsbury's. It's about loving and being loved, about doing the right thing, about one day being missed when we're gone.

And that's all it's about. It isn't about heaven and hell or the love of Christ or Allah or Yahveh because even if those things do exist, they don't have to exist for us to get on with it.

It is, above all I suppose, about passing time. And the only thing I know that you don't is that time passes at the same rate and in much the same way whether you're going to live to 48 or 148. Why am I happy? Because I'm alive. And the simple answer to the question 'What the hell is the point of it all' is this is the point of it all. You aren't happy? Yes you are: this, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it.
posted by penguin pie at 7:41 AM on May 5, 2006 [2 favorites]

It's a subjective impression, just like any other feeling. For me it's a feeling I'm most likely to experience when I have a relative lack of pain, ill-health, personal or work-related problems and when I also have a sufficiency of security. Security would include things like means - food, shelter, money - and satisfactory interpersonal interactions. Love helps, too, although I've been happy both with and without it.

None of these things guarantee that I will feel happy. They just make it more likely.

I read an interesting article recently - I can't recall where, I'm afraid - which mused that perhaps our modern expectations of "happiness" are unrealistic and excessive; that the "pursuit of happiness" actually contributes to discontentment via frustration. Not a new idea by any means but one which I think bears re-examination. In the developed west in particular there is a sense of entitlement to happiness which, I believe, causes a lot of neurosis and depression. It can be argued that "happiness" is not the "normal" state of mind for a living creature and perhaps we would do better not to keep trying to live as though it is.
posted by Decani at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2006

Philosopher Bertrand Russell took this question seriously and wrote a book about it called The Conquest of Happiness that has often been recommended to me. (I've read some Russell, whose prose often makes me happy, but I haven't yet read this book.)

To me, Csikszentmihalyi's Flow isn't really the same as happiness. It's sort of better than happiness, if that makes any sense.

I'm really glad someone quoted Denis Leary on happiness. Because I think he gets at both its ability to surprise you in simple things and its ultimately fleeting nature. It seems to me that, while many things can and do make me happy, the thing that most consistently makes me happy is setting small, manageable goals for myself and marking them off my list.

That probably sounds lame as hell, but it's true. I feel better when I'm moving forward toward some goal--as others here have mentioned. That's the most consistent way, for me at least, to feel "generally good." And when I'm feeling "generally good," I can experience a fleeting happiness a lot more frequently than I do when I'm not getting things done, not making a difference, not taking an active role in my own life.
posted by wheat at 8:19 AM on May 5, 2006

I'm happy when my thoughts are positive. Bad things may be happening, but I find the silver linings easily and instinctively; they are among my *initial* analyses of the situation. I have an ease in dealing with my day, because I know that things will work out. I smile easily, I laugh easily, I get over minor annoyances very quickly. I assume that everyone around me is acting from good motives; I don't take things personally. I work in small but continuous ways to make other people's lives good or easy or pleasant. (I smile at other people on the street, I hold doors for people, I work on compassionate advice for people who ask, etc.)

My feelings of depression, sadness, or frustration trap me in seeing the downside to everything. I can prod myself into finding silver linings, but it's hard as hell and I don't really believe them. Everything feels hard and overwhelming and annoying. It feels like people are actively being stupid or obtuse, and I take every thing personally. I work in small but continuous ways to prove that I AM RIGHT or to make other people leave me alone.

And for me, a lot of the ideas of "momentary happiness" or "fleeting happiness" above fall into what I'd call "giddy" or "joyous" or "excited." I think of happiness as a baseline good feeling that I have most of the time; I can certainly go up from there, or down from there, but "happy" is not, well, as happy as I get.

The feelings I'm describing as happy and depressed are certainly self-reinforcing loops. If something triggers major frustration, for example, and I start seeing the bad in one situation, it can keep spiralling out until I'm only noticing the annoyances and obstacles around me. Conversely, as long as I keep noticing the moments of grace and beauty and happiness around me, I stay happy. I'm certainly not perfect about it, but I definitely actively work to stay in that latter state. It's so easy to fall into an "Everything sucks" mindset without even realizing it (which I realize is not the same as clinical depression, and I'm not trying to conflate the two).

For example, in college I was so tired of everyone complaining all the time that I instituted a weekend of no complaining. I was happy to hear about the papers people were working on, or the books they had to read, but I was sick of the competitive negativity of "I have SO MUCH WORK and I'll never get it done!" "You think that's bad? I have even more work than you, and it sucks!" etc etc etc. When I told friends they weren't allowed to complain around me, no one had anything to talk about. It was insane. People couldn't get through a single conversation without bitching about how miserable they were. That's the sort of negativity in myself and in the people around me that I try to avoid, because it does just feed on itself until everyone thinks of that state as "normal."
posted by occhiblu at 4:37 PM on May 5, 2006

Despite having blathered on for so long, I forgot what prompted me to post in the first place. Fugitivefromchaingang's comment about connection to another reminded me of a book that I love, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein.

He's a pscyhiatrist who's exploring the Western idea of self-sufficient ego versus the Eastern idea of finding happiness in dissolving the ego and seeing yourself as truly a part of a larger whole, and he asks whether our tendency to think that we need to differentiate from others, to define ourselves strongly as individuals, to prop up our egos with defenses actually serves to cut us off from each other and thus from happiness.

It's an interesting perspective, and one that may be worth checking out. It helped me a lot after my mother died, and I was trying to reconcile a lot of these ideas about happiness and self and loss and ego and relationships.
posted by occhiblu at 4:48 PM on May 5, 2006

I should add: Epstein's not writing self-help books; Falling to Pieces is more an academic look at psychology and philosophy.
posted by occhiblu at 4:49 PM on May 5, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks again, all. The question seems to have struck a nerve. As long as people are feeling good about it, continue sharing in this thread; I think we've got something healthy going on here.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:04 PM on May 5, 2006

I went back to reread your question and saw that while the question is "What is happiness?" you tagged it as "depression." That's kind of what I'm talking about, with noticing the downsides rather than the positives.
posted by occhiblu at 5:26 PM on May 5, 2006

I'm studying the science of happiness as part of my graduate studies at MIT. Happiness is a large and tricky concept - it can be viewed through psychology, economics, brain and cognitive science, neuroscience, management science, philosophy... the list is endless.

Personally, with a CS background, I view happiness as cognitive optimization. Your brain is taking in inputs from your sensory organs and processing them. You have a large degree of control (assuming you are not clinically depressed) as to how the processing takes place. Is a stubbed toe a minor problem to forget about in 60 seconds, or a sign that the universe hates you? Seriously. This extends to how you view the past and future as well as the present.

I recommend "Authentic Happiness" by Martin Seligman, mainly because he is the former head of the APA which gives him a fair amount of "cred". The book has some boring bits, but has good techniques and lessons. Go look for highly-rated books on Amazon under happiness, probably any of them will help (the more scientific and the less self-help the better, in my opinion).
posted by jhscott at 10:20 PM on May 5, 2006

For me, happiness is pleasure, felt in the present, that masks or mutes thoughts about the past and future.

In other words, if I'm feeling happy, I'm living vibrantly in the here-and-now, not brooding over what-might-have-been or worrying about what-might-be.

It's a little confusing, because I CAN feel happiness when I remember something good that happened to me in the past -- or when I anticipate something that may happen in the future. But the FEELINGS are very much in the present. I'm NOT thinking, "if only I win the lottery, THEN I'll be happy" or "I remember back when I was five: I was so happy then." In those cases, I'm COMPARING then (or later) with now, and now might come off worse in the comparison. The FEELING must be very present, even if it's a feeling about the past or the future.

The feeling itself is hard to describe, but one of the signatures is a loss of self-monitoring. I'm smiling or laughing or whatever, and I forget to worry about how dopey I look or what I'm doing with my hands.

There's a sort of warm, tired happiness -- a feeling of contentment, like after a good meal and a glass of wine. But more often, when I'm happy, I feel a giddy energy and an incredible urge to move about, sing, and say silly things.

Only two things tend to bring on this feeling for me:

1) Pleasurable interaction with a person or animal.

Back when I'd never had a girlfriend, I became attracted to this one girl, and we became friends -- but just friends. One day, I was walking on the beach with my parents and my friend, and it was so beautiful. All the sudden, my friend took my hand in hers. It was the first time a girl had done that. And my parents -- the main "couple" in my life -- were also holding hands. And there on the beach, I felt like I was grown up and like I had a girlfriend. And the words "I'm SO happy" came to my lips without my even trying to say them.

2) Mastering or understanding something, for the first time, and seeing the vast implications of the new idea.

I'll always remember the moment I "got" computer programming. I'd been struggling with all the concepts, then suddenly they clicked into place. And then instead of struggling, it was like a door opened and through the door I could see this vast vista containing all the new things I could do with my programming skills. And I laughed outloud.
posted by grumblebee at 11:42 AM on May 6, 2006

Your emotional state of mind = Reality/Expectations

For happiness, (reality/expectations) should be greater than or equal to 1
posted by sk381 at 1:40 PM on May 7, 2006

Most of my life is lived in a null emotional state: I don't feel particularly happy or sad or excited or disappointed or anything. I attribute this to the meds, but I'm okay with it for now: it's better than being exclusively depressed.

You have said it yourself, so I've nothing to add about that.

But I find I do have much else to say. 'The pursuit of happiness', or rather that phrase taking such a high-profile status in our minds, has had an incredibly pernicious effect on speakers of English all over the damn planet. One cannot pursue happiness. Attempts to do so lessen the actual chance that anything like happiness can be achieved, I reckon.

Almost anything that doesn't bring pain can provide a seed bed for feelings of happiness. There are some things that make almost everyone happy -- productive activity with tangible result, physical affection, contact with animals, bucolic nature, catharsis, respect and recognition, exercise; the list goes on.

I was in an incredibly pissy mood the other day. I cleaned the house, did the laundry, and put some rice in the cooker for my wide for when she came home, and I felt better. Not only better, but one flavour of happy. Trivial, right?

But there's a problem with definition of terms, one that you come close to, fff, by focussing on 'how happiness feels' rather than 'what it is'. What I mean is that unless we decide (for ourselves, because we can't know how happiness feels for anyone else) what we mean when we use the word, we can't make any progress towards changing our lives or ourselves to achieve that.

So how, then? Well, this is just me talking, but. Thinking about the things that have made us happy in the past will probably bring to mind a diverse array of experiences. That's good. The feelings that emerged from those experiences (that we lump under the rubric 'happiness') are almost certainly wildly different in intensity and nature. Words, as usual, fail us when we get close to the heart of the matter. But here's the thing -- if we choose to change our lives or ourselves to experience those feelings more deeply, more consistently, more intensely, or just more often, then pretty much the clearest option is to do what we can to have those experiences that resulted in those feelings as much as we reasonably can.

You noticed that hearing about other people's happinesses can also make us happy -- that's good and true, and something we can pursue as an experience that makes feel good -- but I'm not sure that we can learn much else from them.

The examined life and all that: if through introspection we understand what has made us happy in the past, we at least have some hints about how to live our lives in future to experience those feelings again. The path to that, though, is purely our own to choose.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:20 PM on May 7, 2006

(Sorry, a bit more: to wrap this in a context, I'll say that although this sounds a little like a sophist definition-by-enumeration, I'm actually trying to pierce through (in the absence of possible dialogue) to a sort of Socratic definition of something that is, I believe, purely subjective, which is a fool's game, of course.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:25 PM on May 7, 2006

One answer to "what is happiness" is that it is something being discussed on Blue as we type.
posted by jhscott at 8:57 PM on May 7, 2006

By sheer coincidence, I just read this post at the Freakonomics blog, recommending a book that suggests the very opposite of what I said upthread.

I'd be interested to read it, and others in this thread may be as well, but I'm sticking to my guns. Crucially, though, and this is one of the things I was trying to get at, I'm right for me, and that's all I can be sure of.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:29 PM on May 7, 2006

Crap. Wrong link. Here.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:30 PM on May 7, 2006

if I'm feeling happy, I'm living vibrantly in the here-and-now, not brooding over what-might-have-been or worrying about what-might-be.

I'd just like to say that grumblebee speaks great wisdom here. The most vivid, vibrant, soul-deep instances of happiness I've felt have all satisfied this criterion.
posted by Decani at 4:56 PM on May 10, 2006

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