Happiness – NOTE

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Happiness, pleasure or joy is the emotional state of being happy. The definition of happiness is one of the greatestphilosophical quandaries. Proposed definitions include freedom from want and distress, consciousness of the goodorder of things, assurance of one’s place in the universe or society, and so forth. More generally, though, it can be defined as the state which humans and animals are behaviorally driven towards, to counter external forces which would otherwise lead to unhappiness (and presumably eventual death).

Associated emotions include joy, exultation, delight, bliss, and love. Antonyms include suffering, sadness, grief, andpain. The term pleasure (like its opposite pain) is often used to specifically indicate localized, physical sensations, while happiness is sometimes used to refer specifically to a long-term, inner feeling.

Table of contents

Philosophical views of happiness

A smile is probably the most common symbol of happiness inhumans.
  • Utilitarianism commonly seeks the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
  • Epicureanism is the belief that the greatest good is to seek happiness for oneself.
  • Hedonism is any ethical theory that gives pleasure a central role.
  • Eudaimonianism is any ethical theory that gives happiness a central role.

Psychological views of happiness

Positive Psychology’s view of happiness

Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness gives the Positive Psychology definition of happiness as consisting of both positive emotions (like comfort) and positive activities (like absorption). He presents three categories of positive emotions:

  • past: feelings of satisfaction, contentment, pride, and serenity.
  • present (examples): enjoying the taste of food, glee at listening to music, absorption in reading.
  • future: feelings of optimism, hope, trust, faith, and confidence.

There are three categories of present positive emotions:

  • bodily pleasures, e.g. enjoying the taste of food.
  • higher pleasures, e.g. glee at listening to music.
  • gratifications, e.g. absorption in reading.

The bodily and higher pleasures are “pleasures of the moment” and usually involve some external stimulus. An exception is the glee felt at having an original thought.

Gratifications involve full engagement, flow, elimination of self-consciousness, and blocking of felt emotions. But when a gratification comes to an end then positive emotions will be felt.

Gratifications can be obtained or increased by developing signature strengths and virtues. Authenticity is the derivation of gratification and positive emotions from exercising signature strengths. The good life comes from using signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification in, for example, enjoying work and pursuing a meaningful life.

Mechanistic view of happiness

Biological basis of happiness

While a person’s overall happiness is not directly measurable due to limitations in neuroscience technology, this does not mean it does not have a real physical component. We know that the neurotransmitter dopamine, operating along the mesolimbic pathway and upon the nucleus accumbens, is involved in causing a human or animal to experience happiness. If we were able to accurately measure the production of dopamine in various parts of a person’s brain, we would likely be able to definitively determine how happy the person is. Happiness can be induced artificially with drugs, most directly with opiates such as Morphine and Heroin, which block dopamine inhibitors.

Nevertheless, the exact chemicals and processes which cause happiness do not define the concept of happiness, they simply describe its biological “implementation”. We might guess that other implementations are possible, even if they have yet to be observed in nature.

Difficulties in defining internal experiences

It is probably impossible to objectively define happiness as we know and understand it, as internal experiences are subjective by nature. It is almost as pointless as trying to define the color green such that a completely color blind person could understand the experience of seeing green. While we can not objectively express the difference between greenness and redness, we can certainly explain which physical phenomena cause green to be observed, and can explain the capacities of the human visual system to distinguish between light of different wavelengths, and so on. Likewise, in the following sections, we will not attempt to describe the internal sensation of happiness, but will instead concentrate on defining its logical basis. Importantly, we will try to avoid circular definitions — for instance, defining happiness as “a good feeling”, while “good” is defined as being “something which causes happiness”.

Happiness as a simple physical equilibrium

Conceptually, a reasonable — if oversimplified — way of viewing happiness might be to describe it as an equilibriumstate, in which an entity has been drawn towards and, once there, has a tendency to stay “as is”. For instance, twomagnets joined positive to negative can be casually described as being “happy” in that state. Two magnets with positive forced against positive are unstable and strongly prone to change — analogous to a person with his hand forced against a hot iron — and thus might be described as being “unhappy”. While we don’t really think magnets areexperiencing happiness per se, the term, as well as other anthropomorphisms which express a tendency toward a certain state (“try”, “want”, and especially “attract”) are nonetheless useful and intuitive in describing the stability of a physical object or system.

Happiness in lower animals

For non-human animals, happiness might be best described as the process of reinforcement, as part of the organism’smotivational system. The organism has achieved one or more of its goals (pursuit of food, water, sex, shelter, etc.), and its brain is in the process of teaching itself to repeat the sort actions that led to success. By reinforcing successful decision paths, it produces an equilibrium state not unlike the positive-to-negative magnets. The specific goals are typically things that enable the organism to survive and reproduce.

By this definition, only animals with some capacity to learn should be able to experience happiness. However, at its most basic level the learning might be extremely simple and short term, such as the nearly reflexive feedback loop of scratching an itch (followed by pleasure, followed by scratching more, and so on) which can occur with almost noconscious thought.

Happiness in humans

When speaking of animals with the ability to reason (generally considered the exclusive domain of humans), goals are no longer limited to short term satisfaction of basic drives. Nevertheless, there remains a strong relationship of happiness to goal fulfillment and the brain’s reinforcement mechanism, even if the goals themselves may be more complex and/or cerebral, longer term, and less selfish than a lower animal’s goals might be.

Happiness in AI and other complex systems

The view that happiness is a reinforcement state can apply to some non-biological systems as well, as a computer orrobot could be said to be “happy” when it is in a state of reinforcing previous actions that led to satisfaction of its programmed goals. For instance, imagine a search engine that has the capacity to gradually improve the quality of its search results by accepting and processing feedback from the user regarding the relevance of those results. If the user responds that a search result is good (i.e. provides positive feedback), this tells the software to reinforce (by adjustingvariables or “weights”) the decision path that led to those results. In a sense, this could be said to “reward” the search engine, and therefore cause a form of happiness or pleasure within the machine. As technology advances, the distinction between such machine happiness and that experienced by an animal or even human may begin to blur.

Achieving happiness

A number of commonly recommended ways to produce happiness:

Material ways:

Social ways:

Emotional ways:

Spiritual ways:

Other ways:

However, most of the above, as a side effect of being, in a way, joyful, can also be addictive and then not make one really happy on the whole. Epicurus taught that although it is good to satisfy our natural desires for food and drink, pleasures often conceal painful consequences.

See also


Happiness can also be said as bliss, cheerfulness, cheeriness, enjoyment, exhilaration, and light-heartedness.