What is Happiness?

We are starting a new series on the Plasticity blog to help you better understand positive psychology, emotional intelligence, neuroplasticity and their relationships to happiness. We begin with a look into 'What is happiness?' from Jennifer Moss, Plasticity Labs Co-founder, CMO, and author of Unlocking Happiness at Work.


Most people want to be happy. But, for many, happiness feels elusive, disappointing, and unrealistic.

My hypothesis?

We’re looking at happiness all wrong.

Unfortunately, the word “happy” has fallen victim to a false branding. We’ve dumbed it down with saccharine messaging, usurped its power with smiley faces and taken a complex discussion, rich with scientific discovery, and constructed a much too simplified version. Often, people interpret happiness as living in a utopian, evergreen state of joy when instead; happiness is the opposite of that - it’s a complex set of wide ranging emotions.

As a result, there now exists a deeper divide. An “Us” and “Them” attitude about happiness and the benefits or negative impacts respectively. Adding even more complication to an already polarizing topic, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all description for all of us to hang on to. Since the topic is so personal, we tend to externalize happiness, looking for the answer to this riddle in movies, products, books, and within our pop-culture. And, the more we look for happiness in such places, the elusiveness of happiness grows. The more we pursue happiness, the harder it is to obtain.
So what is my definition of happiness?

I don’t have one. And, I never will.

See, I believe there is no definition of happiness.

I know. Not what you were expecting. But, I believe happiness isn’t meant to be defined.

However, what I can tell you is what happiness isn’t. Before going too deep into what happiness is not – let’s look at happiness through time to better understand the depth and length of this debate.


The History of Happiness

To fully understand how long our happiness debates extends, we have to go all the way back to 480 BC and analyze the philosophies made famous by Socrates. The well-known Greek philosopher, was a rule breaker and a rebel and the person who would be recognized for advancing conversations related to happiness and the meaning of life. Socrates was also one of the first to openly debate that happiness is in our control.

Socrates’ inevitable downfall would be the timing of his theories during an era that was not friendly to any concepts that opposed the Greek Gods. During this time in history, the Greeks were not only pessimistic about humans and their lack of capacity for greatness, they also believed that joy was only reserved for those chosen as worthy by the Gods.

If the Gods had cared to listen some 2400 years ago, they would have learned that Socrates was attempting to present, through scientific thinking, that to achieve happiness we all should consider the following tenets:

  • Striving for honesty
  • Being your best possible self
  • Demonstrating emotional control

And, if we look at this from a leadership lens, I think the tenets above remain the same in both areas of work and life.

In the end, Socrates paid heavily for his public commentary and efforts to prove that happiness was a choice and not handed down from the Gods. He was convicted of “corrupting the youth” and sentenced to die by way of Hemlock poisoning.

One of the greatest moments in Socrates life came just in those last few minutes before he died. Instead of ruminating on his pain and blaming the Gods for their misguided punishment or begging for mercy, Socrates was jovial with his friend Plato and others. He reminded them about his teachings and assuaged them of their fears. He would be remembered as happy, right up until the moment he drank the poison.

Socrates is elemental to the topic of happiness through history because he lived as he believed. Socrates was so entirely committed to the concept that happiness is a choice that he validated it even just moments before his death.

Another influential scientist to pursue the topic of happiness and choice would be William James. He, like Socrates, was another mobilizing force in favour of the argument that happiness is a decision we make every time we are confronted with a choice – a choice beyond our biological and social constraints – crucial to the Positive Psychology ideologies of today.

William James, was a professor of psychology and of philosophy at Harvard University and would go on to become one of the most famous living American psychologists and philosophers of his time.

James shares in Principles of Psychology (1890) that involuntary reactions come first – like a baby swallowing air for the first time and then later feeding. Or, when a baby is hungry and cries to be fed. When a child develops a memory to supersede their instinct, it moves to a conscious decision the next time it chooses to cry for food.

Now this is where it gets interesting.

When a memory is formed and we can select it as a choice then this is when free will develops in our psyche. Happiness becomes something in our memory to act on or ignore and we can then direct the flow of emotional traffic appropriately.

What is most provocative about this discovery is that James could explain how happiness is partially innate (built into our genetic makeup) and yet a large part of happiness is dependent on whether we want to incorporate into our narratives or ignore it (learned and chosen). James famously stated, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook."


The Happiness Shift

Industrial and technological revolutions, military innovations, and the advertising industry would be a few of the key factors at play in the rise of the popularity of happiness conversation.

During the industrial revolution, the world saw an improvement in sanitary education. Care for the human body was finally discussed openly and prioritized, in large part by the increased education by the American Red Cross as it crisscrossed North America and into Palestine, Mesopotamia, India, South Africa, and other 'battle-grounds’.

When paired together, happiness and war sound like an oxymoron but despite the irony, the First and Second World War brought with it some incredible achievements that benefit us still to this day. Some claim that this was the innovative catalyst to what we now refer to as wellbeing.

Scientific discovery was globally transformative during this time as well. Inventions like synthetic rubber and concepts like commercial air travel rose out of the World Wars and even more impactful was the launch of blood banks and innovations like ultrasounds and plastic surgery. Perhaps the initial goals of these inventions were meant for war. But post-war, these inventions proved even more effective at improving lives. Jet engines, computers, navigation systems, and putting a human on the moon, all came from technology invented or rapidly improved upon during the war.

Imagine a century that would start with horses and end with high-speed rail, global commercial air travel and rocket ships to the moon, where writing letters would become email and life expectancy would double.

So what does all this rapid evolution mean in the context of human happiness?

These breakthroughs have been hugely influential on our longevity and quality of life. They have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in a new industrialized world, taking people out of the fields, and into manufacturing plants. Workplace infrastructure, more like our modern workplaces, was created and this era kicked-off the knowledge-based economy. Advancements in such knowledge meant that we would become more enlightened and our conversations more open minded.

On the flipside, as improvements in our lives increased, so did our expectations. Our consumption of happiness has grown and, as it goes with most trends in our society, there are positive and negative consequences. Trends influence what we eat, what we become addicted to, how we spend our money and what we care about.


What Happiness Isn’t

For many, happiness means the absence of negative emotions, but in the article, I wrote for Harvard Business Review, “Happiness Isn’t the Absence of Negative Emotions”; I vehemently counteract the belief that being happy is only to feel joy, every minute, every day, all the time. I wrote the article to share my frustrations with the backlash on the Positive Psychology movement. After reading one too many articles about why happiness is harmful, I decided it was time to confront the naysayers.

Particularly frustrating was the amount of weak science surrounding the argument that positivity is bad for you. One researcher claimed, “Positive thinking feels good in the moment but often bears a false promise.” (Oettingan 2014) But, what miffed me most about this article titled, “Stop Being So Positive” for Harvard Business Review, was its blatant overgeneralization of the happiness definition. The research describes happiness as “positive fantasizing”. It also suggests that “wish making” can’t be attributed to losing weight or quitting smoking or getting good grades. I would like to think that most people understand that you can’t just wish your way to losing weight or kicking a bad habit. The “dumbing down” of happiness does a disservice to those researchers who are rigorously analyzing the science.

If you contrast the research with Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory, you see a much deeper analysis of how mindset absolutely matters to achieving our goals. The issue with most of these backlash articles is that they tend to over generalize the definition of happiness and absurdly reduce positive thinking versus negative thinking to an entirely black and white debate. Unfortunately, we then end up leading people to believe that all of this talk about happiness is just silly, simple and maybe even stupid.

What I also learned from reading these articles was that most people were just misrepresenting what happiness means. There are only a few truly science-based definitions for happiness because this lengthy research process inhibits scientists from developing a model.

Again, the idea of pursuing something without a guarantee of ever catching it – a concept that can be likened to a hamster on a wheel or a dog chasing its tail – sounds very tiring. If we think instead about happiness as part of a broader constellation of healthy traits that we don’t “pursue” but rather we “adopt” over time through practice and intention, doesn’t that seem so much more tangible?

In an interview with Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, she states that, “one of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not. Being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the negative experiences to take the positive aspects out of them.”

In other words, we’re not happy when we’re chasing happiness. We’re happiest when we’re not thinking about it, when we’re enjoying the present moment because we’re lost in a meaningful project, working toward a higher goal, or helping someone who needs us.

And, healthy positivity doesn’t mean cloaking authentic feelings. Happiness is not the absence of suffering; it’s the ability to rebound from life’s challenges, trauma and pain, and placing ourselves in another’s shoes, even it breaks our heart. Happiness is not the same as joy or ecstasy; happiness includes contentment, well-being, and the emotional flexibility to experience a full range of emotions.

The happiness model that resonates with most scientists, researchers and leaders starts with Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist and former President of the American Psychology Association.

Dr. Seligman is responsible for defining the term “PERMA,” the root of many positive psychology research projects around the world. The acronym stands for the five elements essential to lasting contentment:

P – Positive Emotion: Peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and love fall into this category. Distinguishing between pleasure and enjoyment is a central consideration. Pleasure is connected to sustaining bodily needs such as thirst, hunger, and sleep. Enjoying a moment or a series of moments comes from intellectual stimulation and creativeness.


E – Engagement: Losing ourselves to a task or project that provides us with a sense of “disappeared time” because we are so highly engaged. When we are passionate about the work we’re engrossed in, it can create a sense of “flow” or “bliss”. This feeling can occur in our extracurricular pursuits from dancing to exercising to gardening. It can also occur at work. As the saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”


R – Relationships: People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not. Since we spend 70% of our waking hours at work, it becomes even more important for us as leaders to facilitate those healthy, positive relationships.


M – Meaning: Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. Whether a religion or a cause that helps humanity in some way, we all need meaning in our lives. When we build in meaning at work for our employees, it creates a deeper sense of accomplishment when goals are reached. We then attach value to their input, which leads to a happier, healthier work experience.


A – Accomplishment/Achievement: To feel significant life satisfaction, we must strive to better ourselves in some way. We tend to only focus on the home runs or the big goals instead of celebrating the small wins that take us to those big goals. When we break down the effort, we can feel like we’re on the path to success, versus pursuing a distant goal.

The work of Seligman has now been followed up with decades of research in Positive Psychology, we can say with absolute certainly that workplace happiness is not some sort of new initiative that only a few CEOs are investing in.

I know that history can be a daunting and that I had to jam a lot of information into this one article, but as leaders we need to understand how the topic of happiness, gratitude and emotional intelligence are long studied topics. We will frequently get questions about the value of this subject. But, now we know how far back this conversation extends. Happiness is nothing new so let’s stop pretending it is.

But what I believe this brief history of happiness and the PERMA model reminds us is that happiness is not about chasing pleasure, but rather, actively engaging in long-term, sustainable life goals that include daily investments in positive work, activities and relationships. However, I liken models to recipes – it’s subjective and rife with human variables built on strongly held biases, genetics and personal experience. Just like a recipe can’t guarantee your bread will rise, a happiness theory can’t guarantee you will be happy.
So what is happiness?

I still don’t know. But I believe it can be experienced. Like fog, it’s around us. We can see it. But, when we try to hold on to it – it slips through our fingers. Happiness is about a continued investment in building hope, efficacy, resilience, optimism (HERO) along with gratitude, mindfulness and empathy. As we dig deeper into the ways we can build up more psychological fitness, we’ll analyze how to build up these traits in ourselves and inspire them in others.

Stay tuned for more questions about what it means to be happy, healthy and high-performing in our What is Happiness blog series.


About the author:

Jennifer Moss is the cofounder of Plasticity Labs and author of a new book, Unlocking Happiness at Work, advising employees and leaders on how to increase happiness at work and in life. You can find it on Amazon and Indigo online, or go to your local bookstore and ask if they have it in stock.

Jennifer Moss