The dawn of any new year often brings with it New Year’s resolutions. This is the tradition of determining to do or be something - or indeed, to not do or be something - usually to the betterment or advancement of oneself or others.
It may be to burn off some Christmas excess and get fit. It may be to build or rebuild a relationship or build/rebuild a wall at the bottom of the garden. These resolutions can be vague or specific, multiple or single, short-term or long-term, difficult or easy. Boiled down, what most aim to induce is happiness, that much-sought after, much-heralded mental or psychological state of being to which many of us aspire.
The subject of happiness - including its definition, its cause and effects, its sustainability and loss - has all been pondered, probed, and penned by various mood-focused sages for thousands of years. It is the promise of advertisers, the barometer of gurus, the foundation of love and friendship, and the driving force behind much of what we do. But still we ask, especially at this time of year: what is happiness, and how can we achieve it?
The term happiness comes from the Old Norse term ‘happ’ meaning ‘luck’ or ‘chance.’ It's also related to the Old English word ‘hæpic’ meaning ‘equal.’ Yet whatever its origins, it helps to start by recognizing that happiness is necessarily subjective, meaning that every person will define ‘happiness’ slightly differently.
For some, it will link to health, finance, family, or freedoms. For others, it is more feeling- or sense-based. Moreover, not only do people differ in how they define it; they also differ in the degree to which they feel it is being attained. Think, for instance, how wealth may influence it. For some, happiness may come from having enough to eat. For another, it may come from buying that new car in that colour with those optional extras.
Happiness can be transitory or semi-permanent. Some philosophers categorise this as hedonism versus life satisfaction. It is the greater security of the latter, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing, to which most people aim. Some confuse true happiness for something altogether more fleeting, more superficial. Contrary to what they tell themselves, and what they may temporarily believe, deep down, these people are not in fact happy.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, happiness is “about or with something, a state of being satisfied that something is good or right, a synonym of satisfaction”. Some would add that happiness cannot be bought, stolen, earned, or found externally, and that true happiness comes from within.
According to Greek philosopher Socrates, who considered the subject about 2,500 years ago, the secret of happiness “is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less”. We likely all know a consumer or two who would benefit from this advice!
Likewise, Plato described happiness as “the secure enjoyment of what is good and beautiful”. He also said: “The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily.” He thus defined happiness as personal growth, not something we glean from the outside world, but something we create within ourselves.
Similarly, Democritus, another Greek philosopher, described happiness as a “case of mind” that did not rely on external circumstances.
As to its importance, when asked about the ultimate purpose to human existence, Aristotle replied that happiness was the end goal. In pursuit of happiness, he said man should strive for “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else”.
Confucius, whose philosophy underpins much of the eastern world, stated that “the more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large”. It was an early example of the importance of positivity and positive thinking.
More recently, 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau described happiness as “like a butterfly”, saying: “The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” The idea is a comforting one, certainly to those whose own pursuit of happiness seems full of hurdles, but at the same time it seems to disown responsibility.
To these and many others, the value attached to happiness can seem so priceless precisely because it can appear so elusive, yet it needn’t be, because ultimately the ability to be happy is universally innate - it is within all of us. Unless there is a clinical reason why someone cannot experience happiness, they can.
Often, this means busting some myths. One of the biggest happiness myths is that we need a partner or spouse to be happy, that being in a relationship is the key that unlocks the happiness door. True, couples can be happy, but coupledom can also lead to the opposite. Again, this myth suggests that happiness emanates from external sources, yet wisdom dictates that its source is always ultimately internal.
In the midst of January in northern Europe, widely regarded as a pretty miserable month, the darkness of shorter days can echo in our mood, and the post-Christmas crash can leave us searching for things to bring a smile to our face.
At such times, it can help to begin a positivity jar. This is an empty jar people fill with a positive note every day or every week. This may be something affirmative, encouraging, pleasing, hope-inducing, pleasant, or otherwise light-hearted. At the end of the year, the jar will have 365 (or 53) positive notes to be read again. The idea is to remind ourselves of - and focus on - the good things in life, rather than the bad.
Despair not, happiness seekers. The road to nirvana can be long and rocky. The more we can take back control of our quest to be happy and the less we rely on others, the better. When we define what happiness means to us, we stand a far better chance of finding it. And remember: joy, celebration, value, affirmation – these are all there already, lurking inside, waiting to get out.