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On the Nature and Definition of Happiness

by Chris Street

In defining happiness, first we should get rid of a harmful connotation, that happiness is synonymous with pleasure. It is most decidedly not. Pleasure is an end in itself; it is something that is hunted for. Happiness cannot be hunted for; it is not obvious, but inscrutable. It confronts us in delightfully infinite forms. Someone may see happiness in something you cannot, and you may find it in the most unlikely places. On the other hand, there is a whole school of people, the hedonists, who pursue pleasure as the highest goal attainable in life - and they find it, just where they expected to, in alcohol, sex, drugs, and many other obvious things. Yet many hedonists are unhappy, and yet the most self-denying hermit may be happy under the most miserable circumstances. Here is a fundamental difference between the two; a difference which lets us see both in a clearer light.

This distinction is recognized in the very meaning of the word, "happiness". It comes from the Old English "hap", which just means "something that happens". Many of our words invoking circumstance come from this word; "happening", "mishap", and "perhaps" are examples. "Happiness", too, comes from this word, and means, literally, "that which happens".

Happiness, then, happens. We do not make ourselves happy; we never will. Happiness is elusive precisely until we stop looking for it; whilst we search for it, we are chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, something we vaguely think to be happiness, but in reality is not. Rather, happiness is the hunter, and it will eventually track us down and catch us - whether we choose to greet it with joy or run off hurriedly is a matter of the will. Happiness is not an outward excursion of the soul, but an inward invasion.

Happiness is, moreover, a personal experience. It is confined to the person and the moment to which it belongs. What you find happy your neighbor might not; what you and your neighbor find happy, the two of you may find happy for different reasons. If we had enough wisdom, enough knowledge, or simply enough love, we could be happy in everything. Of course, all three of these qualities are found in want in us; we can only be happy when we choose to, and when we know that we are supposed to be. (We are supposed to be always.) We can let ourselves be happy, but we rarely do.

Happiness, then, is what we let it to be. We can be happy, like the hermit, even if we are miserable, alone, and in pain. To us, though, it appears elusive, and many chase it, thinking of it as pleasure or riches. Happiness is not lack of want; that is contentment. Happiness is not joy or pleasure. Happiness is not the absence of sadness or pain. If we were stumbling stupidly about in a dark room (which is pretty much what we're doing), happiness would be the shaft of light we let through the keyhole, not knowing enough to simply open the door.

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