In Defense of Happiness

A trusted friend recently shared with me that “happiness” isn’t a word he particularly resonates with, or frankly even aspires to, and cautioned me about using that word in relation to the work I do, for fear that I won’t be taken seriously.  It was great feedback, and really caused me to think. Here was my response:

Thank you again for an incredibly helpful and provocative conversation last week, and for encouraging me to articulate what I mean when I talk about the gift of happiness. It’s been a great exercise, and I want to share with you what I came up with, because I realized that happiness really IS the right word for what I’m talking about.  There’s nothing wrong with fulfillment or contentment or any of the other words you suggested, but they are not the same thing.

According to my quick Google search, the root of the word happiness means “chance” or “good luck”, and that makes a lot of sense to me.  Happiness, to me, is the feeling that I AM lucky, and that there are many blessings to be grateful for.

Happiness isn’t necessarily based on an objective reality, of course. We’ve all seen miserable people who seem to have everything, and joyful people who have experienced tremendous pain. Rather, happiness is a choice that we control. In any moment, we can choose to notice and feel grateful for whatever we are experiencing (and become happier), or we can judge it and compare it to what “should” be (and feel unhappy).

I think I heard you say the other day that pursuing happiness felt sort of self-absorbed and decadent, like something that only privileged people get to do. That totally makes sense if the way you seek happiness is to try to manipulate your circumstances to maximize pleasure and avoid pain (just turn off the news and go pamper yourself!), but that’s not what I’m talking about. 

The happiness I’m talking about is not a fear or denial of suffering, but a refusal to let the pain of our circumstances dictate our sense of worth and well-being.  And it is anything but selfish. All you have to do is think about the deep joy of people like the Dalai Lama, or Desmond Tutu, to get how powerful it is. But you don’t have to be a famous spiritual leader for your happiness (or lack of it) to have an impact.

I love being around authentically happy people.  They are a gift to me.  They accept me exactly as I am, remind me that I am okay, no matter what, and don’t make me responsible for their well-being. They make me feel better about myself, more hopeful about the world, and more empowered to make a positive difference.

Far from being decadent, I see happiness is a powerful way to bless the world. It is contagious, and worth spreading. I am keeping the name.