Happiness. It’s Complicated.

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What if the quest to be perpetually happy was actually making us miserable?


Summer 2012. Two thousands miles west of New York City, nearly 9,000 feet above sea-level. Deep into the Colorado Rockies, I’m sitting in the wood-clad home of soon-to-be friend, venture-capitalist, entrepreneur and deeply-wise and truthful explorer of life, Brad Feld. We’re taping a conversation for Good Life Project.

“Our goal,” Brad offers, speaking about himself and his wife Amy, “is that each of us, individually and together is to have a happy life. Happy and good mean the same thing. That’s it, that’s the goal. I don’t care about anything else.”

Further into the conversation, he adds:

“The components of that vary and there’s an acceptance that there’s lots of tragedy in the human condition…you have these huge moments of negative stimuli in the context of your own life, and then you have the ability to deal with them however you want and surround them with whatever you want…for the two of us, having a happy life is about focusing on the things you can impact, rather than focusing on the macro.”

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to laugh all day? It’s a wonderful state, deserving of a powerful seat at the good life table. Happiness has become a hot subject of study over the last two decades, along with the explosion of the field of positive psychology.

This near-mystical state comes with myriad benefits, beyond, well, being happy.

Happy people:

  • Have more friends
  • Are healthier
  • Have better immune systems
  • Are more active contributors to society
  • Get more done at work.

The list of happy-related yumminess is long.

But, what exactly IS happiness? How do we GET it? And is happiness really a MUST for a good life? Let’s take these questions one at a time.

First, what “is” happiness?

Such a loaded question, devoid of a universal answer. Ask the average person on the street and the answer is usually “state-based.” It’s an emotion, a feeling, kind of like joy, upbeat, positive, you know…happy!

Drill down a bit, and the answers begin to expand out into the “life conditions” the lead to this state. One’s person’s happiness is being in the arms of love, another’s is coding a complex algorithm. Yet another finds it in the reduction of chronic pain from extreme to moderate, still suffering deeply, yet happier. Someone else might describe it as the feeling of besting competitors or finding justice after a long fight. In parts of the world where extreme poverty, starvation, violence and suffering are a part of daily existence, it might be described as a day with food or water, or a temporary lull in violence.

Ask a positive psychology researcher and you’ll get a different set of answers that integrate contributors, like connection, meaning and more. In her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, acclaimed researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Happiness researchers, in fact, cannot offer any universal, agreed-upon definition to their research subjects when conducting experiments. Which makes it challenging to draw broad conclusions. How do we know that, across different labs, cohorts and experiments, we’re all even talking about the same thing? Most rely on some variations of standard survey questions, like, “looking at your life as a whole, are you (1) very happy, (2) quite happy, (3) not very happy, or (4) not happy at all?” Subjects are asked to rate their happiness, but are never offered a definition. Because, they cannot be. It’s just too subjective.

So, we’re left with pieces of a puzzle that often come down to, “we just know it when we feel it, and it’s different for everyone.” This is part of the challenge when trying to make robust claims about happiness. We never quite know if we’re talking the same language, or truly describing the same thing.

Which brings us to those second and third questions.

How do we get happy? And do we need to be happy to live a good life?

Something interesting and a bit ironic happens when we pursue happiness as a primary goal, a mandatory pre-requisite to a life-well lived. The all-consuming quest to make ourselves happy can, in fact, lead to misery. In part, because we rapidly habituate to the big, quick hit sources we most often pursue. But also, and more subtly maybe, 100% up-time happiness is not a realistic aspiration. Nor, despite popular lore, should it be.

Happiness is a bit like fitness. You can train and orient your life to cultivate a solid base and keep relatively fit on a regular basis, but you cannot sustain peak condition for a more than a short window of time. Your body and mind need to cycle in and out. Peaks and valleys are natural and necessary. Expecting only peaks is setting yourself up for frustration and futility.

Beyond the fact that we are all wired, on some level, to cycle in and out of giggledom lies a stark reality.

We need the valleys as much as the peaks. Not necessarily depression or deep lows, but simply the chance to cycle back to baseline “things are good” or even” wow, that day sucked,” to provide the contrast necessary to know when we’re happy. It’s this contrast that also provides the context to see and embrace gratitude, to know when things are good, because you’ve seen when they’re not.

Emerging research, in fact, shows that the full spectrum of experiences and emotions—what’s become known as “emodiversity“—and not a state of perpetual joviality, is what leads to the experience of a generally good and happy life. Our state of body and mind both improve when we feel not just joy, gratitude and love, but also sadness, anger and fear, among many others. Human flourishing, over the long haul, has to allow for unhappiness, as well as happiness.

And, that leads to one last thing.

When it comes to happiness, we are not entirely in control.

We each have a unique “happiness set-point.” Some 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes. Another 40% comes from behavior and choice, the final 10% from environment. The good news is, we do have a significant say in how happy we can be or become. But, so does our biology. If our genetic set-point is more toward the melancholy or just “chill” side of the spectrum, but we hold ourselves to the standard of “rabidly happy, all the time,” we end up warring with our biology and setting ourselves up for failure, then frustration, then blame, then guilt, then misery.

If we accept the reality of the set-point, though, then do what we can to influence the 50% that’s within our control, then know some moments will cycle up, others will cycle down and “that’s okay,” we let ourselves off the expectation hook. We acknowledge that we have partial control over our happiness and accept our responsibility to, in Brad Feld’s words, do what we can to optimize what we can impact. Both in the context of our internal systems and choices, and our external circumstances.

And we also create the space for happiness cycling, honor the role of biology and genetics in the process and forgive ourselves when we don’t hit what may be, for us, an unattainable, Pollyanistic illusion, the futile pursuit of which does more harm than good.

Think of it this way…

Happiness is a snapshot, living a good life is a movie.

The former is a moment in time, the latter is the collective experience of every snapshot ever taken. Sure, you want plenty of happy pictures. But, you also want a life of contrast and texture. You want the full spectrum of emotion. You want a life of interest, meaning, purposeful contribution, engaging relationships.

Some of those will bring momentary happiness, others won’t. Some will cycle between. Your job is to be aware and intentional along the way. To choose the experiences and create the pictures with as much agency and possibility as possible. Over the long haul, the net effect or side-effect will produce the scenes of a movie that tell the story of a life well-lived.

As Viktor Frankl offered in Man’s Search for Meaning, happiness is not “pursued,” instead, it must “ensue.” If you want to live a good, happy life, don’t chase happiness to the exclusion of other emotions and states. Live fiercely, across the full spectrum of experiences. Connect. Contribute. Move. Open. Risk. Feel. Do. Happiness will emerge as the byproduct of your fully-engaged life, in it’s own way, in it’s own time, of it’s own accord.


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12 responses

12 responses to “Happiness. It’s Complicated.”

  1. Phil Best says:

    Wonderful thought-provoking stuff. Thank you!

    I always try to remember that a full experience of life with the entire spectrum of emotions is the best goal, the best motivation. The constant background emotion for this healthy state is wonder rather than happiness. My desire to live a great life is mirrored by my desire to hear a great story or poem, see a great dance, watch a great movie, hear a great piece of music, read about an amazing scientific discovery etc. etc.

    You helped me to find this place when I read your book, Uncertainty, and I remain grateful. The ground under our feet is not always solid and that’s just wonderful!

  2. Love this. Thank you.

  3. Great thoughts! I love the work you’re doing and the different perspectives you highlight!

  4. Let me start by saying that I don’t know anybody who has ever felt like a room without a roof.

    Happiness comes from solving problems. Not a life with no problems, not a life with unsolvable problems. What problem(s) do you want to solve?

  5. Jon Chandonnet says:

    Great insights. You have a way of putting things that grounds me–a knack for helping me put things into perspective. Thanks!

  6. Debra Watkinson says:

    Really enjoy following your “thinking & sense-making out loud” Jonathan, be it via your podcasts, here, and I recently putchased your new book, so there too.

    Was wondering, do you ever plan to perhaps interview just everyday folks for your podcast, who are living/striving towards a good life? Not to say your guests are not excellent and inspirational, (they are), but would be even more impactful to hear from those who just do their thing and may not otherwise reflect/reflect publicly on their Good Life.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Hey Debra – Thanks for the kind words. And, yup, I’ve interviewed many folks from all levels of “notoriety.” It’s not about a person’s profile to me, it’s about their story. Though, I’m realizing, a number of those are likely not showing on the iTunes archives right now, so I’ll have to figure out how to expand that. I guess maybe I just tend to get pitched more often by people with higher profiles, too. Here’s to leading with story! 🙂

  7. Great stuff. I believe-just my opinion-that happiness is a moment in time. You can be happy one second and sad the next. Joy on the other hand is a choice and a life style. It’s not dependent on any one stimulus but is who you are regardless of circumstance. Thanks for your stuff.

  8. Morten Jensen says:

    Great article. I have always embraced the full spectrum of human emotion and believe it is incredibly important to open up to all emotions.

    I am curious about the following statement in your article: “Some 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes. Another 40% comes from behaviour and choice, the final 10% from environment.”

    I would like to know more about the research behind this statement. Is this based on your own research or can you point me in the direction of where to find out more?

  9. Quite interesting – thank you for sharing.

    Sonja Lyubomirsky defines happiness fairly well, but I wonder if you have reviewed the book “Happiness” by Mathieu Ricard. Obviously, as you stated, happiness has many aspects to it, and is difficult to define, but you kind of take happiness and somewhat intersperse that concept with “hedonistic” pleasure. You note “big, quick hit sources of happiness” and “perpetual joviality” as descriptors. I think those are moving more to “pleasures” vs. real, true happiness. Being “happy” because of pleasurable things is very short term and not worthy of true perpetual happiness.

    Ricard focuses on happiness as the deep state of well being and wisdom in all moments. Of course, he is a Tibetian Monk, but he has studied the topic as much as most. Ricard focuses on differentiating the quick hits of pleasure. He relays that those even under torture have manifested true happiness. One may experience other emotions as grief, pain, etc., but Ricard asks that we cultivate (through deep meditation on love/compassion/etc.) our minds to understand and focus on the proper things, so we can remain in a “happy” state.

    As noted above, fundamentally, it is defining happiness differently – less as an emotion and more as a mind-state.

    So, for example, in your essay, instead of saying you “had a bad day”, with proper mind cultivation, one can better be able to see there were some challenging moments in that day, but even those moments can bring greater happiness, wisdom, understanding, etc.

    Regardless, thank you for taking the time and sharing your essay. It was very enjoyable.

  10. Scott "noodles" Whittaker says:

    I think happiness is a dynamic that changes with time, we are all at different stages of our life and what brought happiness at age 10, 20, 30 may be different from what invokes it in the present. I think our maturity and collective wisdom can help us recognize what makes us happy but the human experience is full of peaks and valleys as you said, it’s hard to appreciate the peaks without the valleys. Either way there is joy and happiness to be found in just about everything. Learning to look for it is important, sense of appreciation for simple yet joyous events..

  11. gary clark says:

    I’ve never “pursued” happiness, it, for me, has been a mind set” a by product of my life. Growing up I knew I was loved. No matter what I “did” or what I said…that never changed! When we love unconditionally that “sets” it up….two things or goals: Love God with all my heart and soul – Love others as yourself….everything else is a “byproduct”….and what a byproduct it is!!