What Exactly is Happiness?

Extract from the Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris

We all want it. We all crave it. We all strive for it.

Even the Dalai Lama has said: ‘The very purpose of life is to seek happiness.’ But what exactly is this elusive thing we are looking for?

The word ‘happiness’ has two very different meanings. Usually it refers to a feeling: a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification.

We all enjoy happy feelings, so it’s no surprise that we chase them. However, like all our other feelings, feelings of happiness don’t last. No matter how hard we try to hold on to them, they slip away every time.

And as we shall see, a life spent in pursuit of those feelings is, in the main, unsatisfying.

In fact, the harder we pursue pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. The other meaning of happiness is ‘a rich, full and meaningful life’.

When we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, when we move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, when we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality.

This is not some fleeting feeling – it is a profound sense of a life well lived. And although such a life will undoubtedly give us many pleasurable feelings, it will also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness, fear and anger.

This is only to be expected. If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotions.

In the book, The Happiness Trap, as you’ve probably guessed by now, we are far more interested in the second meaning of happiness than in the first.

Of course, happy feelings are quite pleasant, and we should certainly make the most of them when they present themselves. But if we try to have them all the time, we are doomed to failure.

The reality is, life involves pain. There’s no getting away from it. As human beings we are all faced with the fact that sooner or later we will grow infirm, get sick and die. Sooner or later we all will lose valued relationships through rejection, separation or death.

Sooner or later we all will come face-to-face with a crisis, disappointment and failure. This means that in one form or another, we are all going to experience painful thoughts and feelings.

The good news is that, although we can’t avoid such pain, we can learn to handle it much better – to make room for it, rise above it and create a life worth living.