In spite of all the talk, let alone all the books, about happiness, we usually aren’t too clear about the meaning of that word. We simply experience enjoyment and say that we are happy; or we are happy with the way our life is, all in all, going. We are even (at least saying we are) feeling happiness for somebody else, seeing their happiness. Or, we may feel it as the “agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others,” as Ambrose Bierce suggests in “The Devil’s Dictionary.” Younger people, in particular, tend to think that there has to be something more exciting to life than just the normal, and look for new experiences and excitement. As the lifetime one still has left becomes more of an issue with advancing age or with sickness, people focus more on quieter happiness, on emotional satisfaction and stability (cp. Carstensen 2006).
Happiness is a tricky thing in other respects, as well. Not only can we mean different things, we oftentimes get misled. We don’t do something because it’s difficult, takes time and energy, and therefore doesn’t seem worth it. Or we do something, thinking that it will make us happy, but don’t really know what we want, what will have the most impact. At one level, everybody tends to have an easy answer – if only careers were more predictable, life were more interesting, there were no worries about money, one could afford whatever one wanted. Consumerist capitalism plays a large part in that, showing ever more things to buy, experiences to check off the list, all with the promise of being somehow better than the last and making us happier. At the same time, however, people want nothing more than more time, more freedom, maybe even to live forever – but given free time, often don’t know what to do with it. We crave a vacation, and get bored after a few days at the beach. I personally have always been suspicious of people who proclaimed happiness with their living a fun life, going out partying whenever they could. I assume it is fun for them, but I suspect it is also a way of avoiding the quiet in which a voice asks, “What are you here for? What’s the meaning of all this?” Then again, we are bombarded by the extremes of – fictional – life in the movies, and our own lives pale in comparison. Much better then, maybe, to be happy with just a bit of fun. Such happiness can be gained from alcohol and drugs, however, and I think most would agree that life should ultimately be more than such quick pleasure alone.