What does happiness mean? In this blog I often discuss ways that one can be happy, how to be happy. I also write often about the opposite of happiness: unhappiness, believing it necessary to understand an idea by first comprehending its opposite. I don’t spend enough time however discussing what happiness actually is. This isn’t the first time I have ever tried to answer this question, but it is the first time in a while. The understanding of happiness, as with many ideas, is one that should never remain constant. When we understand a scientific theory, we form an idea about it based on what we know at that present moment. As time moves on though, new discoveries come to light and we have a different or evolved understanding of said idea, and thus our understanding changes. So it is the same with happiness. I believe that since beginning this blog roughly 10 weeks ago that my opinion of happiness has changed, and I fully expect and hope that it has changed in 10 more weeks as I continue to throw grow as a person and a thinker. That being said, this post is about happiness as I understand it at this present moment based on my experiences to date. I cannot say where it will go from here, I guess we will just have to wait and see.
I am fairly certain I know that that considering happiness and overall wellbeing as pillars is not unique, but it accurately describes the notion better than any other idea I presently have, so I am going to roll with that. Those pillars that comprise happiness are: emotional; physical; social; spiritual; and mental. Think of it as an ancient Greek temple that needs all five pillars or else it crumbles (too bad it isn’t a roman temple because then it could just be an arch – a much better engineering tool than a simple pillar). Without all five pillars of happiness being well maintained, the structure of your total happiness cannot stand.
Examining the pillars one by one, I will start with emotional. What does emotional happiness look like? I think that the first part of emotional happiness is in having an inherent sense of self-worth. Too many of us at one point or other surrender our sense of worthiness from ourselves and place it in the hands of others – something that can only lead to pain and unhappiness. The moment we allow our sense of happiness to be derived from what others think, we immediately become unhappy thought it can take time to realize this. Emotional happiness also comes in the form of courage, particularly the courage to be authentic and vulnerable. So long as we are afraid of what others think, terrified of the pain and harm that could befall us should we reveal our true selves, we will be unhappy. This may very well be the toughest part of happiness, each of us has an innate tendency to conceal ourselves as a defense mechanism, believing on some primal level that to totally reveal oneself makes us likely to be harmed. This only intensifies for many of us as traumatic experiences and embarrassing moments pull us even further from true vulnerability. True emotional happiness begins with self-esteem and vulnerability and for most of us leads to a deep connection with one or more other souls. This is usually a romantic partner, but it can be a friend or anyone else for that matter. To find true happiness though, I believe that we must experience a truly open, vulnerable, and whole closeness with another. To live life without this I think is to never truly have lived at all. I would remind everyone to not place your entire sense of happiness in that other person, the person will leave us in some form or other whether through a willful decision or matters outside either person’s control, and if our happiness is totally constituted by their presence in our lives, we will become broken. Nevertheless, I would urge everyone to develop self-esteem by loving theirselves and building the courage to be vulnerable and open with at least one other person, and to build a powerful and meaningful closeness with that person.
Physical health may be a bit easier to understand as it relates to happiness rather than emotional. Simply put, healthy people are more likely to be happy. I have discussed before how chronic low back pain can lead to depression and anxiety and it isn’t hard for anyone who has experienced it to understand why. It is hard to be happy when you are constantly in pain. Likewise, it is difficult to be happy if you are constantly sick. Being sick is painful. It forces you to stay in bed, away from others and heal, instead of being outdoors enjoying sunshine. It forces us to remain still so that we can heal instead of pushing ourselves and enjoying the wonder and majesty that is a healthy and capable body. My caution here would be against putting too much stake in one’s physical health. Good physical health will likely lead to a strong body image, but we don’t want to overdo it and find ourselves vain and obsessed. Furthermore, it is inevitable that at one point our bodies will let us down, for some of us this will happen much earlier than others. If our happiness is entirely in our physical appearance, health, or abilities, we will end up unhappy. Gratitude towards our bodies for what they are, along with considering the inevitability that they will ultimately decline but remembering to enjoy the present we have will lead to a happiness.
Social happiness comes from having a sense of closeness and connection to others. Human beings evolved to thrive in groups. The very essence of our evolution into who we are today depended on a closeness with the tribe. Even today, though we no longer defend ourselves from large hairy beasts or massive reptiles, we depend on one another. Solitary confinement has been described as the most heinous punishment that man can inflict on his fellows. I have even heard stories of inmates who have experienced solitary confinement intentionally acting out so as to be given the death penalty – a penalty that in all honesty is like staying in a resort compared to solitary confinement, up until the inevitable end anyway. Having good relationships and frequent interactions is healthy for us because it reminds us that we aren’t alone. Having friendships is not just about having someone to toss a football with, it is also about having someone to confide in, to share stories together. So often when we suffer psychological pain it is because we feel totally alone. This feeling of aloneness is exacerbated when we lack meaningful relationships. By having relationships with others, we not only have a group we can discuss our lives and our feelings with, something that lightens our burden, but we can also return the favor for being there for others. Arguably the greatest joy in life is helping others. Just as strong social wellness allows us to feel less alone, we have the added happiness of knowing that we can alleviate the suffering of another by being for them the way they are there for us.
Spiritual happiness doesn’t necessarily entail following a specific religion, but it does exist in recognition of a higher power. There are those who truly don’t believe in any higher power at all – and while I cannot refute this, I do strongly disagree. Even supposing that there is no man or woman in the sky director everything that happens, it is difficult to refute that the expanse of the universe and the passing of time extend our capability to fully understand. As such it would be an acknowledgement of a higher power to simply consider the higher power as science itself. Whether you believe, in God, Allah, Thor, Krishna, Zeus, reincarnation, or just the majesty of science, I believe that acknowledging a higher power leads to happiness if for no other reason than that it takes pressure off of us. There have been many times in my life where I truly believed in absolutely no higher power. Such a worldview created a sense within myself that I was the center of the universe. I also put tremendous pressure on myself. When we believe we are the center of the universe everything is of consequence, and when we do something wrong or make a mistake, we feel as if the whole world is about to crumble. Recognizing the truth, that we are ultimately insignificant in our existence as compared to the expanse of the universe and all that ever has and ever will exist, is not depressing but rather liberating. In so doing we come to the realization that it is ok to make mistakes, that a small slip up of this or that is ultimately inconsequential. I have incorporated the recognition of a higher power of a spiritual nature into my morning meditation practice and so doing has allowed me to give myself a break from time to time and ultimately feel happy in my existence.
The final pillar of happiness is mental happiness. I believe that true happiness lies in stimulating ones mind and learning new things. The world is full of knowledge both discovered and undiscovered and I believe that it is not vital to learn everything, nor is that possible, but to not challenge oneself mentally is a waste of a mind. A mind unstimulated will waste away and become sick and weak just as a body that isn’t challenged will do if it remains sedentary. I am not suggesting that you need to become a PhD in any subject nor learn a new language, but I do believe that failing to challenge one’s mind regularly will prevent the creation of true happiness. I enjoy binge watching junky television shows and browsing Instagram as the next person, but I would encourage everyone to find some sort of hobby or passion that provides mental stimulation, I sincerely believe that in so doing you will create a happier state.
Each of the five pillars mentioned above is part of the whole experience and state of happiness. Happiness is in self-esteem, vulnerability, and closeness with someone else. It is in physical health and enjoyment of the world around us through our senses. Happiness is in having friends, people with whom we can engage in enjoyable and meaningful activities, and with whom we can share the burden that is suffering in life together. Happiness is in spiritual connection, in accepting that there are forces at work that are beyond our understanding, and that we don’t have to understand them, merely accept and carry on. Finally, happiness is in mental growth and stimulation. It is in finding subjects that light a fire within your mind and which you are curious to learn more. All of this may seem a bit vague and that is by design. While the pillars can be described to some extent, it is up to you, the individual to fill in the specific details. In physical happiness for some it might be climbing the tallest mountains on earth or running a marathon while for someone else it may be a simple stroll through a garden on a warm spring day. For mental happiness for some it might come from signing up for a new course at the local university while for someone else it might be writing a novel or simply checking out a book on an interesting new subject from the community library. All of the pillars are the same but for each of us they look different. It is up to each of us to find out specifically what makes us happy and what it means to us. I believe that if you begin with the 6 pillars and look inwards to your thoughts and outwards with your experiences, that you can fill in the rest of the space for yourself.