Why I Hate the Word Happiness

I have a love-hate relationship with the word happiness.

On one hand, I love the idea of pursuing happiness. I want people to be mindful of choosing happiness. I want happiness to matter, to be something that people value and even prioritize in their life.

On the other hand, the word itself gets in the way of our ability to experience it, because it means too many things and not enough at once.

In The Happiness Myth, author Jennifer Michael Hecht defines three types of happiness:

  • a moment of happiness
  • a good day,
  • and a happy life.

The problem is that our pursuit of these different kinds of happiness can be in conflict with one another. For example, focusing all of our efforts on achieving some huge goal we assume will give us a happy life might interfere with our ability to have happy moments. Or, we could choose to only chase after immediate happiness at the expense of long-term health and wellness (think: ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

When I say that I am in pursuit of happiness, I don’t mean that I am trying to be happy all the time.

Being happy all the time is not normal or even healthy, and it will not lead to a happy life. A happy life encompasses the broad spectrum of human emotion, including grief, sorrow, fear, and anger.

You cannot have a happy life if you are happy all the time.

It’s inauthentic. It’s not wholehearted. If you are happy all the time, you are shoving down important stuff that is – or soon will be – oozing out into your life in places where you don’t want stuff oozing.

But, a happy life is made up of happy moments.

Short-term happiness, while not the only necessary ingredient, does contribute to long-term happiness.

The more we seek out and choose happy moments, the happier our whole life will be. And if we don’t seek them out, if we don’t pay attention to them when they show up, we can wake up at the end of a long pursuit and wonder how in the hell we missed all the good that has passed.

Maybe the word happiness is not big enough to cover a good life.

I probably should have thought of that when I named my blog and my book.

But there’s also something special about the simplicity of the word. When you ask people what they want, their immediate response is “to be happy.” It’s also what they want for their loved ones, especially their children.

“I just want you to be happy.”

Perhaps what we’re really saying, what I’m really pursuing, is the opportunity to be as happy as possible, the strength to weather the inevitable unhappiness, and the wisdom to embrace them both.

happy sad and mad

I want you to be happy.

And I want you to be brave enough to feel sad, mad, and bad sometimes.

Because in the end, being happy means being all of those things, too.

What do you think? Are you chasing happy moments or building a happy life?

  1. I never thought to break happiness down into individual steps, but as I think about it it’s almost certainly the best way to approach it.

    Happiness is such an abstract word, and I imagine in some other languages there are probably a dozen words under that umbrella, each conveying a different meaning or concept, each expressing the different parts of our lives as humans.

    Remembering that we’ve had a life filled with happy moments is usually a realization that comes as we age, but it really would be beneficial for us to realize this as early in life as possible.

    Thanks for the post.
    Ryan Bonaparte’s most recent post: What if I don’t have a passion?

    • Miss Britt says:

      For some people, happiness seems to come easily. They get to a certain age, someone asks them if they’re happy, and they say, “yes, of course.”

      I don’t know why, but other people it seems to require more work!

  2. Allyson says:

    I definitely am building a happy life. It doesn’t mean I don’t scream at my children from time to time, or wish I could have more money/time/stuff to accomplish goals, but when I consider my life overall, it is a very happy one. I have happy moments, I have good days, and I am smiling in all the pictures. Even the candid ones.

    I really just came by to tell you I ordered your book from Barnes and Noble. It is in the mail as I type. I bought the paperback version so you could sign it for me. I didn’t get it in time for the contest, which is fine. I’m not really a self-help book kind of girl. This is mostly a long distance hug from someone who has been reading you almost as long as you’ve been writing and is soo, soo proud of all you have accomplished in your life and health and wishes she could be there with you to jump up and down waving the book in the air with glee! Love ya, Britt!

    • Miss Britt says:

      This made me big fat happy sigh up here in Pittsburgh.

      Thank you so much, Allyson.

      And I’m so glad you’re happy. xo

  3. Tom Renfro says:

    You are not alone in your disenchantment of the word “happiness.” In fact I would say you are in stellar company, Martian Seligman the “father” of positive psychology, doesn’t care much for the word either.

    His complaint is, “…not only that it under explains what we choose but that the modern ear immediately hears “happy” to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling.” He also wasn’t too happy to be saddled with the ubiquitous smiley face which pops up every time a mention is made in the news about positive psychology.

    He too, feels that “trying to be happy all the time” is in authentic and doesn’t serve the greater experience which he calls the “pleasant life.” His example was suffering through his six-year-old’s “excruciating” piano recital, not because it made him feel good but because it was his “parental duty” which added meaning to his life.

    Seligman’s own definition of” authentic happiness” has three elements, like Jennifer’s Hecht’s; his are positive emotion, engagement and flow.

    The “flow,” I believe is the “pursuit of happiness” come to fruition. The flow requires that we “challenge” ourselves and at the point of near mastery we experience the flow. Another way, I think, of describing how short-term happiness doesn’t always contribute to your long-term happiness, because of the necessity of overcoming the challenges on the way to proficiency.

    There is, as you said, a wonderful simplicity and joy in the word, and if the pursuit of happiness is made of the little “moments of happiness” (enjoying the journey) then the “pursuit” becomes the object.

    Then the “happy moments’ are building a “happy life.”

    At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it..:>)

    P.S. My copy of your book is on its way from Amazon…I got a “sneak peak” earlier and its one I’m highly recommending. Cheers to the “Happy Moments!”

    • Miss Britt says:

      Thanks for buying the book – and for letting me know I can pad my resume with “in the company of the father of positive psychology.” I’m totally using that.

      Like you, I’m a big fan of the flow. That to me is the perfect combination of a happy moment and working towards a happy life.

  4. Hi Britt,

    Here’s something that proves your point (not that it needs to be proven…): In a survey to new subscribers to my Grief To Growth newsletter (widows), where I ask them what they want the most, happiness is the recurring word.

    I didn’t expect it to be. I didn’t think that it would be so important even in the midst of one of the most difficult periods one could imagine (grieving your life partner). But there it is: not so much “absence of pain” as happiness.

    By the way, I like the word joy better somehow. Although, at the end of the day, it’s not about words. It’s about life.

    Thank you!

  5. Li-ling says:

    Hi Britt, I so hear what you’re saying. A while ago, I asked a similar question myself and I too came to the conclusion that the over-arching ‘happiness’ that most people believe in, does not exist, instead it really is in the little moments every day.
    The challenge then became how does one find these little moments every day? And for some part, I believe that it is almost certainly impossible to be infinitely happy, for one cannot know happiness, unless one has experienced grief and sadness, right?
    To that end, if every experience, in the moment was but a lesson in the journey of life, then being thankful for everything including the bad times, makes being happy so much more possible.

    Much love and to your happiness always.

  6. Kristin says:

    I feel like I’m chasing it lately. Just give me one moment of unadulterated happiness. Pure and simple.

    I feel like a magnet ball these days – everything needs and wants something from me. And the problems! Oh the money problems, and school problems and work problems and don’t get me started on medical problems!!! In my crap moments, I totally see how someone mentally breaks and just walks away.

    It’s easy to DEFINE happiness, but much harder to achieve it. Like I know I don’t need STUFF and would actually be happier without STUFF, but how to get rid of it all? Pull a Britt and Jared and move into an RV? :-)

  7. steve werner says:

    Great post.

    Happiness is such a strange dynamic.

    I’m not sure I ever even thought about it until I reached 50.

    I do struggle mightily however- and these tips will help.



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