This paper discusses what “happiness” is. It considers the extent to which happiness can be considered synonymous with success, and concludes the greater happiness can be found in sharing happiness with others than can be found in personal success.

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Happiness is something everyone strives to attain, and yet it remains difficult to arrive at a consistent definition of what “happiness” is. Philosophers, psychologists and religious leaders have all grappled with this problem for centuries, and in recent times it has been taken up by economists and business experts, who seek to persuade the public that whatever “happiness” is, it is something that can be bought. This paper will consider the question of what “happiness” is in modern society, and whether it can be considered synonymous with material success.

From a philosophical perspective, happiness as a concept in western society was defined in classical times; Simon Critchley describes the classical definition of happiness as consisting of, “the solitary life of contemplation” (Critchley, insert date of textbook here, p. 448). This idea defines happiness as a state of extreme self-awareness and contentment with oneself, and is almost religious in its perspective. For these classical thinkers, happiness equated to a sense of satisfaction which could only be achieved through solitary self-searching. However, for Critchley, this idea can be seen as outdated in our modern world, where solitariness is a rare phenomenon (Critchley, insert date of textbook here, p. 448). Critchley points out that in modern society, social media and other technologies mean that people seek satisfaction not through solitary contemplation, but through their interactions with others. In this world, satisfaction – and therefore happiness – result from both an awareness of the way in which personal identities are created publically, and from the relationships that each person forms and maintains. What this means is that happiness is something that people in modern society increasingly seek to find externally to themselves, through their career, family, friends, and possessions, all of which combine to form their sense of identity in a world where identity is synonymous with public image. This makes it difficult for people to recognise true happiness, and to fall into the trap of equating happiness with material success. It is a fallacy which a lot of modern scientific research attempts to validate; however, this paper will argue that although material success can provide temporary happiness, true happiness comes instead from social relationships rather than social image, making material success less important to true happiness.

There have been many modern scientific studies of what constitutes happiness in the modern world, and many of these have been published in popular media, providing supposedly scientific evidence for the idea that modern happiness equates to something tangible that can be identified and then pursued. However, as one sceptical writer in the New York Times points out, the science of happiness exists now to help fuel economics and business, and these studies can be seen as biased, manipulating consumers into believing that happiness can be bought (Davies, 2015, n.p.). Davies writes that “Where happiness indicators were once used as a basis to reform society … they are increasingly used as a basis to transform or discipline individuals” (Davies, 2015, n.p.). He lists examples such as the effort put by multinational corporations into studying what makes employees happy, in order to enhance company performance, or the money spent by new brands on research to target consumers with specific products marketed as increasing happiness. Any ten-minute commercial break will show a whole range of such products, identifying happiness as security, or beauty, or a happy relationship, and then providing an insurance plan, or cosmetic product, or online dating site which will allow the consumer to purchase happiness. However, despite its position as one of the top wealthiest countries in the world, the US is not in the top ten of “happy” countries, according to the United Nations Report on happiness (Laine, 2015, n.p.). This report, which measured the reported happiness of citizens from countries around the world, indicates that despite the success of most American citizens when it comes to economics, happiness and satisfaction have remained elusive.

From a modern perspective, some philosophers have speculated that the classical definition has some merit, and that if happiness cannot be bought, then it makes sense that happiness might consist of a departure from social pressures and economic interdependence. Critchley, for example, speculates that happiness consists of a “sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency” (Critchley, insert date of textbook here, p. 449). This suggests that it is the dependency of the economic system that means happiness remains elusive in spite of material success, and that happiness exists in modern life when people success is escaping from the feeling of dependence, and recognise that they can subsist on their own. However, this definition does not tally with much of the research that indicates people do find genuine happiness in the modern world as a result of their relationships with others. Although it may sound logical, this idealised idea of happiness is not practically applicable to modern lifestyles. Instead, other modern philosophers suggest that “we should stop looking for happiness in material prosperity and start looking for it in whatever gives us satisfaction” (Schoch, insert date of textbook here, p. 452). In modern society, this satisfaction may sometimes come from the sensation of being alone and self-sufficient, but studies seem to indicate that it comes most often from social interactions with others.

Psychology has been behind many genuine research attempts to arrive at an understanding of what makes people happy, and although these studies have often been appropriated by business and marketing, they nevertheless indicate some truths about happiness in the modern world. For example, statistics indicate that a number of social activities make people happier, including drinking with friends, having sex, and having fulfilling employment (Schoch, insert date of textbook here, p. 451). What stands out about all of these activities is that fact that they all make satisfaction and happiness dependent upon relationships with others. Furthermore, these are all activities that may be facilitated by material success, but can equally be pursued without it. In another popular study of happiness, expert Timothy Bono, a psychology lecturer at Washington University, states that “if you ask people to report their happiest memories, they will almost always include experiences shared with loved ones. The strength of our bonds with others is one of the strongest predictors of our happiness as individuals” (Sashin, 2015, n.p.). Bono’s research seems to suggest that in many modern activities, although there is usually an element of material wealth as well as social interaction, it is the social interaction that best meet our happiness needs as a species. For example, although the ownership of a powerful piece of smart technology with access to social media may create happiness, it is not necessarily the material worth of the gadget that creates the happiness, but the connections and social interactions enabled by the technology. History indicates that human being are social animals, and have nearly always organized themselves in social groups and relationships: it stands to reason, then, that in modern society material wealth related to happiness only to the extent to which it facilitates the creation and maintenance of satisfactory relationships and social interactions.

The poet Jane Kenyon writes that “Happiness is the uncle you never / knew about” (Kenyon, insert date of textbook here, p. 460). Kenyon’s illusive set of metaphors about happiness in this poem points to an undeniable truth about happiness: although happiness can be defined broadly in psychological, philosophical, economic and statistical ways, any detailed definition of happiness must remain as variable as human beings themselves. Happiness is satisfaction, and satisfaction is different for human being. Although factors such as material success and relationships can impact upon happiness, real happiness can only be defined individually, by the person who experiences it.

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  • Davies, W. (2015, July 2). “Don’t Make Personal Growth a Untilitarian Goal.” The New York Times Online. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/07/02/the-relentless-pursuit-of-happiness/dont-make-personal-growth-a-utilitarian-goal.
  • Kenyon, J. (Insert date of textbook publication here). “Happiness.” In: [Insert textbook author and title here] (pp. 459-460). [Insert place of publication and publisher of textbook here].
  • Laine, S. (2015, April 24). “Where Does the US Fall on the World Happiness Report?” The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2015/0424/Where-does-the-US-fall-on-the-World-Happiness-Report.
  • Sashin, D. (2015, April 17). “It’s the Little Things: Why Animals, Sunsets and Coffee Make us Happy.” CNN.com. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/17/living/feat-happiness-little-things-irpt/index.html.
  • Schoch, R. (Insert date of textbook publication here). “A Critique of Positive Psychology.” In: [Insert textbook author and title here] (pp. 451-453). [Insert place of publication and publisher of textbook here].