When we decide to be happy…

When Giselle Shardlow from Kidsyogastories  announced that her August’s MKB Carnival would be about the topic “Happiness Around the World” I thought that considered from the point of view of a child or an adult, happiness means different things.

There exist so many studies about happiness, what it is, what it means for people in general and for the different cultures that I couldn’t find one definition that would resume it all for me.

Several years ago I saw a TEDx talk from Daniel Gilbert about “The surprising science of happiness” and I was particularly touched by the data concerning the equal happiness about paraplegiacs and lottery winners after one year (see 3:00 ssq of the TEDx talk). He added more data and talked about natural happiness vs synthetic happiness (8:00 ssq) “Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.”

In another TEDx talk “Want to be happier? Stay in the moment“, Matt Killingsworth talks about the paradox of happiness and the reasearch that has been done in the last years about happiness. What are the causes of happiness? Matt Killingsworth says “it has a lot to do with our moment-to-moment experiences” (2:09). It pretty much depends on what we’re doing, whom we are with, what we’re thinking about. But these are facts that are scientifically difficult to study.

Many other studies about happiness and many quotes from authors, philosophers etc. point out one thing I consider important for my “happiness”: if you avoid mind wandering, if you stay focussed or “stand still” for a moment, you’ll enjoy and be happy in the moment. This profound feeling of happiness and gratefulness is what I personally consider my moments of happiness. And I can have them at any moment. I may say that happiness in correlation with mindfulness would describe it better for me. – Everything can make me happy. And I’m glad that my happiness doesn’t depend on others. It took me several years to realize that I’m not responsible for the happiness of my children, my collegues, my boss(es). But I won’t enlarge upon this here.

Every person has a different way to perceive situations and feels different about them. An event can be perceived as positive and become a “happy memory” for some of us, whilst the others don’t consider it memorable or happy at all.

I’m not responsible for the happiness of my children, but if they are happy, I am too. So, what makes them happy? I decided to ask my children when they feel or felt happy lately.

My son said that he was very happy about coming home after the last day of school. After several hectic weeks, many good-byes and changes, he was happy to just sit on the sofa and read a book. And he was happy that we are going on vacations, that we will meet family, play a lot outside and just spend time (with a big “T”!) together. He’s happy to have more time to play hockey, football, tennis etc. and to meet his friends.

My daughters had a similar reaction. One of my daughters loves horse riding and she is always happy to sit on a horse’s back. But she is also happy when we spend active time together. It can be anything: a walk in the woods, going to a playground, riding the bike, playing ball, jumping on the trampoline, swimming etc.: whatever she enjoys makes her happy.

My other daughter is happy when she does gardening. She loves to do all sorts of craftworks. Building things with her hands (ex. sandcastles), taking care of plants, playing with clay, painting and cooking are the things that make her happy. She also loves spending time outdoors, no matter what.

For all our family, the happiest moments are those we spend together in harmony. When we share the same experience and are happy to be together. It doesn’t have to be something special or expensive, on the contrary, often the more simple and spontaneous things make us happier than planned outings.

This first week of my kids’ summer holiday, for example, coming home from work or sportscamp and jumped into the (very) small swimmingpool in our garden, simply enjoying this time together, laughing, playing and splashing each other, was the happiest moment for all of us. On special occasions we all sit in our living room and watch a DVD together an we enjoy this time together. (We usually don’t watch TV therefore, watching DVD’s is something special!) – Sometimes, to celebrate the end of the schoolyear etc. we go to the beach and we have brunch, lunch or dinner. – These are moments of shared happiness.

I can’t really name a part of the cultures I call mine that particularly evoke happiness. We’re supposed to be happy on Christmas and Easter, on our birthdays and other celebrations. But I’m not sure that we are really “happy”. We (try to) enjoy those moments together, we’re excited but, is this happiness?

The so called natural happiness, when “we get what we wanted”, is a very strong feeling, and I think it’s more spontaneous. But what about the happiness that is defined as “synthetic happiness” (cfr. Daniel Gilbert, 8:00) i.e. “what we make when we don’t get what we wanted”? Is she less intense because less spontaneous? I don’t think so. Anyway, they are both worth to be lived and enjoyed…

Giselle asked us about what happiness means for us. For me it is wellbeing and also contentment. Contentment as “acknowledgement and satisfaction of reaching capacity” and wellbeing like Mathieu Ricard defines it in his TEDx talk “The habits of happiness“:

“is not just a mere pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment. (…) [it is] a state that pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way. “(6:13))

And above all, happiness for me is a decision. Our happiness is our decision to make. – The quotes here below about happiness all require actions on our part and actions require decisions.


Here are some of my favourite quotes about happiness (preceded by a very general definition of happiness):

Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. (Mahatma Gandhi)

Happiness is something that you are and it comes from the way you think. (Wayne Dyer)

Happiness is not a reward – it is a consequence. (Robert Ingersoll)

Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. (Denis Waitley)

A few italian (some originally greek, latin or russian) and french quotes:

La felicità non consiste nell’acquistare e godere ma nel non desiderare nulla, perché consiste nell’essere liberi. (Epitteto, in Arriano di Nicomedia, Manuale, II sec.)

Il sommo bene, cioè la felicità, non cerca al di fuori mezzi per realizzarsi; è un bene interiore e nasce tutto da se stesso; diventa schiavo della sorte se ricerca una parte di sé all’esterno.  (Lucio Anneo Seneca, Lettere a Lucilio, 62/65)

La felicità non va inseguita, ma è un fiore da cogliere ogni giorno, perché essa è sempre intorno a te. Basta accorgersene. (Sergio Bambarén, L’onda perfetta, 1999)

La felicità non dipende dagli avvenimenti esterni, ma dalla maniera in cui li consideriamo: un uomo abituato a sopportare il dolore, non può non essere felice. (Lev Tolstoj, Adolescenza, 1854)

Aimer ce qu’on possède, savoir en jouir, savourer les avantages de son état, ne point trop porter sa vue sur ceux qui nous paraissent plus heureux, s’appliquer à perfectionner le sien et à en tirer le meilleur parti possible, voilà ce qu’on doit appeler heureux. (Émile du Châtelet, Discours sur le bonheur, 1779)


Hotei, god of happiness at J%u014Dchi-ji temple

Hotei, god of happiness at J%u014Dchi-ji temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

16 replies »

  1. Oh Happiness, such a powerful topic. I think about this a lot. I like the division between natural happiness (the one that can’t be planned, and the one that is fullfilling and spontaneous) an dsynthetic happiness. The latter is two-fold: on the one hand, it’s the decision to be happy even if you didn’t get what you wanted. On the other hand, iyou didn’t get what you wanted and make up by deciding to be happy anyway- hope you know what I mean. And then, there is mindfullness…staying in the moment but who will tell me that the moment in my head (which is basically mind wandering, a past time I enjoy doing a lot!) is less important than some moment in real life? Or that concentrating on a moment in the past (reminiscence) or the future (being excited about something, planning to do something) is less important than the now? Being in the moment is very “in” right now, and everybody is taking about mindfullness, but who will tell me that it is really better? Also, it takes work and sometimes (in my opinion) we need to calm down by letting our thoughts go wherever they want and it doesn’t have to be the present- for me it’s like resting and clears my mind.Also, thinking about painful past memories allows me to re-write them in a way that allows me to move on (if you know what I mean). I prefer to think about Michaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” -we focus on the activity we’re doing right now, we loose ourselves in it. But it is spontaneous, we don’t plan it adn we don’t notice our happiness it until afterwards- and the memory of the happy experience makes us happy again, but this doesn’t happen all the time! Happiness isn’t our default setting, it either happens in certain moments, or we have to work to achieve it. But why an’t we accept that we (most probably) won’t be happy all the time? Sadness and other negative emotions won’t make us happy, but they have a cause and they have a purpose, and are just legimtimate emotions (and just a part of the human life) just as happiness is. I like how blogger Monica Bielanko of The Girl Who wrote a post about pursuing Wholeness rather than happiness- to accept ourselves just the way we are with our problems, negative emotions and shortcomings but also with our amazing abilities and positives. Sorry for the long comment and I hope you get what I want to say…

  2. Olga, thanks for your very interesting response! I got what you want to say, no problem. – I like Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow very much: spontaneously loosing myself in the activity I’m doing right now. I think I do this pretty often (and I thought it is a form of mindfulness). Nobody can be happy all the time. That’s simply not possible. Happiness is a sensation in a moment, it starts and it ends. We – luckily! – experience continuous ups and downs and one of the ups is “happiness”. There can’t be happiness without sadness. Endless happiness is not our goal, at least not mine… I think every person (and animal and maybe plants?) deserves to experience happiness. But in order to realize that we’re happy, we need to experience its contrary.

    • Exactly! However I get the feeling that all the articles I’ve been reading is that the goal is to be happy and mindfull all the time and if you’re not happy all the time, you’re not doing it correctly. I understood mindfullness as a conscious decision to be in the present, as a contrast flow is more spontaneous and you don’t notice how happy you are until afterwards. But I believe there are many ways to be happy and everybody finds their own happiness…besides, loved this post- very indepth and nuanced! I wish more posts like that would be written on happiness rather than these one -dimensional posts that I usually find…

      • Thanks Olga, I’m really glad you liked. I always appreciate your feedbacks! – Are you writing one on this topic too? As you’ve read many things about it, why not?

  3. I loved the range of international perspectives on happiness that you discussed and now really want to check out quite a few of the links as well.

  4. Oh, I love this. And I have come to realise what a powerful role mindfulness plays in happiness. When I stop in the middle of an ordinary moment and pay attention to the situation I realise how happy I am. We often underestimate just how happy we are – in moments of ‘normal’ life because we are swept away in daily life.

    • Yes, being mindful really helps to appreciate what we’re doing in the moment we’re doing it. Many of us are living in the future or the past and miss the present. Especially when we have children, we should learn (from them!) to live here and now.

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