Defining Your Happiness

Illustration by  Partes

Illustration by Partes

Here is a little riddle for you…what one thing do we all want more of, strive for daily, speak of often, is internationally recognised, yet we all have different definitions of what it is?

Yup, its HAPPINESS! A subject that has been addressed, pondered and argued about since the fifth century BC when Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tse and Socrates asked the question,

“What is true happiness and how is it to be attained?”

This is a question many of us are still asking ourselves, and if that includes you then read on to find out how you can define your happiness and be better equipped to acquire it.

Now, I can bet you an oat milk flat white, that you can’t make it to your local café without seeing a reference to happiness, somewhere along the way, whether that be on your social feed, Grazia or Stylist mag, a podcast or a conversation in the queue. But why is happiness so difficult to define? Well firstly, happiness is such a subjective concept. What makes us happy and even how we express it differs across countries, continents and cultures. In the western world it is often linked to excitement and pleasure, and in the Eastern parts it may be more accurately linked to feeling calm and present in the moment. Secondly, the media and social culture has skewed our ideas of how happiness is attained or defined, for instance a 24-inch waist, a designer wardrobe, 2.5 kids and a doting husband, a successful career while being supermum. These misplaced ideals have caused us to misread our internal compass and lose our direction on the path to happiness.

So how do we get back on track and define happiness on our own terms? To explain this let’s quickly go back to the beginning. Positive Psychologists like Diener, refer to happiness as Subjective Wellbeing. Yes ok, it doesn’t sound as catchy as Happy but it helps to realise why we all define it so differently. Happiness or Subjective wellbeing can be divided into two categories which Deci & Ryan called Hedonic and Eudemonic wellbeing. Hedonic wellbeing refers to the pleasurable life. In other words, this is the bursts of happiness we experience from a great party, a mind-blowing orgasm, or buying that designer handbag. They all contribute to our levels of wellbeing but are more short term. Eudemonic happiness is about the meaningful life, for instance the joy we feel from spending time with our partner or children, a sense of achievement from working consistently on our goals, feelings of gratitude or a sense of purpose experienced from our work. In other words, Eudemonia comes from realising our own human potential, and also has a positive impact on our wellbeing.

But that is not all, of course not, or we would have solved happiness millennia ago! Other ingredients are needed to create our happiness potion. These can be found in PERMA. This is pretty much a formula for improved subjective wellbeing aka happiness and was put forward by the Godfather of Positive Psychology Martin Seligman. According to Seligman, if we can fulfil these five elements, we are able to increase our happiness and feel more fulfilled. Here is a breakdown of the elements.


P          Positive Emotions: Having an optimistic outlook, being hopeful and looking on the bright-side. Adopting this attitude means failure is seen as temporary and as an obstacle that can be moved. This positive outlook is empowering as it provides us with choice and options and can help us become unstuck.


         Engagement: This is about finding something that we can engage in and that brings us joy. Such as dancing, reading, a business venture or exercising. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t harm us and gives us the chance to get lost in something that puts us in a state of ‘flow’ a concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which has been associated with achievement, commitment and reduced levels of anxiety.


R          Relationships: ok this one is pretty obvious. No man is an island (damn I can’t remember who said that now) but it is true. Us humans are social animals, even if you do consider yourself an introvert or anti-social. Forming and strengthening the relationships that matter to us help us spread and experience joy and love. This helps build a support network.


M          Meaning: This is perhaps the hardest to uncover for ourselves. But realising our purpose, adds meaning to our life. With meaning and purpose, it is hard to feel lost, this helps us to gain clarity, direction and focus. 


         Accomplishment: Having goals in life no matter how big or small provides us with the opportunity to work towards something. When we achieve our goals or reach small milestones that bring us closer to them, we are able to experience a sense of growth and development and ultimately a feeling of achievement.


There has been plenty of research into these five elements and it is great news! They don’t just contribute to our happiness, they also improve our health, cardiovascular function and

help us to live longer. So, there you have it, addressing the 5 elements of PERMA and achieving a balance between Hedonic and Eudemonic forms of pleasure can positively contribute to our wellbeing. However, there is one final element I would like to add which I believe is vital to defining our happiness; Autonomy. Autonomy refers to freedom of choice, free from external pressure or interference. It is about choosing what success, beauty, a great career, a perfect home, a happy family is to you, and only you. So, as you consider ways to address the elements of PERMA, make sure that they are based on your terms otherwise you could be chasing somebody else’s dream.