Life, work and the pursuit of happiness

Happiness is an elusive concept and its pursuit is often as elusive as the construct itself. And yet pursue it, we do. Rather unhelpfully, the Oxford English Dictionary defines happiness as “the state or feeling of being happy”. So I find myself wondering, what is happy? What is this concept we are all supposedly pursuing? Aristotle defined happiness as a mixture of pleasure and a life well lived, which today psychologists translate as meaning “pleasure and meaning”. Recent thoughts on the subject in the area of positive psychology have added the idea of “engagement” to the meaning of happiness, indicating the importance of balance in work, family, friends and personal interests.

Psychologists have spent a fair bit of time considering this concept. They have come up with three levels of happiness to help us wrap our collective head around the subject: momentary feelings of joy and pleasure, judgments about feelings and a higher meaning of life that flourishes and fulfils one’s potential. They believe we can attain happiness through material objects, through comparison (i.e. being better than others at something, or feeling happy today compared to how miserable we felt yesterday), through doing good for others, and finding our calling (which is called the ultimate happiness). Happiness has become a science, a tangible, measurable construct.

Psychologists have undertaken studies that have indicated our intrinsic ability to feel happy is determined by 50 per cent genetics and 40 per cent our daily activities. The remaining 10 per cent? That’s entirely up to you. I’m still not sure how I feel about the idea that half of my capacity for happiness is determined by my family makeup (especially when I have colonial convict blood somewhere!). But the other half is a choice, it seems. If our daily activity makes up 40 per cent of our capacity for happiness, it stands to reason that what do for work is singularly important. This doesn’t mean that have to quit our mundane jobs and rush out follow our dreams of being an artist or a travel blogger (although if that’s what you genuinely want to do, there’s no reason why you can’t work towards achieving it). Rather, it means that we need to take back control.

For all the science behind our understanding of the concept of happiness, is it really tangible? It still remains subjective: what makes me happy won’t necessarily make you happy. Our general sense of happiness, it seems, is defined by what we deem to be important (and unimportant) and how we choose to perceive the world around us.

Following a purposeful career is an ideal that some of us have the pleasure of pursuing, but not all of us. I recently ran a poll in my Facebook group that asked members to rate their level of happiness (not just satisfaction) in their current job. I was surprised to see the option “There’s a lot to be happy about in my job” attracted triple the number of responses of any other option. A total of 21 per cent of respondents stated they weren’t unhappy and only 14 per cent indicated unhappiness. Perhaps the key here is satisfaction. To look at what you have and feel gratitude and contentment for what is right in front of you, knowing that there could be more out there waiting for you. How you choose to perceive your work can make all the difference, as can what you choose to compare it to. Would the thought of being unemployed make the job you are doing more satisfying? Are we able to feel happy about not being miserable?

Perhaps our pursuit of happiness is not about attaining it at the end of a journey, but building it as we walk the journey.