On overcoming satisfaction, and a definitive answer to ‘what is happiness’

Happiness isn’t something to strive for. When we go to the roots of what it means to be happy, we discover that our language has the answer.

There are few things that I read religiously. One is every email sent by this guy (and he sends about 3 a day, every day). The other is Intelligent Tuesday sent by Intelligent Change.

And in the other week’s Intelligent Tuesday there was an article that attempted to address the idea of overcoming satisfaction. That’s what today’s here article is about.

In The problem with being happy, Dave Schools began to unpack what it might mean to overcome satisfaction. He suggests that satisfaction and happiness are both illusions, because we all seek change, and change is uncomfortable. He recognises that the answer will be different to everyone, but suggests that the idea of ‘millenialism’ (which is constantly evolving, changing, growing) isn’t the answer (it may result in aimlessness), and nor is doing nothing. He quotes from an extended essay about Nietzsche, but doesn’t engage with it. The quote ends with, ‘what must I do to be happy? That I know not’.

Unpacking the question of happiness

The question of happiness is something that I have engaged with at length here. It’s also one that I address in the work I do for one of my clients. It’s a subject that I am inside of almost daily.

You have to admit. Nearly every writer of note, whether they are secular or religious, ‘new age’ or conservative, academic or lay, seems to come back to the same topic.

Maybe happiness is being present, and getting out of your own way?

It sounds like something you’d expect, right? Like something a mindfulness practitioner might say. Something a Buddhist might say. Something that you’d find in any fluffy, wanky, bullshit new age shop: Stop and be present and find your happiness.

In truth, the condition of seeking happiness is not going to create happiness, because seeking acknowledges an absence. Being on the hunt all the time doesn’t allow you the time and space to appreciate all the little things on the way. When you do eventually see them, you’ll probably stare at them and ask: Will you make me happy?

‘Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.’

Winnie the Pooh

Trying to win the prize of happiness means that you miss the most important thing about being alive: Life itself.

Maybe happiness is about realising that life is fun?

The guru of play, Bernie Dekoven, recognised the importance of life = fun towards the end of his life. When he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, he wrote his way through the experience. In thinking through that, he came to the conclusion that the entire goal of life is to have fun:

‘… it’s easy to understand why we make that mistake – thinking that life is a game. Because when we are playing a game, and the game is good and we are playing well, we feel more, well, alive. And we call it “fun.” But the real fun of fun is not because of the game, it’s because of the experience of aliveness, of being in life, in the whole of it, completely. That’s the prize: the prize of play. But, because it’s a game, especially one that we think we can win, we pretend that we haven’t won yet. We pretend that when we win, and only when we win, we’ll have something we can really celebrate, something we can delight in, victory at last. When all along, the fun we’ve been having is the only victory that counts. The only victory.


And isn’t that just like life?’

Bernie Dekoven, Life isn’t a game. It’s the prize. https://www.deepfun.com/life-prize/

Maybe happiness is not being insecure?

Some people consider happiness and satisfaction to be the same thing, but it isn’t. In many ways, I consider the absence of happiness (or satisfaction) to be a state of being insecure. I have previously written about this in some detail.

Workplace-based resilience trainers, for example, help people to find happiness partly by changing how they think. They start very small. The reason is because our thoughts and expectations have an impact on our worlds (and our bodies) in remarkable ways.

Now, do you see what I meant earlier about seeking creating absence? Being on the hunt, always looking for something, is you telling yourself that you don’t have it.

The truth is, happiness could be loads of things. It appears difficult to pin down. But it’s devastatingly simple.

To find what happiness actually is, you are forced to turn to your language.

I’ve previously included quotes from famous people like Oprah, who are on record talking about their experiences with people who don’t even know what happiness means to them.

It’s not uncommon; in fact, it’s a condition I’ve known myself.

Before I get into the language stuff, I want to point out that because happiness often comes down to an absence of something else, the desire for happiness can appear as a desire for an absence of fear. That’s why, if you ask yourself ‘what is happiness to me’ and come up with anything related to survival, then you need to spend time unpacking what you are afraid of.

It might appear cloaked in something else related to freedom, too. Whatever you come up with is an indication of what you might be able to explore to get closer to the golden land. The challenge is to do the work to unpack it.

Now, back to language. You face your language when you start looking for the definition of ‘happiness’.

It sounds obvious, but it’s the kind of study that people often skip over.

So, I’ll unpack the original meaning of ‘happiness’ for you.

Words, like language as a whole, have a structure. All words have a root, which is typically at the front end of the word. And they have a tail, which is at the end. Depending on how words formed, they may be complete words or contractions of other parts.

The word happiness is a contraction of ‘happy’ +’ness’.

The root, ‘happy’, meaning ‘pleasant and contented mental state’ is from the 1590s.

Its tail ‘-ness’, means ‘an action, quality, or state’.

Ok, so happiness is the state of having a pleasant and content mind.

Unpacking the original meaning of ‘happy’

‘Happy’ didn’t just appear, as a word. Looking at its history, you’ll find that its root, ‘hap’ is a noun meaning several things, depending on which of its origins you take. Some refer to fate, others to victory, success, congratulations, good omens, and good luck.

The English origins of ‘hap’ were ‘good fortune’, which dates to the 1200s.

The tail of ‘happy’ is ‘-y’, and it dates from the same period. In the case of the word happy it denotes ‘full of’.

Ok, so happy is being full of good fortune.

Language tells us what happiness is, with devastating clarity

Following the explanation above, and knowing that language shapes how we view the world – it’s obvious that happiness is a state in which you are full of the good fortune to have a pleasant and contented mind.

That’s so important that I’m going to give that to you again.

The definition of happiness is ‘being full of the good fortune to have a pleasant and contented mind’.

You can verify my statements about the origins of the language at Etymology Online, if you like.

So you see, the mindfulness folk are probably right!

Certainly, vast amounts of research validates it, even if researchers refuse to state that they know what happiness is because happiness is subjective.

Sure, happiness is subjective. But the conditions that create reported feelings of happiness are so similar, all around the world, that it’s time we stopped believing that our own abstractions are unique.

What does this mean for you?

It means that you need to work out for yourself what a pleasant and contented mind is.

If you don’t feel happy with a pleasant and contented mind, then look at your expectations. If you are expecting some wow thing to happen to you – and you don’t see it as good fortune – that might just be the problem.

So how do you achieve this state?

Well there are loads of ways that you can achieve this state. There are the obvious ones, like meditation, taking time for yourself, exercise, blah blah blah.

But here are my absolute favourites:

  1. Express majestic gratitude to all of the objects and places in your life. This means something like: Hold a clean fork before you put it away, and in your ‘inside voice’ thank it for enabling you to eat your meal. Allow yourself to feel that feeling in your belly of being well-fed. Allow yourself to feel love for the fork: That without it you would have been so poor as to eat with your hands and make a mess. Allow these feelings to become gratitude for the fork. Written out, it looks like effort; in practise, it takes half a second. I will put money on it that it will make you smile! Do this for every item, tree, object, dwelling, mode of transport, piece of clothing (you get the picture), and you will suddenly realise how amazing your life is. It’s a short step from here to contentment.
  2. Allow yourself to laugh, at everything! As you become appreciative, you become present: You have to be, to be properly appreciative. As you do this, you’ll find yourself smiling more, and amused more. Give yourself permission to laugh. The pessimists and negative people in your life will tell you that laughing all the time is insanity. Ignore them. What’s insane is being a grouch all the fucking time, and missing the beauty of life.
  3. Stop aiming to be happy, or satisfied. Just do the things you want to do. Set proper goals to give your life direction. Know that you are you and that what you want to do is valid. Ignore everybody else, get off social media (seriously, it’s amazing and the first thing to do for a good life), and follow whatever it is that turns you on. It’s your life, right?

The net result of these three simple things will be that happiness just finds you.

When it does, it fulfils the good fortune part of our definition! You will have the good fortune to have a pleasant and contented mind.

And none of us can ask for more than that. Right?

In summary

Happiness isn’t something to strive for, seek out, or unearth. Our language shapes how we view the world. And in English, happiness is defined as being the good fortune to have a pleasant and contented mind.

Like that person who stepped into your life and fell into the right place; the property that fell into your hands when you least expected it; and that dish you didn’t really care about cooking but that turned out to be one of the best you’ve ever made; happiness will fall into your lap when you stop trying to create it, and start enjoying your life instead.

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