What is Happiness?
Updated: Mar 31
While in my final year of university, during a business strategy senior level class, a profound moment was given to all the students.
This moment of learning had nothing to do with business. But it had everything to do with the business of life.
In what seemed one very ordinary, forgettable winters day, our professor asked the most insightful and thought provoking of questions.
I must admit it is a question I have neglected during certain times of my life. But no matter how far gone, when the time comes and I need it most, this same question finds its way to the surface.
Almost twenty years later it has stayed with me and evolved with time, age, and experience.
Its answer has become a guiding principle in the major decisions I make in my life and in the guidance I give to others.
I hope this question becomes something you can take in yours, and one that you reflect on, when you need it most.
You see, something that day troubled our aging professor, who paused to brush the back of his thinning white head of hair.
The professor slowly looked up at our class of forty students who appeared as a multi-cultural cross section of the world’s population.
And then he finally spoke.
“Ok class let’s take a pause on strategy.”
“I want to ask you one question. I then want you to prioritize the potential list I give you from most important to least. Number 1 being most important, number 5 least.”
“This is your question and your five options:”
“What is the most important thing in life?
Power. Wealth. Happiness. Wisdom. Or fame?”
The question seemed so obvious for my 23-year-old brain. But was it a trick question? I took a moment before deciding…
The professor scanned the room and quickly said, “Class, this is NOT a trick question. Don’t overthink. This ANSWER is more for you than for anyone else. Just answer honestly, with the order that comes first.”
So, without thinking, I quickly ordered my answers:
I looked at my sheet of paper. Should I move wealth up to number 2 or even 1? I wasn’t sure.
But I was confident with wisdom’s placement.
At least, I thought, THIS was the answer our professor was hoping for.
“Class, time is up. By a show of hands how many of you think that happiness is the most important in life?”
I sat motionless, but then without delay five students raised their hands, each with supreme confidence. Five students. Out of a class of forty.
Wow, what idiots, I thought.
“Ok,” said the professor, “How many of you think that wisdom is the most important?”
Two-thirds of the class raised their hands.
The professor quickly took inventory and continued.
“Now, how many of you choose wealth?”
The remaining almost one third raised their hands, except for a handful of students who actually must have selected power or fame?
I looked at the majority of students who raised their hands for wisdom.
What a noble group we were.
We were also the majority and therefore by definition, we must have been right.
But our professor’s face said otherwise.
“Ok for those who chose happiness, why did you chose it?”
A young Indian woman in the class raised her hand and responded, “Because without happiness, there is no joy in life. No fulfillment. And if we live a joyless life, we risk losing it’s meaning. We risk losing ourselves to all the other things we think are important, and will have nothing in the end.”
“Ok great answer. Now, someone from the Wisdom group, tell me why you chose wisdom as the most important thing in life?”
I raised my hand, “Because without wisdom there is no knowledge. And knowledge should be our ultimate pursuit above all else.”
“And why is knowledge the ultimate pursuit?”
“Well, because knowledge tells us why we are here and what our purpose is.”
“But how does knowledge tell you that? Through what device? Isn’t that the purpose and tool of happiness? Doesn’t happiness have the power to show us who we are? Doesn’t happiness in itself reveal our meaning? We cannot control what makes us happy. Either something makes us happy or it does not. Some happiness is shallow, some is deep and long lasting.”
I had no reply. I thought the professor, being a teacher, wanted us to say ‘wisdom.’
“Be careful of the false gods you worship. In doing so you may sacrifice that what you love.”
We apparently were willing to gamble our happiness for all the other things listed, because, ironically, each one of those things in the end, eventually, would bring us happiness, or so we hoped.
Wisdom, as noble as it sounded, was not the ultimate aim. At least not according to my senior year university professor.
And while we all need money to survive, it was clear the professor did not want to even entertain the idea.
And happiness certainly wasn't power or fame.
Over the years that encounter has lingered. The idea of happiness. We hear the word so many times - happiness? But what is it, really?
What defines happiness?
What does it actually mean to be happy?
How can you improve your happiness?
And why do so many of us knowingly choose to sacrifice happiness for other things?
According to the World Happiness Report 2019, run annually since 2012, happiness is explained as the following:
· GDP Per capita
· Social Support
· Healthy life Expectancy
· Freedom to make life choices
· Perceptions of corruption
· Dystopia + Residual
It also lists happiness of citizens by nation. And for me that magnifies the problem with the report.
But happiness should not be something politicized and polarized as groups who have it verses groups who don’t.
- Happiness is a deeply personal measure.
- Happiness is in the little things we do each day.
- Happiness is the larger life aspirations we work towards.
- Happiness is in the friends and family we keep.
- Happiness is the voice inside our heads that tells us to not worry about what we don’t have, but to be grateful for what we do.
Happiness, in my opinion should be a combination of personal measures that we have control over.
And happiness, ultimately, should be something we make time for, in both understanding what it is, and what steps are needed to get there.
By understanding what happiness means to you, it will allow your choices to come from a place of principle.
From a place that prioritizes your needs and desires for the life you’ve always wanted.
I hope this helped someone out there.
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 World Happiness Report 2019, Page 29 – Figure 2.7: Ranking of Happiness 2016 - 2018