The primary meaning of happiness, according to the dictionary, is to be favored by luck or fortune. The third most common usage of the word suggests well-being and contentment. It is likely that Tom Jefferson and Ben Franklin meant the latter rather than the former. The Bill of Rights proclaims that it is a god-given mandate to be happy. It appears that happiness is a good thing. Unfortunately, happiness is often regarded as a state of being, rather than a label one places on their emotions.
If happiness is considered as a mood state, it should also be considered time-limited. Emotions ebb and flow throughout days and weeks, and happiness is a qualitative label to describe the flow. Mood is conceptualized as the average of emotions across time. One may feel anger and happiness in extremes throughout a difficult day, but the overall rating of one’s mood may not change significantly. Affects are the facial expressions indicating emotions to others on an immediate basis, and summing these over time reveals mood. For example, a surly mechanic may inspire an angry affect, but the injured party’s mood will return to baseline after the incident. Affect is typically fleeting, and mood is considered the emotional baseline.
Aristotle believed that happiness is the only human activity pursued for its own sake. People pursue health, wealth, and power in order to be happy; as a means to an end, and not an end unto itself. Happiness could be considered as a goal of behavior. Jefferson was an ardent admirer of Aristotle, and likely influenced his thinking on the subject. Happiness for Aristotle was not just a label for an emotion, but described the behavior of one who acts in accord with their virtuous nature. When the purpose(s) inherent in our nature are fulfilled, we may be labeled “happy.”
A realistic definition of happiness incorporates the behavioral features of Aristotle, combined with modern knowledge of the brain. While mood is considered the baseline, this does not mean the base is stationary. When we accomplish a goal that is considered important, the affect is one of happiness. Goals may be a manifestation of purposes inherent in our nature, but this is not necessary the case. It is a modern certainty that environment plays a huge part in developing our “natures,” and the process continues throughout our lives. How people define “virtuous” and their “nature” changes throughout the lifespan. Consider that we are born as a book, and others may write in it as they please. We may edit and filter, but graffiti will influence the copy. Our genes define the size, shape and quality of the binding, yet the content is a joint venture. To construct a modern theory of happiness is to realize that goals are products of genes shaped by experience- filtered through the prism of immediate need.
To be happy is to accomplish a goal. The goal must be consistent with what we consider to be justified and necessary. It must be meaningful to the person. A state of happiness necessarily ebbs until a new goal is accomplished. Happiness is less a mood state than an emotional reaction to the attainment of a goal. It medicates a sense of stagnation by obtaining an assurance of progress. Happiness cannot be pursued for its own sake. We pursue happiness through our goals. The Bill of Rights was correct in writing the “pursuit of happiness,” since it is never the object of lasting attainment. If your goal was to read this post, I hope you’re happy.