What’s the role of happiness in a life well-lived?  Is it a goal, a necessary consequence, or something incidental?  What does happiness consist of, anyway?  Is it an emotion, an attitude, a personality variable, a virtue, a way of living, or something else altogether?  Should happiness be actively sought after?    If one isn’t happy, is that necessarily a bad thing?  What makes one happy?  Do the same sorts of things lead to happiness in all of us, to the point that a science of happiness can be developed, or is happiness more of a free spirit, unknowable by formula or prescription?   Is it a permanent state of affairs, or something transient?  Does it depend on circumstances, or does it come from within?  How do we even know whether we are happy?  Do each of us experience happiness in the same way, or does the very form of happiness come to each of us in a way unlike how it visits our fellows—for one, ecstasy, for another, quiet contentment, and, for a third, the sure belief that one’s life is rightly ordered.

 

I initially began this blog in 2008 to ask these and other questions about happiness.  The occasion for launching the blog was the decision by the faculty of School of Arts and Humanities of Methodist University, where I taught at the time, to select “Happiness” as the theme for our inaugural “Big Idea.”  I began that year by looking at the general theme of happiness.  Since then, I have expanded my focus to look at a broader set of questions about how we live our lives.  Perhaps more than anything I am concerned with the various voices found in our culture that speak to how we should relate to others, seek personal fulfillment, or develop character.  I find these voices in the social sciences, film, literature, and various faith traditions, including my tradition of Protestant Christianity.

19 Responses to “About the Blog”

  1. Katharine Snyder Says:

    As the instructor of the Physiological Psychology course, I am impressed with the studies of the biological basis of happiness. Something as simplistic as forcing ourselves to smile can literally activate regions of the left frontal cortex, in conjunction with subcortical areas (e.g. the anterior cingulate), and make us feel better. Higher levels of left frontal / anterior cingulate activity are found in infants who express a happier temperament. This occurs long before the environment has had chance to change the brain. Another argument for biology is that identical twins who are reaised apart still share the same tendencies in affect or happiness. There are many ways to approach this topic, but biology is certainly one of them.

  2. Beth Pitts Says:

    Money (sometimes) makes life easier, but it does not make you happy. You might think you are happy from all the stuff you can have, but that can never fill the space in your heart or mind that you are trying to fill.

  3. Joe Ferrand Says:

    I feel that the faculty of School of Arts and Humanities of Methodist University picked a very controversial topic. It is somewhat a “Pandora’s box” topic. Everyone is an individual, and one of the great things about DNA is the fact that everyone is different. Just as many genetic differences there are in the world, there is about as many ideas of what happiness consists of. Happiness whatever definition that is chosen, it a fleeting emotion that varies in length of time happiness is experienced, what causes the person to become happy, and to how this emotion is expressed. I feel that happiness is one of the emotions to counter acts sadness. Both emotions are required to maintain a balance, and maintain copping skills to adjust in society.
    The human experiences a vast array of emotions that help enable anything from simple adjustment to an uncomfortable situation such as new jobs or location, to survival response (fight or flight) in a scary situation. Happiness is an emotion that is the “Ying” to sorrow’s and stress’ “Yang”. Happiness is always changing to the individual and their surroundings. There are several religions that believe in the “Circle of Life” theology and happiness appears to reinforce that thought. As infants a warm smile, gentle touch brings happiness. As toddlers a blanket or teddy bears is the source of happiness. As we get older the things that make us happy become more complex, such as certain individuals, good jobs, great pay, big house, new cars, family, travel, etc…. Then finally as geriatrics, the things that make us happy are again simple, the warm weather, a simple smile, or a gentle touch. Professor Ritzema proposed the question, Should happiness be actively sought after? I think that if someone spends their life in a constant search of happiness, they will ultimately wind up unhappy. As elderly and the individual looks back at their life, they may see they have spent their life “chasing their tails”. There will never be just one thing, one experience, or one ideal that will bring eternal happiness. In order to be happy we must feel sorrow and experience hardships. After times of great hardships, the joys happiness is much more fulfilling.

  4. Kimaja Stanley Says:

    True happiness must come from within us not from the influences of external stimuli. To be truly happy we must be content with who we are and what we have. As you state, many people confuse pleasure with happiness.
    Possessions and consumables can give us great pleasure and make us happy in the present but in the long run lead to unhappiness and misery as it takes more and more to give us that same feeling of joy. When a person first starts using drugs, whether prescription or illegal, a small amount is all that is necessary to give the desired effect but the longer the drugs are taken the more the body requires to give the same effect. The body adapts and keeps needing more whether it is to relieve pain or to get high. The body has its limits though as to what it can take which often leads to overdose. The same applies to possessions. The more “toys” we think we need to be happy the harder we have to work to acquire them. The more we work, the less time we have to enjoy our possessions, the less happy we are. The first taste of a fine wine may be very pleasurable but after a bottle all you are is drunk. The same is true of a box of chocolates or an all you can eat buffet. The last bite is never as good as the first.
    Long term true happiness can only be found from within. You can’t get it from someone or something else. How you achieve that happiness is dependent on each individual. Some find it though personal relationships with God while others through personal accomplishment. Some find it through their work in helping others. For me it is all three. With the help of God’s grace I will graduate from college with the skills to help others as a substance abuse counselor.

  5. bobritzema Says:

    Joe-Thanks for your comment. As you point out, the opposites of happiness and sadness compliment each other. Perhaps we know what happiness is only because we’ve experienced its absence. I agree, too, that pursuing happiness too ardently can be counterproductive. You suggest that the search for the “one thing” that can bring happiness seldom succeeds. Some people do seem to find their holy grail, be it a calling, a relationship, religious faith, or something else. Despite the value that such things have, they are subject to habituation so that the level of joy they provide inevitably subsides.
    Kim, your post describes well that habituation process as it occurs in substance abuse, material possessions, and physical pleasures. I agree that we don’t all take the same route to happiness; in fact, what makes one person happy might not move someone else at all. I wonder, though, does that mean we can’t learn anything from others about the sort of things that bring happiness? True, we all are different, but at the same time we are alike in many ways, and at least some of the things that others recommend for having brought them happiness will probably have a similar effect on us. Best wishes as you pursue your goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor.

  6. Pat VanCura Says:

    The question of what makes someone happy and if everyone experience of being happy is a very interesting question to ask. This is because every person in the world experience happiness in different ways. One person might be happy having money or material things while another person does not need those things in order to be happy. Happiness is a hard emotion to describe because it is different for each person. When some one is happy you can usually tell by the look on their face because it is bright and probably has a smile on it. On the other hand when some one is sad they have a frown or are maybe even crying.
    Most emotions come in pairs like happiness and sadness, anger and fear, and anticipation and surprise. The reason we can feel each of these emotions is because we know what the other feels like. Due to the lack of one emotion allows us to feel the other emotion and also that is how we know that each emotion exists. Like all emotion happiness can come and go and therefore is not permanent because at one moment a person can be happy but is then given bad news and can become angry or sad. Emotions do not last forever they instead come and go, which allow people to express themselves.
    People find happiness in different things throughout life some are simple while others are more complex. Happiness is a emotion that is caused by certain things on the outside world but the feeling comes from within a person. Happiness is a wonderful feeling but could not be felt if we did not know what sadness felt like. If I went through life looking for happiness I believe I would be unhappy because I might not ever find what I was looking for. Therefore, I let happiness find me, which is also much easier, and I will not be as disappointed if it is not found. Being happy is very hard to explain and each person will give different answers to what makes them happy.

  7. bobritzema Says:

    Pat,
    You make some good observations. People do find happiness by different means. We do learn about each emotion not only by experiencing it but also by experiencing its opposite. And emotions do come and go. Some accounts of happiness suggest it is not a momentary emotional state but a more long-lasting appraisal of how one’s life is going (see my post on “What is Happiness” from August, 2008). In that case, happiness doesn’t fluxuate moment to moment, though it can change over longer periods of time.
    You suggest that it is better to let happiness find you than to pursue it. As you say, there is less likelihood for disappointment with that approach (that’s essentially the view that stoics take). There are some other reasons not to pursue happiness; for example, the pursuit itself can interfere with achieving the goal, and focusing just on happiness can interfere with other goals.

  8. Joe Ferrand Says:

    Individual’s Holy Grail of Happiness
    Professor Ritzema,
    As you stated in your reply (1 February 2009), “Some people do seem to find their holy grail, be it a calling, a relationship, religious faith, or something else”. I certainly agree with you that people do find what they may feel as their ultimate happiness. As we gain something that we deem as gratifying or that brings us happiness, this accomplishment seems to only “set the bar higher”. We buy our own home, next we need a nice car to park in the driveway, then there’s the need for a great pool in the back yard and the list grows. Which in fact that as the “bar is raised” the happiness becomes harder and harder to achieve; therefore, ultimately causing unhappiness. The desire to obtain happiness only fuels misery. For example, marriage is a happy event that brings joy, a very fulfilling part of life, a goal that the majority of the population wants to experience, but then there’s a women who marries the man of her dreams and is very happy, then finds out they are unable to get pregnant, or the widow, who lost her husband in a terrible accident. Yes, we could say that they have found happiness but the happiness brought about sadness. Could the fact that we must accept that for our happiness there will be some sorrow that comes with it and that the happiness and sorrow does not always equally balance each other. The majority of the elderly seem to be happier in their later years with meager desires and needs. Could this be the lesson we must all learn through life? Could this be the “Holy Grail of happiness?” Could it be possible that we spend our lives searching for something that we may never fully acquire and the acceptance of this notion be true happiness? It appears that with each generation the “bar is raised” and each generation spends more and more time moving farther away from true happiness.

  9. bobritzema Says:

    Joe,
    As you point out, what many people think will be the “holy grail” of happiness turns out not to be so because we adapt to our new level of whatever we’ve achieved and think that we need even more to be happy. That phenomenon seems particularly true of certain of our strivings, such as for material goods. In a post on 8-30-08, I talked about “positional goods” as ones that are particularly prone to this process of adaptaton. Here’s what I said then, summarizing from Daniel Nettle:
    “Positional goods are ones that bring us satisfaction only if we possess them to a greater degree than those around us—a more expensive car, a bigger house, a higher income, or a more prestigious job. Non-positional goods are those that give us happiness regardless of how we compare to others, for example good health, freedom, or intimacy with one’s mate. We believe that amassing more positional goods will make us happier. However, it doesn’t, both because everyone else is also amassing such goods, leaving us at the same rung of the status ladder, and because our level of happiness quickly adapts to having such goods, so we think we need even more of them to be truly happy.”
    You suggest that learning eventually that we don’t need all that much to be happy may be the holy grail of happiness. That reminds me of the Buddhist notion that freeing ourselves from desire is the way to eliminate suffering. It also is reminiscent of what the apostle Paul said in Philippians: “I have learned the secret of being content in each and every situation, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul wasn’t being Buddhist, though: he wasn’t giving up all desire, but replacing earthly desires with heavenly ones. As Augustine would later say, he regarded our proper desire to be the desire for union with God.

  10. Erika Dubreuil Says:

    Happiness is a universal emotion that every human being is capable of experiencing. It can be found in many different ways and can affect us all differently. I believe that happiness is something that should, most of the time, be sought after. Only we know what truly makes us happy and only we know how to obtain it. Some people attain their happiness from their jobs and money while others attain it by simply doing something they love or by thinking of an old pleasant memory. Happiness is something that we need to pursue and find, we cannot always wait for it to find us.
    If one always waits for happiness to find them then they may never get a hold of that happiness that they deserve and crave. Even though happiness comes and goes and is not an everlasting emotion, everyone deserves a chance to be happy. Being unhappy can eventually be bad thing and lead to bad outcomes. It can lead to depression, bitterness, anger, and even jealousy. An unhappy person can become jealous of the people around them who are happy and enjoying themselves when they are not. It can also cause mental anguish and depression, allowing their unhappiness to control their lives.
    Even the Declaration of Independence states that we all have the right to pursue happiness and we should be able to do just that. Finding out what makes you happy and going after that happiness can make all the difference. Whether it is finding the happiness within or just reaching one of your goals. Different things fuel people’s happiness. What may bring you happiness and joy may bring someone else unhappiness and pain. Each circumstance is different and has different outcomes. Some people can wait for happiness to come to them or they can go find it for themselves. However, if one plans on pursuing their happiness they must make sure they know their limits and do not overexert themselves. It is ok to let happiness find you every once in a while.

  11. bobritzema Says:

    Erika,
    You make some interesting points. People who have made blog comments on the question of whether we should pursue happiness have been divided between those who think we should do so and those who think we should wait for happiness to find us. it sounds like you are in the former camp, though you think the latter approach is appropriate some of the time.
    You write about the importance of each person finding out what makes him or her happy. The obvious question is, how do we do that? I have some ideas about how to do that, but I’m curious as to what you and others think.
    You mention the statement in the Declaration of Independence about the right to pursue happiness. I previously (on 11/2/08, in case you want to find it on the blog) posted on that topic, giving the view of historian Darren McMahon that the concept of happiness embodied in Jefferson’s statement was much different from our current ideas about what happiness is. Here’s the conclusion of that post: “McMahon is quite convincing in arguing that, at the least, the understanding of happiness that served as a background for its use in the Declaration was quite complex, containing elements of personal pleasure, religious understanding, civic-mindedness, and virtue. Certainly we have lost nearly all of this complexity, having reduced the pursuit of happiness to striving for personal enjoyment devoid of faith, virtue, or the common good. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we once again started pursuing that sort of happiness that Jefferson and his colleagues thought we had the right to pursue?”

  12. Anthony Bishop Says:

    Happiness is an emotion that varies from moment-to-moment and day-to-day, whether it is a big bowl of chocolate chip ice cream or vacationing on a secluded Caribbean island. No one can or should expect to be happy every moment of every day. Happiness is not a constant state of being. Many have happiness and joy confused. Joy comes from deep within a person’s soul. It is internal. It is not affected by external factors. Happiness is dependent upon external factors and circumstances. What causes some one to feel happy is as varied as fingerprints and snowflakes. No two are alike! Happiness can be determined by ones personality traits and present situation.

    First, if a person has an optimistic personality he or she is bound to feel happiness more often than a pessimist. Optimists are positive thinkers. When they are confronted with difficult situations, they become warriors and go forth with strength. Optimist encounter happiness more because they usually have a goal that they enjoy working toward. Pessimists are grumpy and approach their goals negatively. Happiness is a fleeting emotion to them.

    Next, a person’s present situation can determine the amount of happiness they experience. If their present situation consists of healthy relationships, good health and a satisfying career, their level of happiness is certainly increased. As their daily circumstances change so does their daily level of happiness. With today’s economic situation I’m sure the level of happiness varies with the stock market, job losses and gas prices.

    Happiness can not be measured or defined. Ramona Anderson states, “People spend a lifetime searching for happiness; looking for peace. They chase dreams, addictions, religions, even other people, hoping to fill the emptiness that plagues them. The irony is the only place they ever needed to search was within”. Happiness is certainly personal.

    1. bobritzema Says:

      Anthony, you make a number of interesting points. You suggest happiness is a momentary feeling, and see it as dependent on external circumstances. In contrast, you see “joy” as produced by an internal state and not dependent on circumstances. Does that mean that joy is long-lasting? I’m curious as to what internal state you think produces joy.
      What you say about personality traits and external circumstances is supported by research. It seems that optimism isn’t entirely a stable personality trait, but can be cultivated. Some psychologists have offered programs to help develop more optimism in one’s view of the world.
      I like the quote from Ramona Anderson. Certainly, there are many unfruitful ways of searching for happiness. I’m not entirely convinced that happiness comes only from within oneself, though.

  13. Todd Ritzema Says:

    Uncle Bob-

    I just found your blog today. Left a couple of comments on your posts. I read 20 or so of them.

    I do not have your email and my capacity to attend our family get-together was somewhat diminished by working 40hours in a 56 hour span this weekend. I had a book that I was wondering if you had read, and if you have not please do. I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

    The Age of Revelation:
    http://archive.org/details/ageofrevelationo00boud

    I read the book in a two day span and found it to be one of the best books of Christian apologetics that I have ever read. Looking forward to a re-read once my dad is done with the copy I printed out.

    Your nephew,

    -Todd

    1. bobritzema Says:

      Todd,

      Good to hear from you. We did miss you at the family get-together. Since I’m in GR most of the time now, perhaps we can get together for coffee some day when we’re both free. Call me at my parents’ house if you’re interested. I had never heard of the book. Is it available as a free download? I have an android tablet computer but haven’t figured out how to download books onto it. I’ll give it a try, though.

      1. Todd Ritzema Says:

        Yes it is available as a free download as it is in the public domain. That link should be good for the pdf file. I am interested in getting together for coffee, but it will have to be in a week or two if I understand your schedule correctly from my father.

  14. lscripsit Says:

    Happiness? It’s being excited about what you’re doing. Good health and going to Italian dinner parties are nice, too. Cheers–L

  15. Amara Says:

    You have been nominated for a Versatile Blogger Award! More details here:
    http://deprifun.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/versatile-blogger-award/

    1. bobritzema Says:

      Thanks so much, Amara! I do try to be pretty versatile about the things I cover in the blog; I appreciate your recognizing that.

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