Define Happiness

Many autistic people are said to have difficulty understanding, labelling, and describing their feelings, but I’ve always considered myself to be quite lucky in this respect – I’ve always thought I could describe how I felt, most of the time at least. So when Joanna (the my co-admin on this site) asked me yesterday, “How do you know when you’re happy”, I blithely answered, “When I’m feeling cheerful… when I have that joie de vivre, that glow inside. When I’m glad to be alive.” “Yes,” she said. “But how does that actually feel?” And I was stumped. She explained that I’d answered a question about a feeling by just using other feelings to describe it, leaving her no wiser about my experience of happiness.

We played around with the idea for a while, talking about anger, anxiety, and fear: we found we could describe those emotions in terms of of physical responses (adrenaline, racing heart, trembling, sweating, etc.), but when Jo said fear and anxiety felt like shouting inside her head, I jumped on that, saying happiness was like laughter inside my head; but none of it describes that all-consuming joy happiness brings. No even remotely. We tried describing happiness as an “absence of those negative emotions” (i.e. anger, anxiety, fear) – giving a feeling of calmness, of being safe – but that only touches on contentment. Again, it doesn’t come close to happiness.

Chambers Dictionary defines “happy” as:
1. Lucky
2. Fortunate
3. Expressing, full of, or characterised by, contentment, wellbeing, pleasure, or good.
4. Apt
5. Felicitous
6. Carefree
7. Confident
8. Mildly drunk

Definitions 1-3, and 7 are just other emotions (4, 5 & 8 aren’t relevant in this context), so only number 6, I think, comes close to a true explanation; but Chambers goes on to define “carefree” as a “lack of anxiety, worry, or responsibility”, which just brings us back to the absence of negative emotions we already talked about.

I could say happiness is when I smile – when I smile a huge genuine smile – the kind another friend of mine describes as my “mountain smile” (the one on my face when I’m on top of a large hill – see right). I can certainly remember how I was feeling when I took that photo, but if you asked me, “But what makes you smile?”, or, if you couldn’t see the picture (or recognise the facial expression as happiness) and asked me what caused the primary feeling…? I wouldn’t know.

So Jo made me aware that those of us who can supposedly identify and describe our emotions, still over-rely on cross-referencing them with other emotions, merely describing each feeling in terms of other feelings. This means there is no person-to-person datum for happiness – no baseline to which other people can refer. Negative emotions, however, cause obvious physical responses, and are thus easier to explain: everyone knows what an adrenaline rush feels like, or when your heart misses a beat, or when your legs feel like jelly… so why can’t I describe happiness in this way? The very closest I can get is to say “my heart feels larger”; but don’t our hearts “swell with with pride” and “fill with love”? So perhaps this explanation only describes a generic positive-emotion… it doesn’t nail down happiness at all.

I’d love to know how you define it – answers in the comments box please!

©Leigh Forbes