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

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6 Responses to Define Happiness

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  1. Sal says:

    I’ve had this problem with emotions too, they are like a switch that goes on and off many times and so fast that I can’t even begin to understand the boundaries between them, or simply think that I feel nothing.

    I never cried as a kid, and couldn’t care less when my sister got married even though we were close. I was different, and had to act from a very young age. When I was in high school I really thought I had no emotions, that all my smiles and tears were fake.

    Yet one day, one of my acquaintances at class told me that I talk too much about one physics teacher, that I love him, and I (completely ignorant to the sarcastic tone that implied romantic love, witch I’m glad I did not notice, otherwise I would have been embarrassed, angry and not answered. Teens had to mix romance in everything!) said: “I do! he’s totally a genius at teaching! when he speaks you can actually see gravity and the planets around him! And when I understand something I………..!”

    I……….become happy.

    I would grin throughout his entire class, couldn’t stop my legs from moving under my table because I’m so exited, my brain gives away a lovely “click!” when he explains something that I didn’t get years ago when I read it in my older siblings’ books, my brain calculates what question he is going to ask next so that I could raise my hand quickly and high up in the sky, and I try really hard not to seem proud of my self when he actually asks that same question, even though I totally am.

    happiness is when the last piece of puzzle fits in, it’s when I understand something, not only in studies, but also understanding that no matter what my friend will be there for me, that a kid I know sees me as a role model not a freak like his parents, that I did not grew out to be the emotionless psycho that I thought I would be.

    Happiness -for me- is to understand a good thing, it is knowledge, solutions to future problems that now you don’t have to deal with! it’s a very strange way to say it, but for me, emotions comes from my head, my heart just follows the instructions. Just like my feet would pound the ground in a class room with a good teacher, my heart would beat when I’m happy!

  2. Lizzy says:

    Sometimes being warm feels pleasant and sometimes it feels like you are sweaty and gross. Sometime being cool is refreshing sometimes it feels like you need to put on a sweater. Sometimes I enjoy eating frosting and sometimes I don’t. Feeling happy is probably like being the right temperature for that moment or eating exactly what you want right at the time. I don’t think I experience it very much though.

  3. D.D. says:

    After really reading and thinking deeply about the definitions you supplied I put forth much effort and came up with this about happiness for me which isn’t as often as I would like to experience. Happiness-a calm, warm sense where a true smile actually appears on my face. I beam from ear to ear. I experience an emotional release of energy. On a rare occasion I will laugh and really laugh.

  4. Catana says:

    Your having been asked that question makes me uncomfortable. As if it’s a challenge that you have to meet and find the right answers. The fact is that feelings are very difficult to describe, and it’s just as difficult for NTs as for anyone on the spectrum.

    • Please don’t feel uncomfortable. Happiness appears to be a sporadic emotion that is caused by situations or things that that occur that stimulate our endorphins causing chemical feel good factors within us. We are all different in our responses as to what triggers these chemicals. It sounds like climbing hills & mountains is one of the things that does it for Leigh.
      We can’t be happy all of the time, but I do believe that it is possible to have a general sense of well being with a little bit of practice. This can help in coping with day to day situations & I have personally found that it helps me to see a meltdown coming & move away from that situation.
      In fact I try & avoid negativity & people who are like that where I can ( not always possible I know! ). Its a proven medical fact that if you can practice something a lot that it opens up a new neural pathway in our brains that can them become a permanent behaviour.
      You are you & know what makes you feel good or happy & you should never have to justify to others why.
      I wish you much happiness & hope that your life achieves a balance of feeling generally satisfied.

  5. Anna says:

    I think the whole expectation of being able to describe feelings with words – especially with “direct” words – is hopeless. It is difficult/impossible not because there is anything wrong with that, but because emotions are dynamic, fluctuating, varying (differ from person to person, and may differ from moment to moment), subjective, subtle & complex mind states that just aren’t suited for being put onto a simple words formula. There are better ways: e.g., you can describe happiness musically. Most people who listen to a strophe of music can straight away determine whether it is happy or sad; and they’ll hear what subtle, unique kind of happy or sad it is, albeit un-standardising it by translating it into their own reality and personal memories. Depending on their sensitivity to musical expression, they’ll get to feel it their own way, as part of their own reality.

    Sometimes some feelings can be expressed well as words, but rarely in a level of depth or detail as to grasp “the real thing”. Generally, words are a medium that’s well suited for communication of facts and relatively simple logical concepts, it is for mass-communication, where standardisation, speed, reach, and efficiency are some the big advantages. Many – beyond doubt most – concepts exist and are accurately expressed without ever coming into contact with words… Not defined in words doesn’t make a concept not defined at all. Words are for summaries only… Complex logic summarised as a simplified theory with explicit assumptions, or a complex feeling like happiness summarised as “happy”.

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