What I Talk About When I Talk About Happiness

Since I started out on an exploration of what really adds up to happiness, one thing has come up repeatedly in my mind: what is happiness? What is happiness, exactly? How do I define it? How can I experience it? How can I help others do the same?

Shane Breslin

By Shane Breslin

I expect that if I stood on a street with a clipboard and stopped 50 people and asked them, “What does ‘happiness’ mean to you?”, I might get 50 totally different answers.

So this is an attempt to add some definition to my view on happiness.

To paraphrase the great short story writer Raymond Carver, this piece is all about what I talk about when I talk about happiness.

It takes a series of common notions about happiness that I fully believe are complete misconceptions.

And I believe they are dangerous misconceptions.


Because if we find ourselves believing these, we will live in a way that is detrimental to all the things — our mental and physical health, our family, friends and wider community, our purpose in life, our passions — that add up to lasting happiness.

Myth 1. Happiness is an Endpoint

Reading Rob Moore’s (otherwise excellent!) book, Money: Know More, Make More, Give More recently, I came across this passage about happiness.

I feel there are many fallacies around the real meaning of life and money. Happiness is often claimed to be the purpose of life. There are many debates across the world about whether money makes you or buys you happiness, or that the ultimate fulfilment in life is to be happy. However, if we all reached eternal, perpetual happiness … nothing would get done and we would risk dying out as a species.

Happiness suggests contentment, and is defined as such in the dictionary, and fulfilment. Happiness suggests a final destination.

However, a final destination is the start of atrophy and a place for non-growth. If we all sat around a tree and held hands in eternal peace we would have no desire to grow as an individual or as a species.

We would have no desire to solve problems or challenges, because we would perceive that we don’t have any. We’d feel no need to learn, to struggle, or to push for change. We wouldn’t evolve personally or collectively.

Reading this, and hearing someone I respect tell me recently “I never want to be happy”, prompted this blog.

I don’t mind being ballsy about this. If you think about happiness like this, you’re getting it wrong.

Happiness is not something to be avoided because it might take away your drive.

Happiness is not something to be avoided because it’s an endpoint and what comes next except atrophy and stagnation?

Happiness is not something to be avoided. Period.

I posit that concentrating on happiness has exactly the opposite effect to stagnation and atrophy, because it fills your moments with gratitude, clarity, energy, motivation, purpose and positive impact.

Happiness is not something far off in the future.

Looking at happiness in this way — as something to chase, pursue, aim for — that is exactly a route to unhappiness. Because when you think of happiness like that, it stays perpetually out of reach. You will find yourself thinking of things (subconsciously or otherwise) that might make you happy, so you do things you don’t really want to do or buy things you don’t really want to own.

Happiness is now.

Happiness is not just now; it is also all the innumerable future nows in your life until it all ends.

Happiness is the birdsong outside my window at 5.38am this morning.

Happiness is the first light of the day.

Happiness is the unpredictability of a butterfly’s flight.

Happiness is being able to pay your car insurance in full because there was enough money in the bank to do so.

Happiness is the smile on someone’s face.

Happiness is the rat-tat-tat of the unseen woodpecker.

Happiness is the glory of the setting sun.

Happiness is seven billion virtually endless lists of things for seven billion unique people on the planet.

What’s on your list?

Myth 2. Happiness = Pleasure

Pleasure is part of happiness, of course.

But happiness is much, much, much different than pleasure alone.

Happiness, to me, is about a life well lived.

Pleasure is at most a quarter of happiness. I suggest there are five parts of happiness.

Let me call them The Five P’s.

  • Pleasure
  • Purpose
  • Progress
  • Passion
  • Positive impact

Happiness is a Jenga stack, and The Five P’s are the core blocks. Take any of them out, and everything is likely to fall down.

You need pleasure, but you need more than pleasure.

You need purpose, because what is life without purpose?

You need progress, because humans are all about development and movement. We always have been, ever since our daily lives were about hunting and gathering.

You need passion, because passion makes your nerve endings come fully alive, and it is when everything is fully alive that magic happens. (By magic, I mean, literally, magic. Being able to do things that seem impossible, both before they happen and while reflecting on it afterwards. Nelson Mandela said, “Everything is impossible until it is done.” This is the magic, and passion creates the energy that creates the alchemy.)

And you need positive impact, because without community, without helping others (those close to us and those we’ll never meet), everything becomes much less meaningful.

You need all Five P’s.

So pleasure is fine. Give yourself permission to experience pleasure without guilt.

Just don’t forget the others.

Myth 3. Happiness Kills Motivation

This is a belief held by the people who say, “I never want to be happy”.

They say this as if it’s a badge of honour. As if happiness is something to avoid at all costs.


Because happiness kills motivation.

Because happiness is being fulfilled, and being fulfilled is something to avoid.

This is, of course, total rubbish.

Fulfilment suggests that we can ever stay still. We can’t. Not until the end.

And when that day comes, if you’re fortunate enough that it comes in a way that allows you to reflect, what will you reflect on? Will you be satisfied that you never allowed yourself to be happy?

No matter what anyone tells me, no part of me believes that’s true.

Myth 4. Happiness is Being In An Annoyingly Good Mood All the Time

This is something that has to be addressed. Since I started this project in late 2017, I’ve definitely found some people I’ve known for a long time looking at me a bit differently.

Maybe there’s something about me that they’re not sure of, something that they don’t trust.

My barber said to me on one chop-top visit, “I see you spreading the cheer. Good for you.”

Maybe it’s just me and my own habitual, self-defeating, almost hardwired limiting beliefs in action, but I sensed something unsaid there.

Something like, “Fair play to you for spreading the cheer, but that’s not for me. I’m in the real world. And the real world is sort of shit. And if you’re trying to spread good cheer to me, you can stop right now.”

Let’s face it, no-one likes a Pollyanna.

Pollyanna Definition - What Is Happiness?

Not even me.

I can be grumpy with the best of them. (But no-one likes a permanent grump either…)

Excessive cheeriness is not happiness.

Permanent cheeriness is impossible without putting on a phony front. As Rob Moore wrote in Money: Know More, Make More, Give More,

The more expectation of perennial happiness I had, the worse I felt, and the more I beat myself up about feeling unhappy. Then, I’d then put on this false persona of happy-clappy-happy-joy-joy-joy, only to then feel low and somewhat of a fraud for trying to put on a happy face in public.

So excessive cheeriness — happy-clappy-happy-joy-joy-joy — is very likely to be a mask hiding some deep inner turmoil.

All is not sweetness and light. All is sweetness and light and sourness and darkness too, and everything in between. And that’s the point.

Myth 5. Happiness is Just a Mood or Emotion, Like Any Other

So let’s take a look at emotions.

Here’s a list of emotions (from Wikipedia’s series on emotions, where else?!). 

Feel free to scroll and scan quickly.

  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Angst
  • Anguish
  • Annoyance
  • Anticipation
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Arousal
  • Awe
  • Boredom
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Contentment
  • Courage
  • Curiosity
  • Depression
  • Desire
  • Despair
  • Disappointment
  • Disgust
  • Distrust
  • Ecstasy
  • Embarrassment
  • Empathy
  • Enthusiasm
  • Envy
  • Euphoria
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Gratitude
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Happiness
  • Hatred
  • Hope
  • Horror
  • Hostility
  • Humiliation
  • Interest
  • Jealousy
  • Joy
  • Loneliness
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Outrage
  • Panic
  • Passion
  • Pity
  • Pleasure
  • Pride
  • Rage
  • Regret
  • Rejection
  • Remorse
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Saudade
  • Schadenfreude
  • Self-confidence
  • Shame
  • Shock
  • Shyness
  • Sorrow
  • Suffering
  • Surprise
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worry

Looking through all of those, the one thing that jumps out to me is that almost all of them are fleeting.

There are exceptions. Unfortunately for the tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions of people, all over the world who suffer depression, that is usually not fleeting. Feeling depressed, momentarily, can be an emotion and as such can be fleeting. But depression is way more than feeling depressed.

Likewise with suffering. Suffering is defined, I think, by deep pain that lasts over time. Feeling pain can be an emotion. Living in suffering is about much more than emotion.

So I would dispute the place of depression and suffering in that list of emotions, but for the most part, all the others come and go. Some will come and go in seconds, some in minutes, some, like grief, can last for weeks or months before they eventually regress to a fleeting emotion that can hit us at any time. (Saudade is a new one for me. I’d like to learn more about that!)

So if we think of happiness as an emotion and nothing else, then it will come and go like an emotion. We can feel happy, and an email can pop into your inbox, relaying something that’s gone wrong at work, and that feeling can disappear in an instant.

When I talk about happiness, I’m not talking about a happy feeling.

That is a part of it, of course. But only a part. (I prefer to call that feeling “joy”.) Happiness, to me, is way more than emotions that come and go fleetingly.

Happiness is about a state of mind, now and at every now in the future.

Myth 6. Happiness is the Opposite of Sadness, or Grief

If we’re talking moods, then yes, being in a happy mood is quite self-evidently not being in a sad mood.

But it is possible to experience great happiness and experience great sadness.

And let me tell you something.

It is not just possible, it is essential.

Being alive is all about different emotions and experiences.

Emotions are a central part of life, and have been for as long as humans have been roaming the planet. Emotions are an essential component of being human.

So are experiences. New and different experiences so that we can grow and progress. Repeated and habitual experiences so that we can gain mastery at the crafts to which we dedicate ourselves.

Living a life of emotions and experiences makes sadness and grief absolutely unavoidable.

So a happy life must be one which includes sadness. A happy life is one that knows sadness and grief.

In fact, I argue that sadness and even grief are essential to a happy life.


Because the only way to avoid sadness and grief is not to live.

Without knowing the feeling of happiness, we cannot know sadness.

Without knowing love, we cannot know grief. (And the greater the love, the greater the grief.)

We must be grateful for this. It is the paradox of humanity. To know one side is to know the other, and welcome both.

(Rudyard Kipling, I think, summed up this paradox of humanity well in his great poem “If”.)

What is happiness to you? Take this 30-second survey!

(Main Photo Credit: Irina Kostenich on Unsplash)