If someone stopped you on the street and, with no warning, asked you what it means to be happy, what would you say?
When considering the question myself, I found most of my thoughts going first to tangible things. Does happiness mean having a great home? A decent bank account? A powerful car?
I believe that material things can bring passing pleasure but not true happiness, no matter how fine they may be. The absence of things, however, can certainly bring about the opposite of happiness.
As I understand it, happiness and gratitude exist in almost equal proportions. Happiness comes from appreciating what you have in your life — people and possessions — and in finding ways to enjoy what you do with your time.
On a recent morning drive to school, I took advantage of a lull in the conversation and asked my five-year-old son what it means to be happy. Ben — who, full disclosure, is four years, eleven months, and one week old at the time of this writing, but I’d say we’re close enough — thought about it for a while, then said, “I think happiness is like when you’re comfortable. Like when you just feel very warm and very comfortable.”
Taking pains not to color his thought process in any way, I gently prodded him to expand on his thinking, and Ben’s next words were ultimately the most telling: “I mean, it’s really hard to describe. It’s like I know what it feels like but I can’t really describe it without just using the word, so that’s hard.”
For the record, I’m quoting verbatim here. Ben has always been fantastically eloquent (and verbose) for his age. Once, at age 19 months, he said, “This is a little bit hard to eat,” regarding a cracker. If you’ve read about early childhood development, saying that sentence at that age is, to use the language of the discipline, nuts.
I agreed with Ben that describing what it means to be happy is difficult, saying the same was true for me in my mid-30s. He nodded and looked contemplative for a while, then reiterated his first point. “It’s when you’re very comfortable and feeling smiley and just feeling happy,” he said.
I relayed Ben’s thoughts to my wife, who immediately brought up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theoretical approach to considering human well-being presented by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s.
According to Maslow, a human cannot become fully self-actualized and will constantly experience varying degrees of anxiety, stress, fear, and dismay if a series of basic needs are not met. These are, starting with the most essential:
- Physiological Needs — water, food, health, e.g.
- Safety Needs — Physical security, stability, etc.
- Belonging — A sense of community with family, friends, and beyond
- Self-Esteem — Self-love, respect, and acceptance
- Self-Actualization — A realization of innate potential
It took me a moment to connect the dots, but what does all that really add up to? I’d say if a one-word summation were required, the word “comfort” would be an excellent choice.