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Happiness Should Be a Verb

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Flourishing should be the new happiness. What most pursue now ignores old wisdom and the logic of our biology. A verb capturing the required recurring effort is better than a noun describing the desired static state—by nature, not a thing we can be or get but that we do. It is perhaps better harvested than pursued.

Many see their main goal as maximizing pleasure. But even the ancient hedonists took pains to distinguish between types of pleasure and happiness. They typically thought pleasure was necessary but not sufficient.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans were “intended by nature to achieve happiness,” as Darrin McMahon notes, requiring only knowledge to overcome ignorance. But Jeremy Bentham increased ignorance by blurring once useful distinctions. In probably the Enlightenment’s saddest sin of synonymy, he equated happiness with pleasure for the sake of easier calculations.

Many psychologists today remain confused. Daniel Kahneman writes: “it is logical to describe…life… as a series of moments, each with a value” of positive or negative feeling, and to evaluate an experience by the “sum of the values for its moments.” He complains that our brains are illogical in not working that way. But it’s futile to wish our physiology was different. We’d be better served by adapting our reason to fit how our biology works.

The field of positive psychology is less confused. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi says “we do not understand what happiness is any better than Aristotle did.” His studies of “optimal experience” led to the idea of “an active state of flow,” in which a challenging skilled activity, with clear goals and unambiguous feedback, enables concentration to the point of loss of consciousness of self and time. Such autotelic (done for their own sake) activities are common in sports, music and the arts, but rare when we’re passive. Similarly, Martin Seligman distinguishes the raw feelings of easy pleasures from earned “gratifications,” which are the longer-lasting rewards of flow-like activities.

This emphasis on effort and skill is more logically consistent with our biology than Bentham and Kahneman’s focus on felt pleasure. Our survival has long depended on using second-nature skills. Yeats rightly claimed, “all skill is joyful.” Many such joys are adaptive. As Aristotle knew, life’s goals required exercising natural virtues, which now would be better called life skills.

Nouns like “happiness” and “well-being” seem too static. Verbs reflecting the required cyclical activity would fit better. Sadly the verb “happies,” used in Shakespeare’s sixth sonnet, is obsolete. “Well-doing” is more precise than “well-being”. And “flourishing” is fitter than “being happy.”

Victor Frankel believed “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” However difficult to pursue, effective happiness can be harvested. By skilled activity, we can be flourishing.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

Kahneman and Bentham’s Bucket of Happiness
Kahneman’s Clarity: Using Mysterious Coinage in Science
What Rational Really Means
The Cognitive Science of Star Trek
Colonoscopies Clarify Inner Workings of Minds

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. arrhythmia 1:33 pm 06/7/2013

    Agree happiness as a concept needs redefined. It is so often confused with instant pleasure,being positive or the absence of difficulty. Yet I agree for many of us, me anyway, it involves values, achievement, appreciation, a striving for. With two people I have worked with recently their pain, anger, frustration is providing the insight for them into what their values identify as worthwhile, what for them gives meaning and value to life. A striving for it is providing an opportunity to review their values, re-decide what matters. Our values underpin what we perceive as promoting flourishing.

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  2. 2. rshoff 1:47 pm 06/7/2013

    It’s all semantics. You are right that to attain states of ‘happiness’ it takes action. It takes effort, acceptance, and appreciation amongst many other things. However, happiness is still not a verb. There are many verbs required to attain a state of ‘happiness’. That’s where we should focus our attention. What are those verbs?

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  3. 3. ultimobo 6:15 pm 06/7/2013

    yep – I tell my students the longest-lasting form of happiness comes from helping others.

    selfishness is a downward spiral to depression – helping others is an upward spiral to joy.

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