Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living a good life, or flourishing, rather than simply as an emotion. Happiness in this sense was used to translate the Greek Eudaimonia, and is still used in virtue ethics. There has been a transition over time from emphasis on the happiness of virtue to the virtue of happiness.
A widely discussed political value expressed in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the universal right to “the pursuit of happiness.”
Happiness is a fuzzy concept and can mean many different things to many people. Part of the challenge of a science of happiness is to identify different concepts of happiness, and where applicable, split them into their components. Related concepts are well-being, quality of life and flourishing. At least one author defines happiness as contentment. Some commentators focus on the difference between the hedonistic tradition of seeking pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experiences, and the eudaimonic tradition of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way.
Psychologist Martin Seligman asserts that happiness is not solely derived from external, momentary pleasures, and provides the acronym PERMA to summarize Positive Psychology’s correlational findings: humans seem happiest when they have
- Pleasure (tasty food, warm baths, etc.)
- Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
- Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
- Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
- Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).
The Chinese Confucian thinker Mencius, who 2300 years ago sought to give advice to the ruthless political leaders of the warring states period, was convinced that the mind played a mediating role between the “lesser self” (the physiological self) and the “greater self” (the moral self) and that getting the priorities right between these two would lead to sage-hood. He argued that if we did not feel satisfaction or pleasure in nourishing one’s “vital force” with “righteous deeds”, that force would shrivel up (Mencius,6A:15 2A:2). More specifically, he mentions the experience of intoxicating joy if one celebrates the practice of the great virtues, especially through music.