What Is Happiness Anyway?

Happy. What a tricky word. Does it mean being free of all cares? Do we suddenly let go of all our baggage? The new science of happiness helps us find deeper meanings.

Photographs © Debrocke/ClassicStock/Corbis

During long road trips when I was a kid, instead of switching on the radio my father sang, sometimes accompanied my mother. My brother had left home, so it was just me in the back, behind a blanket strung from door to door, pretending I was on a pirate ship headed for China, doing my best to blot out my father’s off-key warbling. Bernie was not a happy man, but his repertoire had a single theme: Happy Days Are Here Again, Smile (though your heart is breaking) and Put On A Happy Face topped his hit parade.

My mother wasn’t any happier than my father, but it was as if she had drunk the same cultural Kool-Aid as he. They both had got the message that happiness is the only worthy emotion. The rest—anger, disappointment, fear, sorrow—were signs of a weak character. Shameful. I got the message, too. Like so many Westerners, especially Americans, we believed we were supposed to be happy all the time—as far as I can tell, the number one, surefire predictor of misery.

“We have this default assumption that happiness is a calculus of pleasure and pain, and if you get rid of pain and multiply pleasures…


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About the author

Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham is an author, essayist, journalist and playwright. Barbara is the author/editor of the New York Times bestselling Eye of My Heart: 27 Women Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother, and author of Women Who Run with the Poodles: Myths and Tips for Honoring Your Mood Swings, and most recently Camp Paradox.