by Honolulu Mother

This long Oatmeal cartoon muses on what happiness means, and suggests that our definition of happiness is too limiting. The author won’t call himself happy. Instead, he says, “I do things that are meaningful to me, even if they don’t make me ‘happy.'”

(The cartoon is way too long to display in the post; you’ll have to follow the link)

If asked, would you describe yourself as happy? Or content? Unhappy? Or do you agree with The Oatmeal that those terms are too limiting to really capture the experience of living?

And if you’d like to be happier, the internet has no shortage of suggestions. E.g.

25 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Happier


50 thoughts on “Happiness

  1. I had a rough start in life so most of my adult life has mostly come as a pleasant surprise. I get the sense that those who had an easier start don’t have the pleasantly warm and happy sense of things working out better than expected.

  2. Too excited to concentrate on work today! I am generally a happy and optimistic person! Haven’t really explored the meaning of happiness or tried to figure out the degree or happiness derived from certain acts etc. Of course doing things for others makes one feel satisfied. But happy? Dunno

  3. Yeah, today is a wash for me too. I am generally a happy person. I don’t know how or why, but most of the time, I’m happy or at least content.

  4. I think I am too stupid to get that cartoon. I generally like Oatmeal, but I tend to prefer their killer cat cartoons.

  5. I would describe myself as generally happy, and as a (cynical) optimist, but I do think our concept of happy has a hard time capturing the fullness of lived experience. I spend most of my waking moments doing things that are not particularly fun, yet I’m much happier at the end of a productive day than an unproductive one.

  6. I am generally happy & optimistic, being able to see a positive side to almost everything.

    Today I learned Renee Montagne will be leaving NPR’s Morning Edition at the end of the week. This for me is a passage. No, I don’t know her. But I started listening to NPR in 1989 after I complained to a friend about the crap I was listening to on my commutes and suggested KCRW in Santa Monica. I have just always loved her voice from about day 1. Yeah, I’ll get over this quickly. But it makes my day a little less happy now.

  7. I don’t know that I am a particularly happy person, but I have been extraordinarily lucky and I have known joy more often than anyone can reasonably expect. There have been times that I have wondered if there was a cosmic balance and desperately hoped not.

    Not everything has been pleasant or easy, but the road I traveled has got me here, with DH and the kids, a warm house, comfort and security, and in a few months a new puppy to add to the mix.

  8. Philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about happiness. If you want to get a start at analyzing the snot out of the issue, you can start here:


    Then read the stuff in the bibliography. Though why you would do that if no one is paying you, or at the very least granting you a degree at the end, I can’t think.

    I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the issue, mainly because of my very insane family. It’s interesting for awhile, and then it’s frustrating, and then eventually you need to go outside and talk to other human beings for awhile. And find a dog and hang out with the dog — that’s always good.

  9. I think one of the bigger advantages that I was given is that my baseline is pretty happy and I do not tip towards being a depressive. That’s not to say that I couldn’t experience situational depression. But I have a pretty easy time being happy. And strangely, I am not an optimist. And I am pretty sarcastic in real life. But happy.

  10. “Of course doing things for others makes one feel satisfied. But happy? ”

    Haha, that’s just what I was wondering, as I’ve just driven a voter to the polls–1.2 miles from his house! Hard to convince myself it’s worth the 30 min round trip drive, but maybe he wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I can’t imagine a life of such dependency, wonder if he walks to the strip mall that’s equally far in a different direction.

  11. I am definitely a happy person. I made a decision a decade or two ago to consciously choose things that promote a happier life. I let a few friendships with negative or overly judgmental friends lapse, and decided I would call my family every day. I get a lot of joy out of laughter, so I put more effort into relationships with friends who make me laugh. And I try to take the advice of many who say to focus on the gratitude, which still takes effort on my part but is worth it. (Last night I had a meeting at 7 that I was initially annoyed about. I had to attend because the other guy who knows what I know was sick, I believe with cancer. So I gave myself a little ‘hey! I’m healthy and employed, and can minimize unpleasantness by doing calls from home with a glass of wine’ pep talk, and it completely changed my attitude ). Plus, I just enjoy being around happier people more,

  12. That cartoon made me stop and think, and I agree that happiness can appear to be unhappiness. However, I disagree in that I don’t think of happiness as having won or completing “all the prerequisites”. There is usually a lot of struggle and challenge intertwined within happiness ime. So I would say I’m happy and lucky, but my life is far from perfect.

  13. I can relate to the list of types of flow. I agree with the author that the definition of happiness is unclear. I don’t always think of “happy” as permanent; It can have that meaning and be deep & abiding for a person’s life. But I also think of it as a fluffy light emotion that melts away like spun sugar.

    Rocky, if you don’t like the reading, why did you ever get the degree? Sounds like a recipe for Unhappiness!

  14. I agree with the concept; we are apt to focus on trite, ephemeral feelings instead of bigger questions like meaning. I remember my mom asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I just said “happy”; her instant response was along the lines of, “oh, no, chasing happiness is the best way to wind up unhappy; you need to look for something that is meaningful and challenging and interesting; chasing after something that matters is how you wind up happy in the end.”

    My issue is just that I disagree with the author’s construct of “happy” as a perpetual state that you achieve as the result of a joy-filled journey. Bullhockey. Happy is an emotion, and like any other emotion, it comes and goes based on biology, events, weather, and any number of other things. Furthermore, many of the things that leave you feeling happy in the end also entail really truly sucky times along the way — they can be hard and miserable and exhausting. My experience is similar to HM’s in that way.

    My baseline state is *not* happy; I think I tend toward slightly depressive on average. And yet I feel happy many times during a typical day — whether that’s because I noticed a gorgeous flame red sugar maple, or because DD just did something thoughtful to quietly make up for being such a shit earlier, or because I figured out a thorny problem or actually accomplished something for a client, or just because I made it through a freaking insane Crossfit burpee workout that I was totally dreading. Basically, I define “happy” as the author seems to define “joy” (to me, “joy” is a higher plane still, implying achievement of a meaningful purpose; “happy” is noticing that the tree is wicked pretty right now).

    I also agree with Rhett: I do think over time, my baseline state has veered more to “happy,” just because it is very, very easy to look around me and see how much better things worked out than I had any right to expect as a kid (knock on wood). The key for me is largely just paying attention.

  15. So I gave myself a little ‘hey! I’m healthy and employed,

    That’s what I do when I’m still waiting after my light has turned green for an elderly person to get across! Don’t focus on the “did she really start across at the beginning of the walk cycle,” focus on the “Wow, I’m so lucky to have my relative youth and health!”

    Of course wild-eyed people who wander randomly out across just before the light turns and stop to curse out cars on their meandering way across, i.e. chronics, them I just glare at. Inconspicuously. I suppose to be consistent I really should stop and be thankful that I don’t have that monkey on my back.

  16. I made a decision a decade or two ago to consciously choose things that promote a happier life.


    I’ve had a hard time relatively lately because I have taken this approach, which includes remaining calm, not yelling. My wife frequently interprets the approach as “I don’t care.” Not the case the vast majority of the time. But will whatever matter in in the future? Usually I have bigger fish to fry.

  17. Fred, someone I knew slightly through my college radio station is a political reporter on NPR so I’ll probably be hearing him today! It will indeed be weird when he retires, mainly because he’s just one class ahead of me so it’ll make me feel very old.

  18. However, I disagree in that I don’t think of happiness as having won or completing “all the prerequisites”.

    I agree. I have noticed that I enjoy the process of working through a project. Once it is accomplished, then, what….

  19. @Rhett

    +1, but it started at middle age. I still pinch myself sometimes, and lately I have thought about how short the remaining happy time is, relatively speaking. I’m going to leave the keyboard now and get out the new mousie on a string that is making the cats delirious. Everybody deserves to be happy.

  20. @Fred: I feel ya. I remember the morning I woke up to a different voice on my clock radio. I assumed the guy was on vacation, but no, he’d left. I felt bummed and slightly bereft for several days, and then felt silly for feeling slightly bereft.

    Sometimes I think the background soundtrack to our lives feels like a little thread tying everything together, and changes suddenly make you realize how much time has slipped by and like you’re watcing a little piece of your own history slide away.

  21. I’m content with bursts of happy and sad. I don’t believe that “HAPPY” can be sustained reasonably. I think you need a balance, the yin and the yang. Spring wouldn’t feel so wonderful without the winter.

  22. I agree with HM that being judgemental is likely to make one unhappy. Or maybe I just think that because I tend not to understand things like being angry at someone for being old or off their rocker. Another little piece of figuring out my mother in recent years has been realizing how much she and my younger sister give everyone and everything grades all the time, so commenting on what person is like, or a book, or anything, is impossible without introducing a to eni find difficult to deal with. Once they find that someone doesn’t agree with their basic judgement on worthiness, they stop. No further conversation is possible, not even “what do you dislike about X”. They claim to be happy, as do many others who operate on this basis, but I really don’t understand how.

  23. “Sometimes I think the background soundtrack to our lives feels like a little thread tying everything together, and changes suddenly make you realize how much time has slipped by and like you’re watching a little piece of your own history slide away.”

    That’s so beautifully stated, LfB. And so true.

    I operate at a higher-than-average reading on the happiness dial, and always have. My family of origin is all this way, so it could be nature, but there was a good deal of nurture too. Be grateful instead of complaining; find solutions instead of dwelling on problems; chin up, move on–these were messages we heard constantly from my parents. (I am less about all of that with my kids; I think a bit of venting is not a bad thing, and my DD in particular seems to need to go through that phase to process things. She’s a naturally happy kid, and allowing her to vent isn’t ruining that, so I’m breaking rank w/ my parents here).

    I am presently the happiest I’ve ever been. I think it’s a result of the kids being so mature/responsible, my going part time at work and my being able (because of my PT schedule) to spend so much time with DH, who works from home. Everything feels so easy and unhurried these days–this is the opposite of how things felt during the many years we were juggling FT jobs in offices with 4 young kids running around asking for juice. I’m rarely overtired now, and I expect that accounts for a lot, too.

  24. “I get the sense that those who had an easier start don’t have the pleasantly warm and happy sense of things working out better than expected.”

    Which is another way of expressing a sentiment shared here before, that low expectations are one way to happiness.

  25. “Everything feels so easy and unhurried these days–this is the opposite of how things felt during the many years we were juggling FT jobs in offices with 4 young kids r”
    Risley, the first thing I remember about you is that you were trying to literally sneak away from work early. The fact that things are better now has been apparent for a while, but it’s still good to hear confirmation.

  26. I also disagree with the cartoonists’ view of happiness as necessarily permanent, and think that’s a negative viewpoint pretty much says nobody’s really happy, because we all experience unhappy times, and nothing in life is permanent.

    Happiness can be ephemeral, or it can also describe periods of our lives.

  27. “They claim to be happy, as do many others who operate on this basis, but I really don’t understand how.”

    @SM: presumably because judging everyone/everything they see allows them to reaffirm their own superiority several times a day.

  28. I am a happy contented person. I have had a few situational depression periods during my life, the worst was my mother’s death while our financial life was falling apart,

    Some days I just feel happy and grateful for the cascade of hot water hitting my back in the shower realizing a lot of the world’s population isn’t that fortunate. A dinner with my kids, a day trip to the beach, a beautiful day outside (like today in central NJ), living in a country with the ability to vote for our country’s president and representative – these are all things that can catch me off guard and make me so thankful for my life and what I have and deflect me from worrying about what I don’t have. All of my needs and most of my wants are met on a daily basis.

  29. @SM: Not quite. For anxious/insecure people, events don’t force them to question their own worth on a periodic basis; rather, “questioning their worth” is their base state. It is how they are, minute by minute by minute. So the judgment is the momentary relief from the eternal insecurity/anxiety. But because it isn’t real, the relief goes away shortly, and they end up looking for the next thing to grab onto.

  30. Laura, I’ll buy that, as long as you aren’t trying to include “perpetually” checking & comparing as better than “repeatedly”

  31. @SM — Yeah, not trying to be Ms. Grammar Twit about the distinction between two adverbs. :-) More that it’s a state of being, and underlying assumption about life that just is, rather than something that is consciously questioned or evaluated based on specified external triggers.

  32. Sometimes I think the background soundtrack to our lives feels like a little thread tying everything together, and changes suddenly make you realize how much time has slipped by and like you’re watcing a little piece of your own history slide away.

    Oh, so much this. My parents blasted the classical music stations (KKHI and KDFC, for the locals) from all the radios all the time. Despite my mother’s insanity, I have very fond memories of hearing the announcer intoning, “…from Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Field.” (Yes, I know Marriner died recently. I was sad.) Or late afternoon, we’d hear “Lowell Thomas brings the news”.

    KKHI had a thing called “TeleMusiQuiz”. It ran from 10:00 to 10:15 am every morning, and if I interrupted Mom during TeleMusiQuiz, God have mercy on my soul. She won too often, so one day, she knew the answer but forced me to call in and give the answer because she’d already won too often that month. All I remember is saying “Walter de la Mare!” I have no recollection of what the question was. I’m sure Doug Pledger wondered why some random 7 year old was answering the quiz, but he was nice about it.

  33. Rocky – I have KDFC as one of my presents in my car, and always enjoyed hearing something from Sir Neville Mariner and St Martin in the Fields. I am sad, too that he passed away, but I checked his age and he was 92, so he had a good run (I hope!).

  34. Thanks Fred.

    A lot of people know of Braddah Iz, and even more people know his rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and still more people know his arrangement because it has become a standard, covered my many singers.

    But he was much more than just a one-hit wonder. Locally, his entire body of work continues to be popular, and beyond that, he was a key figure in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance.

  35. Marriner was scheduled to conduct a concert with the local symphony last year, but became ill and was replaced by JoAnn Falletta (Fred, you might be familiar with her).

  36. Hijack– DS got a call from an interviewer from a certain college recommended by several people here, about scheduling an interview, possibly this week. Any advice for him? This will be his first interview.

    I suggested he be prepared with a couple copies of his transcript, as well as a 1-page ‘resume’ with things like his test scores, academic awards, and ECs. The stuff on the ‘resume’ is on his app, and presumably the interviewer will have access to that info, but the idea is to minimize the amount of time spent on what’s already been communicated via the app.

    I’ve also suggested he be prepared with a couple of questions that are not addressed on their website, perhaps about the interviewer’s specific experience, both in school and after, and a narrative of why he wants to attend that school, how he’ll fit in, and what he’ll bring to the school.

    I think the trick is to brag but still come across as humble, and not an arrogant jerk.

  37. That’s always the trick, Finn. One standard strategy is to say “I was so excited to win X award” and “I attribute my astounding success in Y to my teacher, Mrs. Teacher.”

  38. DS isn’t sure, but thinks the interviewer is an alum; he’s not a college emloyee.

    He’s a local lawyer, but when DS googled him he didn’t find anything to say he’s an alum of the college (he went to a different school for his JD).

    I suggested that DS not prepare any questions based on what he learned of the interviewer by googling him, or not using any such questions unless the interviewer volunteers that same information first.

    I will suggest preparing some questions based on the assumption that he’s an alum, but only ask them after first confirming that during the early part of the interview.

  39. If the person is an alum, they usually are not going to be interested in the transcript because many schools don’t want the alums to ask about grades or standardized test scores.

    I’ve been interviewing applicants for years, and only one applicant has ever given me a copy of their resume. I think it is ok to have these documents available, but I wound’t focus on grades and scores in the interview unless it is a response to a direct question. I find the most genuine students are the applicants that talk about their favorite class or subject. For example, a student might talk about why they like a certain science or math class. The follow up could be how that interest carried over to extracurriculars such as the robotics club. The applicant could use this same example to pull in a community service activity; for example, he decided to volunteer with elementary school students at a robotics club. My advice is to focus on the subjects and activities that he really enjoys because that comes across in the interview. He is able to share information without appearing to just brag or dump his accomplishments.

    He might get lucky and the interviewer might share something they have in common. I try to do this because it gives the applicant an easier route with their own questions. For example, the person I met last week shared that she wants to apply to the business school. After I shared that I was undergrad business, then she was able to ask me genuine questions about how/why I selected my major, jobs, and clubs. It was more of a conversation instead of a forced question.

    This is just me, but I would be turned off by an applicant that admitted that they googled me or appeared to know too much about me in the meeting.

  40. DS has confirmed that he has an interview scheduled for Friday, location TBD. He’s also confirmed that the interviewer is an undergrad alum. I think about the only thing DS knows about him from googling, that he hasn’t found out directly from the interviewer, is where he got his JD.

  41. Good luck!
    I can’t believe so many of our kids are inching closer to college when I started “talking” to some of the regulars when DD was just starting preschool.

  42. S&M – thanks. Things sure felt frantic in the years before I managed to talk my way into a 7am-3pm schedule. Leaving work that early (which I still do) made after school / dinner hour so much more relaxed. Adding 3 full days at home b/c of the PT thing has been an enormous incremental change, and I’m still amazed by it all the time.

    Lauren – I think mine were pre-K, K and about 3d grade or so when I found TOS. Amazing.

    Finn – best of luck to your son.

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