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BW Student Voices: Exploring the elusive meaning of happiness

Nicole Schwartz '23 is a psychology major and neuroscience minor who explored the meaning of happiness in her last semester with Dr. Jennifer Perry. The West Lafayette, Ohio, native is spending the summer conducting PTSD research as a funded BW Summer Scholar.

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If you were to ask a group of people, "What is happiness?" they would all likely give varying definitions that ultimately relate to a particular feeling or state of being. Yet, no two people will define happiness the exact same way.

What brings happiness to one person does not bring happiness to the next. Some will describe feeling content; some will say it is a state of pleasure, while others may not be able to put their concept of happiness into words.

Beyond Merriam-Webster

If you look up the dictionary definition, happiness is characterized as a feeling of pleasure and contentment or a sense of satisfaction. But even this is a subjective interpretation; there is no tangible, cemented construct of what happiness is.

I began thinking about this question this spring during my BW senior seminar class, "Seriously Happy." The course about positive psychology focuses on the study of what brings people happiness from a behavioral and cognitive standpoint.

One of the first assignments we had consisted of reading the first chapter of Sonja Lyubomirsky's "The How of Happiness." This chapter discussed how to become happier by providing a look into individual contentment and what it takes to build internal happiness. The personal stories and statistics provided a comforting look into the basics of happiness.

Assignment: Savor

The chapter reading was then followed by an assignment to "savor." My peers and I were challenged with savoring a moment by fully immersing ourselves into any type of activity or event we had planned.

We all reported back with our personal testimonies of how we felt more present while savoring and had an increased feeling of appreciation for our specific moment. Some even discussed how they felt happy and content by being more present.

While doing these assignments, I could not help but continue to question what happiness truly is. Is it your mindset? Is it being present in the moment? Is it doing things you enjoy?

Happiness is unlike many other words. There is no definitive definition. It is rare in the way that it can be individualized to every person and situation, yet arguably, bonds humanity into one. It can simultaneously create individuality and unity.

Moment by moment

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To some, happiness feels like the ultimate goal; that becoming happy will indicate that they have reached a euphoric point in life. This can create an illusion of some greater, permanent state of being.

Unfortunately, happiness is not everlasting, nor is it infinite. In its simplest form, it provides pleasure and/or contentment. And from what I have learned, it is attainable and can even be created in mundane moments.

So, what is happiness? Well, I don't think it is some future goal or an unattainable state. I think it is simply a moment that allows people to temporarily experience their lives with the absence of worry or stress. It is not one specific feeling or point in time, but rather a reoccurring state that can be found any and everywhere.

NOTE: A version of this column first appeared on cleveland.com and in the SUN Newspapers.

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