What Does it Mean to Be Happy?

When I was in my 20s, my then-partner told me that he didn’t think I knew how to be happy. I remember sitting there in shock, wondering where in Taylor Swift’s multiverse he had found the audacity. I could absolutely be happy! It felt like he was weaponizing the fact that I have emotions in addition to happiness against me. Because yes, while I can be happy, I can also be furious, disappointed, anxious, heartbroken, and utterly pissed off. It seemed like he just didn’t happen to like it when I had any of those emotions.

I’ve grown up a lot since then. My understanding of myself has changed a lot, too. I’ve realized that … maybe he was right? Maybe I don’t know how to be happy.

What does it mean to be happy, anyway?

I asked ChatGPT what happiness is, and here’s what it said: “Being happy is a subjective and complex state of being that encompasses feelings of joy, contentment, and overall satisfaction with one’s life and circumstances. It is a positive emotional and mental state characterized by a sense of well-being and fulfillment.”

Oh…

Well, shit. I guess I’m not happy.

I always thought happiness was just a fleeting sense of joy, excitement, or elation (yes, I see the problem with using other emotion words to define an emotion, but this is all I’ve got). Could happiness really mean the satisfaction and fulfillment with one’s entire life! I mean, if that’s the definition, are any of us happy?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely satisfied and fulfilled by my life. I think I’ll always want more, always look toward a future that’s better than the one I have right now. In fact, I don’t even know what it would feel like to look around at my life and find it completely satisfactory. What would I do with myself?

And what’s wrong with wanting more? My urge to achieve more, to experience more, to earn more, has opened many doors for me. It has introduced me to new people, new places, and new opportunities. It has allowed me to learn new things, to teach things to others, and to enrich myself, my family, and my community.

Why would I ever want to stop?

Maybe happiness would be easier to attain if we saw it as the pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment. What if we saw happiness as the journey, not the destination? If we were able to see the many complicated and sometimes difficult steps toward our goals as the things that make us happy? That would mean that every step forward, and even every step back, for that matter, would count as happiness because it is all part of the process.

I don’t think I’ll ever find the version of happiness that ChatGPT and my ex seem to buy into. In fact, I don’t think I want to. I want to find joy in the journey, recognizing that even when I get to the destination, happiness will mean looking toward the next big thing, and chasing it down, too. Happiness is the act of pursuing what I want. And so, I am always happy.


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