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This paper explores the meaning of the word “happiness,” and proposes a way to modify its definition. Possible social and political consequences of such a modification are also scrutinized. The paper is based on a literature review; the literature mainly consists of research articles providing definitions, discussions, and examples of usage of the notion in question. It has been found out that literature often explains the term “happiness” via such concepts as well-being, satisfaction, and welfare; however, for laypeople across the world, such aspects as harmony and balance are of significant importance. The strength of this paper is that it explores not only the meaning of the word but also the results of its offered revision, including the reconsideration of the importance of the phenomenon of competition, which seems poorly consistent with harmony and balance; the weakness is related to the limitedness of the study the findings of which provided the basis for the proposed change in the definition of the notion of happiness. Further studies may verify (or, on the contrary, disprove) the importance of harmony and balance for people’s happiness, as well as explore the possible alternatives to the rivalry in the society.
Concepts related to people’s values are often hard to define, and the definitions, or sometimes not even definitions but only explanations, may significantly vary not only across different nations but also among one people. The views on these concepts and the understanding of them that a particular individual has (consciously or unconsciously) may often be tied to numerous circumstances, such as the dominating culture, political views of the individual, their own life experience, etc. What is also important is that these ethical perceptions have consequences in numerous spheres of life, both personal and public. For instance, a person has a particular understanding of the concept of happiness; it appears clear that they will try, at least to a certain extent, to organize their life in a way that will let them achieve that happiness. Dominating perceptions on happiness may lead to certain political decisions or policies (Oishi, Graham, Kesebir, & Galinha, 2013, p. 574) that may be aimed at helping people obtain that happiness (or causing them to feel that much is being done to help them obtain it; it seems possible to state that politicians are not always very honest).
Happiness is very often understood about welfare, well-being, success, and bodily pleasure. However, it seems that most definitions fail to capture such an important component of happiness as harmony and balance. Therefore, in this paper, after providing a broad overview of the perceptions that seem to dominate in literature, we will argue that harmony and balance should also be included in the understanding of this concept, and explain that this understanding may significantly influence the decision-making in and the very organization of the social and political domains.
Establishing the Meaning of the Word “Happiness”
It is widely acknowledged that a concrete meaning of the term “happiness” is elusive; in fact, it is sometimes substituted with a more well-defined term “subjective well-being” in the literature (Oishi et al., 2013, p. 559). However, happiness is very often understood as satisfaction with one’s life (Delle Fave et al., 2016, p. 1), general well-being, and bodily pleasure (“Philosophical Dictionary,” 2011), welfare, etc. For instance, Easterlin (2003) directly states: “I take the terms happiness, utility, well-being, life satisfaction, and welfare to be interchangeable” (p. 11176); also, interestingly, the author was a member of a university’s department of economics, which, we may suppose, had an influence on his views. Also, noteworthy, a study of documented definitions shows that e.g. dictionaries often provide definitions related to well-being, success, joy, satisfaction from receiving the desired good, etc.; in earlier times, the understanding of happiness was also tied to good luck and fortune (Oishi et al., 2013, pp. 564-567, 574).
However, Delle Fave et al. (2016) carried out a major study aimed at exploring the understanding of happiness by laypeople across some nations. The answers provided by respondents “referr[ed] to a broad range of life domains, covering both the contextual-social sphere and the psychological sphere” (Delle Fave et al., 2016, p. 1). Simultaneously, the greatest percentage of definitions (42.33%) were related to the psychological sphere; harmony and balance were deemed the most important attribute of happiness, being viewed as such by 29.13% of the participants; simultaneously, satisfaction with life was essential for 16.55% of answers, and positive emotions were viewed as paramount by 13.92% (Delle Fave et al., 2016, pp. 7-8). Interestingly, self-actualization was deemed essential only by 1.38% of the sample of the research (Delle Fave et al., 2016, p. 8), which is contrary to the understanding of happiness as a success, which can often be found e.g. in dictionaries (Oishi et al., 2013, pp. 564-567).
Further analysis of responses that fell under the category “harmony and balance,” and their variations by the country, is also provided (Delle Fave et al., 2016, p. 10). This category included responses to inner peace, balance, contentment, and psychophysical well-being. In particular, the respondents from the USA most often viewed contentment as crucial (55.10%); the second place was occupied by inner peace (40.82%), and the third one – by balance (20.41%). Strangely, psychophysical well-being found no support in the American sample (0%).
It seems obvious that happiness is a complicated, multifaceted concept that can only be properly defined if the definition pertains to many spheres of human life. Given the results of the research by Delle Fave et al. (2016), even though the sample of this study may be somewhat limited, it appears justified to state that harmony and balance should be included in the definition of happiness. Importantly, the research was conducted among lay people across the world, which provides grounds for claiming that their understanding may be closer to a more “people’s” conception of happiness rather than the interpretations of the notion offered by specialists in various areas of study such as economics or politics, whose definitions may be somewhat biased due to their professional activities.
Therefore, the definitions of happiness should include the concepts of harmony and balance, as well as satisfaction with life, positive emotions, etc. Simultaneously, success, should not be given so much attention. The general well-being should also be included in the definition, for the absence of it, it seems, may have significant adverse consequences on how a person feels.
Social and Political Consequences
The provided understanding of happiness, primarily the aspect of the importance of harmony and balance, clearly has several consequences related to decision-making, social sphere, and perhaps even to the structure of the society.
In particular, the most important consequence of this is related to the inconsistency of harmony, inner peace, and balance with the competition. For example, engaging in competition appears to mean that one wishes to outperform their rivals, often multiple ones. Because the results of the competition are often important if not crucial, one is likely to worry about the outcomes, which contradicts the inner peace. On the whole, engaging in “rat races” does not seem to support balance, and the very fact that one has rivals may be viewed as inconsistent with harmony.
Competition is often perceived as the driver of progress, as the factor that causes people to develop and industries to grow and technologically advance. This point has become commonplace in the political and social culture that today dominates in the U.S. and many other countries of the world; see, for instance, Ross (2004). However, while rivalry certainly may cause progress, concrete studies have found that e.g. certain firms entering a highly competitive market perform worse according to several criteria. For instance, Sanyal & Cohen (2009) discovered that companies transferred to a competitive environment precipitously cut their spending on research and development, which is a strongly adverse consequence in the modern world.
Competition among individuals also seems not to be the best way (not only in terms of happiness) to promote personal development. For instance, it is known that the education system in the U.S. is based on competition; students compete with one another while attempting to enter a college or university, and may have to continue the rivalry between one another for better grades. Simultaneously, the higher education system in France is completely different and is not always based on competition. Students who have successfully passed their final high school exams obtain access to university even if they received the minimum acceptable grade.
No further exams are needed; students may apply to university, and all who do so are accepted. Many of them are expelled after some time if they fail to study well (“Education in France,” 2014; “France Higher Education System,” 2014). Of course, this system also has its adverse sides. Nevertheless, it provides most citizens of France with access to higher education (which is difficult to say about the U.S.) and allows them to test their abilities and verify that they are interested in studying. And, regarding the harmony and inner peace, such a system causes much less distress among students and entrants (as well as their relatives), for it is always possible to start their education again next year should one lose their chance for this year, but still wish to study further.
Therefore, adopting harmony, inner peace, and balance as components of happiness and creating a policy aimed at achieving such happiness may involve serious consequences for society. In particular, such consequences may involve limiting the importance of rivalry and transferring to other, perhaps collaborative instead of competitive, forms of organization and motivation. Further research of collaboration or what other alternatives to the competition may be employed in the society might be needed.
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To sum up, happiness is a difficult concept to define. Many definitions are focused on satisfaction, well-being, and welfare. However, it has been found out that laymen often view such aspects as harmony and balance is crucial for happiness. This may be sufficient grounds for including these aspects in definitions of the word “happiness,” and such an inclusion might lead to the need to significantly reconsider and reorganize the social and political domains by e.g. lowering the importance of competition in the life of the society.
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Easterlin, R. A. (2003). Explaining happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(19), 11176-11183. Web.
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Oishi, S., Graham, J., Kesebir, S., & Galinha, I. C. (2013). Concepts of happiness across time and cultures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(5), 559-577. Web.
Philosophical dictionary: Habermas-Hayek. (2011). Web.
Ross, T. W. (2004). Viewpoint: Canadian competition policy: Progress and prospects. Canadian Journal of Economics, 37(2), 243-268. Web.
Sanyal, P., & Cohen, L. R. (2009). Powering progress: Restructuring, competition, and R&D in the U.S. electric utility industry. The Energy Journal, 30(2), 41-79. Web.