What Is Happiness?
A century-old answer to one of today’s most prolific questions
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” — Dalai Lama XIV
What actually is happiness? The answer to that question differs for everyone. No person is without a unique perception of what it means to be happy.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that happiness does have a general theme — a unifying thread that links us all. A subtle and often overlooked commonality.
Thousands of scholars have set out to answer this age-old question. One man in particular, a poet and Senator of the Irish Free State, delivered a particularly insightful explanation to the perennial problem of happiness.
His name was John Butler Yeats, and he may have found the very answer we’ve all been searching for.
We’re Happy When We’re Growing
Yeats was an Irish artist and the father of Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats. Many people were too enamored with his son’s legacy to appreciate his work. Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that his pursuit of art played an enormous role in his son’s artistic growth.
Yeats junior spent much of his youth in his father’s studio, where he met many artists and fueled his burning passion for the written word. Their relationship serves as an example of how greatly we affect the ones we love by simply doing what we do.
Yeats senior, on the other hand, sought to answer the perennial question above in a Miss Grierson, dated June 2, 1909:
"It is only when time hangs heavy on our hands that we turn to art and demand the right thing from artists and dramatists and poets and painters. Here they are, too busy with the material conditions of happiness, as yet they have not addressed themselves directly to happiness. And happiness... what is it? I say it is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing or that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing. It is the primal law of all nature and the universe, and literature and art are the cosmic movements working in the conscious mind." (From: Page 121 of J.B. Yeats' "Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others 1869-1922" E.P. Dutton & Co., 1946)
From this passage came a famous quote, often erroneously attributed to his son, W.B. Yeats. A quote that cuts to the heart of what this old artist believed to be the answer to the yearning in all of us:
“And happiness . . . what is it? I say it is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing or that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”
Something we all know by now is that happiness has become an over-complicated, target-marketed, commoditized mess. We over-complicate what it means to be happy.
We mistake true contentment for some ridiculous challenge, something we must hopelessly chase and perhaps never find. But happiness, joy, is something much simpler, much more natural, so much closer to our hearts than this age tells us it is.
What is happiness? Perhaps, at its heart, happiness is simply growth.
What is Growth?
In this day and age, we’re so often confronted with a lofty view of what it truly means to “grow.” We are bombarded with images and stories of people making enormous leaps and bounds. Inventors, artists, movie stars, entrepreneurs, self-help personalities, billionaires, child celebrities, internet sensations, and so on.
We are told that growth, that progress, is only meaningful if it looks like that. And that’s a lie.
Do trees grow all at once? Are gardens fallow one moment and then flowering the next? No. And neither is the case with our lives. Growth is not in enormous leaps and bounds. Growth is in the small things we do every day.
“From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.” — Aeschylus
Those people we so terribly compare ourselves to are only where they are by virtue of small growths deposited into every passing day.
What is growth, then, if not something grand and noble? The answer is different for everyone, and no matter how small, it matters. Growth can mean:
- Taking your first lesson in learning a new language
- Teaching your grandchild how to plant a seed
- Writing the opening scene of a novel
- Taking up art
- Volunteering an hour of your time
- Traveling somewhere unfamiliar — even just a new cafe in your home town
- Learning a new skill
- Taking a walk in a forest you’ve never been to before
- Reading a new book, or a new genre, or a new author
- Falling down and doing as many pushups as you can
- Changing your morning routine
- Writing in a journal
- Meditating in the morning
- Calling an old friend
- Throwing self-consciousness into the wind and dancing in front of everyone
- Pushing through a difficult challenge
- Succeeding at a goal despite everything fate threw at you
- Stopping, wherever you are, and taking a moment to just be . . .
The list is infinite, for our opportunities for growth are without end. The problem is that so many people fall into a routine that doesn’t push them, in even small ways, to grow.
They mistake busyness for real progress. But going in circles, doing the same easy things all the time, isn’t growth. It’s a comfort zone, and to put it bluntly:
Growth and comfort do not mix.
This doesn’t mean that growth is suffering. At times it can be, but all growth is one thing: beyond your current norm, beyond who you were yesterday, a new horizon, even if only a small one. It lies outside of your comfort zone.
There is joy in growth — in the journey, in the doing, in the becoming. And that’s one of the most important things of all: not what we get, but what we become.
We’re told so often that success means being happy all the time. But happiness isn’t like that, it’s not 24/7 — it ebbs and flows. Growth has its hard times. Growth can be painful. Yet it’s in that pain, and in that difficulty, that we can eventually look back with pride.
You see where you are. You see where you came from. You see the journey of growth and look back in wondering awe. I did that. I made it through.
Long before Yeats’ time, Seneca put it beautifully:
“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is . . . and when a man is in the grip of difficulties he should say: “There may be pleasure in the memory of even these events one day.”
He should put his whole heart into fighting against them. Let us overcome all things, with out reward consisting of moral worth, strength of spirit, and peace that is won forever once in any contest adversity has been utterly defeated.”
It is, in a way, life’s difficulty, and the growth it demands, that contributes to true, lasting contentment.
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” — Hunter S. Thompson
The Wisdom of Trees
As Jim Rohn once said, there is not a single tree that has grown half as tall as it could have. They grow to their utmost ability. They don’t stop until they physically cannot continue.
So many humans do exactly the opposite. We stop growing at 10%, 25%, 30%, and so on.
Unhappiness, in the end, may in part be the result of that nagging, clawing sense of wrongness that comes when you stop moving, when you stop learning, when you let go of your dreams and passions. When you let life become a monotonous cycle of mere existence.
Nothing sits still. We can either grow or deteriorate — in mind, body, and spirit. Nothing stays the same. We can choose whether we move upward or downward.
In the end, it’s up to each individual to decide what happiness means to them. But if there’s one thing we can do to aid in that discovery, it is to keep growing — to keep that hunger for expansion rather than fall into a complacent acceptance of gradual decay.
We should grow as the trees do, unapologetically and as much as they can. To strike out on that journey of becoming. Not for the end, but for the process itself.
What is happiness? That’s up to you, really. What makes you happy makes you happy. But let me leave you with this one idea: that when you are happy, you are growing too. Even if it’s as slowly as a blade of grass, when you are happy, you are growing.