29 November

What Is Happiness, Anyway?-The Search For Meaning In Life

by Jon Katz

There are countless words and ideas about what happiness is and what it means – contentment, fun, meaning, pleasure, and cheerfulness.

But those words don’t tell me what it means.

Don’t look to the dictionary for help, either.

The Oxford Language dictionary defines happiness as “the state of being happy.” Not much help.

Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher-theologian of the 13th century, argued that happiness had to do with a union with God.

Absolute pleasure could only occur when death united us with God. He didn’t even mention earthly happiness in his writing.

A recent national survey found that Americans want a better economy, a more efficient political system, and enough money to buy a home, send their children to college, and retire safely and comfortably.

Nobody asked them if they sought happiness or meaning in life, and nobody volunteered those things.

That’s a shame, and to me, it speaks to the current spiritual and moral hole in the country. Everything seems to revolve around money and power, and security.

Many people are too frightened to figure out what they want and do it.

The pollsters don’t even bother to ask if a meaningful life is one of the people’s goals. It just doesn’t come up.

First, they brainwash us and then leave us brain-dead. Then they make sure to get all of our money.

The secret of life seems to be having enough money to buy cool things and retire on a yacht in Florida. (Do not, under any circumstances, be  Woke.)

Rooting out the dread “woke” is much more important to some people than being happy.

For centuries, the definition of happiness was doing something good, especially in an institutionally religious way.

We’ve moved beyond that, but I don’t hear anyone talking about goals for a happy or meaningful life.

Last week, I read Joan Chittister’s book Following The Path; she wrote about happiness and offered a definition that makes sense to me.

Happiness, we have come to understand,” she wrote, “is the driving force of life. It is the Holy Grail of human development. It gives to whatever we decide to do its dynamism. Happiness is the torch of life, the fire within, the very galvanism of our existence.

It’s true, think. That was a beautiful definition of happiness. First, I had to understand it comes from inside, not outside.

Neurologists who study the human brain have found it is configured for happiness. They found that we were born to be happy; it’s a life that can take that away from us.

To not be happy, the shrinks found,  is to be sad, pessimistic, aggrieved, angry, and depressed.

There is a lot of research about what it means not to be happy, but I can’t find any definition that does the trick.

In my life, a set point for happiness affects how I see the world.

I believe happiness is fluid; it has more to with attitude than with fate or Holy Charity. It’s an attitude as much as a material thing, a choice.

When I was unhappy, I decided to change. In one way, it was as simple as that and then as complex. Nothing worth doing is easy.

I did change. And I am happy now much of the time.

Happiness, for me, is not an absolute thing.

It doesn’t mean I am happy all or even most of the time. It just means I know what it’s like to be unhappy, and I prefer to be satisfied.

Happiness can be a choice, even when we are sick, hurting, or alone. There are external and internal things I can do to bring happiness and meaning into my life.

It was long and hard work, but it worked out for me.

I can face and deal with difficult situations. I can make changes. I can learn things. I can research and discover where I need to go to learn how to be happy and then take steps to get there.

I take responsibility for my state of mind, good or bad. I can understand the things I do that cause stress or frighten and deplete me, and I can make better choices for my life.

This does not make me a better person than any other. It just brings me close to my idea of happiness. It brings dynamism and the torch of life into my life.

It keeps my spirit alive and singing.

I don’t wait for God to make me unhappy or happy. It’s my job. Happiness is real. I’ve seen joy in dying and sick, in old and poor and abused people, in people in wheelchairs, and in people with cancer.

It’s not the possibility of happiness we doubt, ” writes Chittister, “it is how to find it that eludes us.”

I’ve been unhappy for much of my life and shouted for help finding happiness. The real challenge was understanding what was best for me, so I could look at my life and point it in the right direction.

I believe the best happiness for me is the one I create or co-create myself.

For me, life is purpose and meaning, not just money, or even mostly money. It lies in answering my call and understanding why I am here.

The corporate life model doesn’t make anyone happy that I know of, nor does our poisonous politics. Being angry and hateful does not bring happiness or meaning to life.

I  realized over time that cruel people are never happy and should be pitied.

If I never felt or answered a call to do something in life and never dared to do it, how could I be anything but unfulfilled and unhappy?

I chose to figure out what I wanted – this was hard – and then go after it. I am often distressed, unhappy and anxious. I am neither a saint nor a clown.

Life comes with suffering for the happy and the miserable.

There is no gold at the end of the rainbow, no perfect life for me. Happiness has come from trying and taking the leap.

Whatever happens to me, I am happy that I took the chance. In one sense, perhaps that is happiness.


  1. For me it was always impossible to be happy if the people I cared for, or the people around me were unhappy. I can be content on my own, but happiness involves other people. In my world anyway.

  2. It has been an honor and a pleasure to follow your life’s journey – through your books and book signings long ago and then through the blog. Like many of your followers I often feel as if your writing touches such parallels in my own life. Meaningful sharing is comforting and inspiring. Thank you!

  3. Maria’s choice in clothes makes me happy. She looks really cute all the time. I agree with you, my being happy is up to me. I mostly am content with myself. I like books and TV and my husband’s company. I think people try to hard, they have to go and do in their search for happiness. Our culture has created unhappiness and discontent especially in young people. I am your same age maybe that’s why we agree so much. Thanks for your beautiful pictures I look forward to seeing them every day.

  4. After my son, Terry, died by suicide, I thought I would NEVER be happy again. I grieved deeply for a long time. Slowly, very slowly, I began to notice what I call glimmers, sparks of happiness. I shied away at first but then I realized I needed to collect those glimmers, to look for them. Over time I started to reach out to others, the connect with people grieving a suicide loss. I asked people about their loved ones, asked their names and so many lovely connections were born. Twelve years have passed. My life is so different now. I still miss my son, there is a Terry-sized hole in my heart, AND my life has expanded and grown around me. I don’t seek happiness, I embraced joy, love and purpose and I am, for the most part happy. Merry Christmas Jon & Marie and all your lovely, treasured animals.

  5. Joan Chittister is one of my favorite authors for her deep spiritual insights & wisdom. One of my favorites is The Gifts of Age , which you are sharing with the Mansion residents. My dearest friend sent me a copy of Joan’s book, Happiness, published in 2011. It’s time for a re-read; its packed with information! Thanks for the stunning pictures of the farm–Maria, the flowers, and all your other loved ones. Blessings in this holiday season.

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