Happiness hierarchies and why they matter

Why should anyone care what ‘happiness’ is? The word matters because so many of us have elevated it to an exalted state. We all seem to be chasing happiness, sharing it over social media when we have it, and then mourning its loss. If happiness is the whole aim and end of human existence,1 then we should understand exactly what it is and where to find it. 

Happiness is not one but many interrelated concepts. The word is overburdened with meaning. So let’s unpack the definitions and see if we can make any use of happiness. Here is my working list.

Happiness termDefinition
PleasureA pleasant state of emotional, physical and/or intellectual stimulation
CheerfulnessThe quality of being noticeably happy and optimistic
Absence of painThe state of being largely free from unpleasant events
FlowThe state of being in the zone while performing a goldilocks task – a task not too easy and not too hard
ContentmentThe absence of feeling that something is missing from life. A deep feeling of satisfaction and gratitude
NoveltyTo experience something new, including knowledge, people, cultures and sensations
EudaimoniaHuman flourishing and prosperity; human excellence 
Affect balanceAn evaluative assessment based on the relative frequency of pleasant and unpleasant emotional states across time
Life satisfactionAn evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole from ‘worst possible life’ to ‘best possible life’
Joy or fulfillmentThe positive sensation accompanying achievement of something desired, promised or predicted; the greater the accomplishment the greater the joy
PeaceA state of tranquility, quiet and harmony
MeaningfulnessThe perception that one’s life is worthwhile and valuable
Eternal blissA state of perfect ecstasy that persists regardless of circumstances
Rest of the LordA state of alignment with instead of opposition to God’s will; the presence, comfort and approval of God

I embrace all these forms of happiness, except for one. Eternal bliss has no place in my life. All pass through times of suffering – even the greatest of us.2 Research also shows that well-being is higher for people who experience a healthy mix of pleasant and unpleasant emotions.3

So what is a happiness hierarchy? To find out, take out a piece of paper or open up a spreadsheet and rank the 14 definitions of happiness from most important to least. Take some time to consider whether or not your behavior is leading you toward the happiness you desire. If you don’t have time to rank all 14, at least choose your top three.  

Here is my happiness hierarchy.

Happiness termRank
Rest of the Lord1 – Best
Meaningfulness2
Contentment3
Joy or fulfillment4
Peace5
Flow6
Novelty7
Eudaimonia8
Life satisfaction9
Affect balance10
Pleasure11
Cheerfulness12
Absence of pain13
Eternal bliss14 – Worst

Looking through my responses, it is clear that I want to have a strong relationship with God and feel like my life matters. The good life to me is one where I feel deep gratitude and that nothing is missing. It also strikes me that my top three definitions can coexist with pain and self-sacrifice.

I hope you take the time to establish a happiness hierarchy that reflects your innermost desires. For me, the exercise clarifies what I want out of life and inspires me to prioritize the happiest activities. Perhaps this exercise will also influence your decisions and how you spend your time. You might just find happiness under all those meanings.

7 thoughts on “Happiness hierarchies and why they matter”

  1. Good and practical methodology! While looking through your list it was apparent to me that some of these terms are more essential than others and have to be in operation for the other components to work. For instance, without ‘human flourishing’ you would not be here sharing these ideas over the internet with others, and it’s unlikely that you would have received such a gifted education.

    Liked by 1 person

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