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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 term Definition
Pleasure A pleasant state of emotional, physical and/or intellectual stimulation
Cheerfulness The quality of being noticeably happy and optimistic
Absence of pain The state of being largely free from unpleasant events
Flow The state of being in the zone while performing a goldilocks task – a task not too easy and not too hard
Contentment The absence of feeling that something is missing from life. To have your personal and emotional needs met. A feeling of satisfaction
Novelty To experience something new, including knowledge, people, cultures and sensations
Eudaimonia Human flourishing and prosperity; human excellence 
Affect balance An evaluative assessment based on the relative frequency of pleasant and unpleasant emotional states across time
Life satisfaction An evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole from ‘worst possible life’ to ‘best possible life’
Joy The positive sensation accompanying achievement of something desired, promised or predicted; the greater the accomplishment the greater the joy
Peace A state of tranquility, quiet and harmony
Meaningfulness The perception that one’s life is worthwhile and valuable
Eternal bliss A state of perfect ecstasy that persists regardless of circumstances
Reconciliation with God A 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 – especially the best of us.2 Research also shows that well-being is greater for people who experience a healthy mix of pleasant and unpleasant emotions.3

So what is a happiness hierarchy then? 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. Then consider whether 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 term Rank
Reconciliation with God 1 – Best
Meaningfulness 2
Contentment 3
Joy 4
Peace 5
Flow 6
Novelty 7
Eudaimonia 8
Life satisfaction 9
Affect balance 10
Pleasure 11
Cheerfulness 12
Absence of pain 13
Eternal bliss 14 – 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 for 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.

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