Happy? Who…ME??

 What is “happy” exactly? How will we ever know we have it, unless we understand what it means for us – for each one of us?

What is the point of all this struggle, if, when we have it, we don’t even recognize it?

Is this it? Is it something more? Is it something else?

The 18th Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill is said to have pronounced as follows: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Personally speaking, I disagree.

Not only do I believe it is necessary to observe our thoughts and actions, and ask ourselves questions like these; but I also believe that for those of us geographically blessed to be living in the “developed” countries, it is a huge privilege to be living in a place, and at a time when we can  even ask such questions – and actually have the possibility of making some changes in our lives, if our truthful answers to ourselves don’t suit us.

American psychotherapist and author, the late James Hillman takes a more nuanced approach than Mill. He doesn’t disparage asking ourselves if we are happy, but he does oppose “pursuing” happiness for its own sake.

Says Hillman: “I see happiness as a byproduct, not as something you pursue directly.”

So let’s look at this thing called “happy.” What is it?

The answers are literally as numerous as the people we ask, and that point is fundamental, because the answer to this universal question is very, very personal.



 Once we do the work to get clear on what happiness means for each of us, then our own definition will be the correct one. 

Says Aristotle: happiness is “the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

The Dalai Lama agrees: “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness…the very motion of our life is towards happiness.”

But these two men, wise as they are, and although stating their view of happiness as the principal goal in life, they still don’t offer us their version of an actual definition.

The German philosopher, Goethe helps out a lot though, with his remark that “our greatest happiness lies in practicing a talent that we were meant to use.”

Tal Ben Shahar, a young Israeli author and teacher, offers one of the most popular courses at Harvard on the topic of happiness. He has written extensively on the subject. Two of his books, “Happier”, and  “The Pursuit of Perfect” both of which I greatly recommend, are excellent resources on this topic.

In his book, “Happier” he characterizes happiness as: “the overall experience of pleasure AND meaning. “A happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving his/her life as PURPOSEFUL.”

He emphasizes the importance of the distinction between “happiness” and “pleasure”. They are different. No question, pleasure is one of the important ingredients in happiness, but there are two equally essential ingredients of happiness: namely purpose, and meaning, which bring  fulfillment, without which happiness is impossible.

Remember too, that Ben Shahar’s definition pertains not to a single moment, but to a generalized aggregate of one’s experiences. “A person can (and does) endure emotional pain at times and still be happy overall.”

Practice Tip: 

And what about Michael? What’s my take on happiness? Well, I’m not Aristotle or Goethe, but I took a crack at this anyway – and came up with 3 questions, which I invite you to ask yourselves, and then respond honestly to:

1) Are you OK with who you are? (not comparing yourself to “Joe”, or “Josephine” – or wishing that your life looked more like theirs). Essentially, do you feel you are living in authenticity?

2) Are you comfortable overall with your work, your actions, and your way of being in the world? (Do they feel genuinely your own…and in synchronicity with your deepest personal values?). Does your life feel purposeful?

3) Are you at ease, (relaxed) in your life? (This doesn’t mean you are anxiety free. Of course we all have  problems, and with them, the ongoing stress that comes with our human situation; but you are not, in the  main, feeling fearful, angry or “hungry” or “stuck”

If you can answer yes to these three, you are incredibly fortunate, and I believe, happy.

OOPS!! PS. Just heard from my good buddy Sage, with some VERY wise, profound and compelling comments and feedback (readable below in the comments section), which BTW, I would welcome from all my readers. He said this post was too cerebral. Too much from head – not enough from heart. Soo, I’m gonna add some stuff I was holding back. First the pic, then the story, then the music:

Forest Swimmin' Hole

What you are looking at, is the swimming hole which is about 100 meters from our cabin in the Vermont forest. This is what paradise on earth looks like. Every year, when I take my last swim for the season, I ask myself whether my creator will allow me to return for another dip the following year. This year (s)he said yes. So, one hour ago, I grabbed a bar of soap and a towel, walked thru the forest, got naked, summoned and FOUND the courage (YAY!) to dive in (Brrr…REALLY cold). After I was clean, I sat on a flat rock right in the waterfall, watching the sun dappling thru the trees, in the most profound gratitude and joy, for the gift and the privilege to be living in that moment, in that place.Truly,  I was overwhelmed. Life simply cannot get better than this. It cannot. This, for sure, is – and FEELS – HAPPY!

Now,for the music: Remember this one? While you’re looking at the poems below – “if you’re happy and you know it” – click right here!! 

Finally, and for fun, I recently found out about a Japanese Zen Monk and Poet named IKKYU (1394-1481). His poems are compelling, on point, but funny too, so I thought I’d share a few:


You do this, you do that

You argue left, you argue right

You come down, you go up

This person says no, you say yes

Back and forth

You are happy.

You are really happy.


Why is it all so beautiful

This fake dream,

This craziness, 



F#@k flattery, success,money

All I do is lie back 

And suck my thumb 


Sick of it whatever it’s called 

Sick of the names

I dedicate every pore 

To what’s here 


The wise know nothing at all.

Well, maybe one song.


Dear Reader, in whatever sense has the most meaning for you, I pray that you are “happy.”

Please, be kind to yourself,











About Michael Scott

Michael Scott is a life coach, author and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. After spending 35 years in business - coaching found him - and he's never looked back. Michael uses his coaching training and experience, in the service of his clients, as their constant and loving guide towards joyous, fulfilling lives which are genuinely their own. He lives with his dear wife in Sausalito, CA.

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