Happiness, Explained

Charlie Nadler decodes the mysteries of the world’s most elusive emotion.


We all want to be happy. Studies show that happiness improves our physical health, adds years to our life expectancy, and makes us less likely to pretend to fall asleep on the bus so that we can smell a stranger’s hair.

Happiness is also something of an enigma. Witnessing the birth of our first child; being released from prison right as the bus pulls up; peeing into receptacles filled with cold chocolate milk — we all agree that these are moments of extreme happiness. And yet, we also say that we are happy just because we have our health or because someone left their glasses unattended at their desk and now we have a new pair of glasses.

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as a state of contentment and well-being, but in order to recognize and appreciate this state, we must know it’s opposite. Thus, we can say that happiness is the state of slipping on a banana peel and skinning our knee, then realizing that it’s not a banana peel we slipped on but a pile of gold shillings, then limping our new gold shillings to the bank, slipping again — this time on a legitimate banana peel, then suddenly waking up in our bed to realize that the whole thing had been a dream but that we still get to keep the gold shillings.  

Speaking of skinned knees, doctors note that happy people are better at enduring pain than those with depression. Most doctors also agree that happier folk are less likely to become ill, obese, or legally blind mole men whose fleeting existence is defined by perpetual confusion and crippling paranoia.

Sometimes people want us to believe that they are happy even when they are clearly miserable. Bald men, for example, will never taste the same fruits of happiness the rest of us can savor, but they may nevertheless insist on telling us that they are somehow “happy” or “fine” or that they “don’t need us to drive them to the nearest wig store.” In most cases, these confused men can be subdued with a generous amount of chloroform, at which point they can be safely dropped off at the nearest wig store.

Humans aren’t the only beings capable of experiencing happiness. Our ne’er-do-well cousins the animals can be happy too, though their happiness is of course derived purely from debauchery and other pornographic interests. Because the animal’s noblest pursuit is base pleasure, the happiest creatures are those whose sordid lives most closely resemble a never-ending string of hedonistic free-for-alls and power-orgies — namely the water buffalo, the giraffe, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who lives up the block from us, occasionally watching from the gaudy bedroom window with his smug smile and his “I have more passion in one hindquarter than you have in your entire body” eyes.

After observing various groups of people around the world, psychologists have determined that happiness is often achieved when we find meaning from things that are bigger than ourselves, like religion or retweeting celebrities. These findings show that happiness can also come from helping those in need, so you might want to rethink buying yourself that new Louis Vuitton bag and instead buy that new Louis Vuitton bag for a starving child in Africa. Then again, you may want to just keep the bag, find yourself a nice wig, and start going to church. Whatever makes you happy.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Charlie Nadler lives and works in Los Angeles. He probably has a Twitter and blog.