A universal experience that eludes definition
Happiness is hard to define precisely. It has a vast array of synonyms with slightly different meanings that can take us in different directions (wellbeing, satisfaction, gratification, pleasure, joy, contentment). At the same time, people of all ages and cultures are familiar with it; happiness is understood all over the world. Those who live outside of their native country and know at least two languages give similar answers on respective questionnaires, even if the idioms differ greatly (say, English and Chinese, for example). The same situation is found in countries where many languages are spoken. For example, in Switzerland the answers to questions posed in Italian, French or German show no significant differences.1 Culture or language makes no difference.
Another common element shown is that happiness is not something that we can make with our own hands; it is not at our service. It can only be embraced when it appears at the most unexpected moment. This is why happiness has been likened to a butterfly. It flees when we chase it, only to alight on us when we are calmly seated. Because of its fleeting nature, the ancients called happiness eudaimonia, the work of a “good demon”: it is something superior to us – we are not its measure – but we can recognize and embrace it.
Aristotle identified happiness with contemplation because, in this activity, we participate in the life that is proper to God. For the Greek philosopher, the joy that derived from contemplation could not be likened to any other experience of which we are capable: “Such a life will be superior to the human condition: in fact, it is not in as much as we are human that we will live this way, but in as much as that which is divine is present in us.”2
Every activity is a way of reaching this fullness, the true motor that constantly accompanies us and allows us to feel alive, fulfilled. Ignatius of Loyola called this final destination “the feeling and enjoyment of things interiorly” (Spiritual Exercises, n.2).