How Happiness Works

Last’ week’s “code red for humanity” got me thinking – ironically – about happiness. What makes you happy? Actually, let’s back up. What IS happiness, that feeling of positive lightness that makes the world seem rosy? “Hap” is the Middle English word for “chance, luck, a chance occurrence”. Sounds about right. “Happy” is defined as “hap + y”. Happiness can indeed arise from a chance encounter with a friend, or even a smile from a stranger.

Valuing Happiness

So if the very root of the definition of happiness is “chance”, can you purposefully make yourself happy? Of course. List 5 things that you would be extremely unhappy without. When you really focus on those things, without thinking about what you don’t have, or want but don’t need, you’ll fell pretty grateful and happy.

There are fundamental things that we need before happiness comes easily – food, shelter, and some sense of fulfilment. Money makes us happy to a degree, after which its effect plateaus (this has been studied). So if you’ve got food, shelter, something that gives you fulfilment, and a bit of money to spare – which is a good chunk of those of us living in developed countries – are we happy?

It seems not. It seems we want “growth”, more, bigger, better, faster. Are you ready for less yet? Less stuff, fewer holidays, less food security – yes, even in Ireland? Remember the Brennan’s Bread panic buying when the dramatically named Beast from the East brought us some snow? We’re all heading for less stability: Climate change is creating headlines globally with floods, fires, drought. We’re afraid to scale back because of the economy. If you don’t buy my beans, I can’t buy your grapes, and then I’ll be unhappy! The economy is more complicated than that, but a change in how we measure economic success is much needed, and includes success without growth.

In the midst of the increasing climate volatility, the pandemic has thrown our lives up into the air, and how things fall back down will hopefully be by thoughtful choice by each of us, based on a long-term view of what we need if we are to survive on this planet. Happily, and not by chance.

Tom Butler’s book Common Sense discusses how we value happiness, and how to change our minds to change our world. Get your paperback copy at

or e-book at


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