What is happiness and is it something useful to st...

What is happiness and is it something useful to strive for?

Bo Jacobsen‘s paper What is happiness? The concept of happiness in existential psychology and therapy, was published in the journal Existential Analysis in 2007. Here I will present a brief overview of the paper and then summarise a discussion that I had with colleagues at the Northern Existential Group about the nature of happiness and what an existential perspective might have to offer on the subject.

Perspectives on happiness

Mainstream psychology and sociology

Jacobsen highlights the recent trend within psychology and sociology to focus on happiness, something which has increased further since the publication of his article with the development of the positive psychology movement and the proposal of ahappiness index as a measure of a society’s success by politicians.

According to Jacobsen, sociologists have been concerned with surveying how happiness varies across cultures finding, for example, that Northern Europeans are happier than Southern Europeans. Noting that such divisions rarely reflect everyday observations of the levels of joy in such areas, Jacobsen cites social psychologist,Michael Argyle, who suggests that the statistics are more to do with whether it is acceptable to express unhappiness. For example, in Northern Europe, cultural expectations are that we should be happy because we have nothing to complain about.

Psychologists turned to happiness because they noticed a tendency in their discipline to focus on the negative (antisocial behaviour, emotional difficulties, etc.). They measure happiness on rating scales and equate it with certain physiological states (such as endorphin release, or activity in certain areas of the brain). A focus has been on basic activities which can improve happiness. Jacobsen lists things like ‘smiling at people’, ‘having coffee’ and ‘being told I am loved’, whilst positive psychologist Martin Seligman has since proposed happiness exercises such as remembering three positive experiences at the end of every day, writing a gratitude letter and delivering it personally, and finding a main strength that you have and applying it in a different arena (to cite three that have been found to be particularly effective).

Jacobson criticises such psychological and sociological approaches for taking a mechanistic view of humans (as capable of being programmed to be happy), which leaves no room for free choice of conscious decisions, he then turns to humanistic psychology.

Humanistic psychology

In the 1950s, German psychologist Charlotte Bühler studied happiness over the lifespan and applied Husserl’s concept of intentionality to the topic. She understood this as people’s attempt to find meaning in life, and located unhappiness in neglecting, or being unable to realise, important life-goals.

Bühler suggested that we develop identity and ability to choose in childhood, which enables us to make preliminary choices about life-goals in our early adulthood. These become more specific between 25 and 40 and are reviewed after this point to determine how we spend our remaining adulthood. The end of life is a period of reflecting on how successful we have been in relation to these goals. Therefore our happiness is strongly related to how we interpret our lives in relation to our intentions and values.

Jacobsen critiques the humanistic perspective for viewing the individual as separate and driven by internal forces, rather than rooted in their sociocultural and material context. This limits which of our many possible goals we are able to achieve.


Turning to existential perspectives on happiness, Jacobsen relates this strongly to death anxiety, which writers such as Rollo May have linked to the degree to which life is felt to have been fulfilled or not. Unhappiness can be rooted in the existential guilt of not having lived life fully, whereas those who are happy – according to Jacobsen – would accept their death serenely. Our group was somewhat sceptical of this idea, feeling that all choices involve saying ‘yes’ to something and ‘no’ to something else, so we would always have existential guilt no matter how well our life was lived.

Drawing on Medard Boss, Jacobsen defines happiness as ‘composed joyous serenity’, meaning that we are (1) free from conventions to follow our calling, (2) lively and vital, and (3) serene enough to ‘let the other person be’. So we could consider happiness as requiring freedom, capacity for joy, and capacity to accept others as they are.

Jacobsen finishes by exploring whether therapists – or people in general – could help others to become happier. He concludes that we cannot make someone else happy, but we can – in Boss’s terms – help them to meet the world freely and openly (which would fit with his definition of happiness). This can be done by caring about the other person whilst also being willing to let them be themselves (rather than what we want them to be).

The combination of loving interest and the ability to let the other person be is Jacobsen’s formula for happiness.


We began our discussion by reflecting that, although Jacobsen criticises positive psychology for being quite causal (tick these boxes and be happy), what he suggests is also quite prescriptive. Reflecting on our own subjective experiences of happiness it seemed that it was often something which bubbled up as a kind of emergent property of everyday experience. Authors such as Sara Ahmed and Gay Watson alert us to the origins of the word happiness in ‘hap‘ meaning chance or fortune.

Definitions of happiness

Clearly there is a difficulty that the word ‘happiness’ covers many different experiences. Whilst Jacobsen distinguishes ‘brief’ and ‘durable’ forms at the beginning of his paper, and focuses on the latter, we also considered a distinction between finite forms of happiness which could be fulfilled (e.g. by getting the cup of coffee) and infinite ones. We felt that a better distinction than either of these might be between everyday pleasure and a form of happiness that was bound to meaning (although these might be more temporary and constant, or finite and infinite, respectively, that is not necessarily the case).

Much of our discussion centred around whether these two forms of happiness were compatible or contradictory. It seemed possible that the ability to take simple pleasure in everyday activities might be blocked by understanding, or wisdom, about how the world works. Similarly, a focus on finding everyday pleasure might get in the way of finding meaning. For example, we imagined a woman gaining pleasure from a pole-dancing class who may find this difficult if she interrogated the gendered cultural pressure to find pleasure in the desiring gaze of men. On the other hand, if we are too concerned with the pleasure of the next cup of coffee, slice of cake, or pat on the back, we may not reach the meaning-full kind of happiness of sensing that we are meeting our life goals or relating openly with other people.

However, we weren’t sure that these forms of happiness were necessarily incompatible. It could also be that a sense of living meaningfully opened up the possibility to enjoy everyday moments, or that such an openness to everyday experience could enable us to find life-goals which were more conducive to happiness (such as connecting with other people, or contributing to wider understanding, rather than being a ‘success’ or getting approval from others).

Who gets to be happy?

Another important consideration, in terms of helping others to be happy, was the situation they are in. We were all critical of a kind of craving for happiness (which may well, as the Buddhists believe, lead to quite the opposite of what it desires). However, we wondered whether the simple happiness exercises of Seligman and co may have their place. For example, when somebody is very low and depressed it can be unproductive to get immediately into discussions of meaning and purpose (they are often feeling that life is meaningless). However, encouragement to do very simple ‘daily kindnesses’ often enables them to gradually reverse the downward spiral such that they are in a place where wider reflections on life are possible.

Research has shown that making ourselves smile does increase our sense of happiness, and whilst this is rather mechanistic, many of us had found that forcing an expression of happiness, like this, has opened us up more to the world. We need to be wary about hiearchising different forms of happiness, or pronouncing on whose happiness counts. For example, even the ecstasy following taking a drug – whilst leading some into a problematic form of constant craving – can shift perspectives in meaningful and important ways, for others.

Another thing that is not addressed fully in Jacobsen’s paper is the relationship between happiness and normativity. As in our pole-dancing example, it is often those who conform to sociocultural norms who can access a certain form of happiness because it is available to them in a way that it isn’t to others (the very act of conforming to a norm that we have been repeatedly told is pleasurable often gives pleasure). Sara Ahmed reflects on the stereotype of the ‘feminist killjoy’. Perhaps it is necessary to kill (normative) joy if we are to reach a more equal society where pleasure isn’t always found at the expense of others, or by conforming to problematic power hierarchies? For example the joy some of us might have found in Jacobsen’s article was diminished by his continued use of the generic ‘man’ for humans. Does ethics trump happiness in a kind of duty to help people to circumvent undesirable forms of happiness which exclude, oppress, or alienate others?

Then again, we wondered – at least in some circumstances – whether a truly happy person might be one who had reached some kind of peace with the inevitable contradictions and complexities of (post)modern life, able to take pleasure in the normative at the same time as critiquing it and working towards change.

We also had some debate about whether a certain level of material well-being is necessary for happiness to even be possible (freedom from pain and threat of violence, a home, and enough to eat, for example), or whether it is problematic to assume that happiness is not possible under deprived circumstances. Whether or not one was stuck in such a situation seemed to be one key aspect of this.


Relating happiness to other emotions, some of us felt that happiness was about being able to experience a full palette of emotional colours rather than finding these muddied together to create a generic kind of brown. This is an idea that resonates with some ofEmmy Van Deurzen‘s thoughts on the importance of openness towards different emotions, as well as the common idea that we need to feel sadness in order to notice when we are happy. However, we disputed Jacobsen’s idea that it wasn’t possible to feel anxiety and love at the same time. If love involves accepting the freedom of ourselves and others (and thus inevitably responsibility) then some degree of existential anxiety is perhaps an inevitable part of love. Indeed many colours can be combined on the emotional palette, or put alongside each other to create a stimulating effect. A nice idea, akin to Boss’s loving interest in the context of letting be, was the metaphor of being able to be in whatever ‘colour/s’ we were in at the time as well as holding on to the existence of the full palette.

We finished our discussion by reflecting on experiences many of us shared of times when we expected to be happy and this expectation was the very thing that made happiness impossible. Like Barry Magid we felt that the pressure to be constantly happy was high in current western culture. For example, every product, artistic creation, or experience has to be ‘best ever’, our ‘favourite’ or one to ‘do before you die’. Whilst holidays as children could be remembered happily even when it rained every day and lots of things went wrong, pressure now is on to create some perfect experience. One person reflected that wakes or funerals could often be happier experiences than weddings because nobody expects them to be so. In our goal-directed world we wondered if the best recipe for happiness might be the cultivation of an appreciation of things for what they are.

Find Our More

The full reference for Bo Jacobsen’s paper is:

Jacobsen, B. (2007) What is happiness? The concept of happiness in existential psychology and therapy. Existential Analysis, 18 (1), 39-50.

You can find it online here:

Three fascinating recent books which all critique the idea of striving for happiness, from different perspectives, are:

Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Magid, B. (2008). Ending the pursuit of happiness. Boston, MA: Wisdom publications.

Van Deurzen, E. (2008). Psychotherapy and the quest for happiness. London: Sage.

Ahmed takes a sociocultural approach and writes about who is excluded from normative understandings and expectations of happiness (particularly in relation to gender, sexuality, race, and class). Magid brings together Buddhist and psychoanalytic perspectives to critique the current western pursuit of happiness, arguing that it leads to greater suffering. Van Deurzen critiques the recent positive psychology movement and offers an alternative existential approach which – as we have seen – questions whether happiness is what people should be striving for.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).



  1. Sounds like it was an amazing discussion!