Sunday June 11, 2017

Is happiness a thing, or a process?

How do you define happiness?

How do you define happiness?

Listen 9:45

How do you define happiness? Would you look it up in a dictionary? Imagine a feeling? Recall a memory?

Or would you turn to that reliable compendium of online knowledge, Wikipedia?

Nikhil Sonnad is a writer at Quartz. And he was curious about how the definition, as written by Wikipedia's crowdsourced editors, has changed over time. It turns out there have been more than 6,000 edits over 14 years, since the term first appeared on the site in 2003.

Nikhil Sonnad

Nikhil Sonnad (

The very first definition of happiness not exactly illuminating: "Happiness is the state of being happy."

"This statement would get you thrown out of Philosophy 101," Nikhil jokes.

Over time the definition has been through phases of absurdity (one editor changed the entry to the word, "eggs" written over and over again) to expressions of love ("Kayla").

It has bounced back and forth between people using examples of what makes them happy, and establishing how different fields define happiness.

"There's always a tension between the specific and the general," he says.

Ultimately, he says, "there is a kind of rejection of creating this one definitive definition."

happiness wikipedia

Wikipedia's page on happiness. (Wikipedia)

Although Wikipedia's editors tend to be male, Western and young, Nikhil says the transparency — the ability to look back and see the evolution of the definition debate — is at least an improvement over definitions in traditional encyclopedias that do not reveal that openness.

At the end of his research, Nikhil concluded that the process of defining happiness was at least as important, if not more, than the actual definition the page now provides. Unlike, say, linear algebra, where very few people feel qualified to offer an explanation, happiness is universal.

"Everybody has an association with this feeling."