The Difference Between Happiness and Wellbeing (and Why it Matters)


We so often hear "I just want to be happy." But what is happiness and is achieving it realistic? Furthermore, if we are not aiming for happiness, what are we aiming for? According to most psychologists, happiness boils down to this:

hap-pi-ness: noun; the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions; synonyms: pleasure, cheerfulness, merriment, glee

Happiness is, by definition, a momentary state of being. It can ebb and flow (and even disappear) rapidly because it is based on how we are feeling right now. Happiness can seem like an objective that is always just out of reach. Merriment and glee are difficult states of being to obtain (and even more challenging to hold on to). Many of us find ourselves frustrated by never quite being able to reach the fabled land of happiness (which can then lead use further down the road of discontentment).

What if, however, we were aiming at the wrong target? Enter: wellbeing. Wellbeing is a more enduring way of experiencing yourself and the world. Wellbeing is a wealth of inner energy, strength, curiosity, perseverance, and compassion. It inspires awe and wonder. Wellbeing also allows for vulnerability, experiencing sadness and loss, taking risks, and feeling uncertain. In fact, wellbeing encourages these states as they are part of the human experience and necessary paths towards growth. Happiness might tell us to stay where we are because "Where we are is nice and why risk losing that?" Wellbeing cries "Forge ahead! There is more to be discovered!" Wellbeing knows full well that this attitude will frequently lead to bumps and bruises but that it will also lead to triumph, discovery, and expansion.

Since happiness is a "right now" state, it will always be superficial. It can be knocked out of view by something as simple as getting stuck in traffic. Wellbeing is a much deeper well from which to draw. Wellbeing allows us to consider the importance and meaning of struggle. Wellbeing encourages us to experience challenging emotions fully (as opposed to trying to avoid them). Wellbeing teaches us to consider the needs of others even when it comes at a cost to us. Wellbeing encourages us to be awestruck by beauty.

Next time we find ourselves despairing about our lack of happiness perhaps we can reconsider where we are aiming. If we embrace vulnerability and striving for meaningful pursuits we are almost guaranteed to have times of frustration, loneliness, and hurt. But we are just as likely to experience profound joy, achievement, and wonder. Wellbeing would tell us "Be patient. Struggle is part of the process."

Next time: A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?