What is happiness? According to Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Psychologist Paul Ekman found that happiness is the emotion that makes you smile. A smile is a universal and even involuntary response to happiness. Even if you try to keep a straight face, the smile can flicker across your face in a fraction of a second. Paul Ekman calls these fleeting expressions microexpressions. This video shows the facial expressions associated with the basic human emotions, including happiness. It even shows how to tell the difference between a polite smile and a smile that results from genuine happiness.

It is hard to define exactly what is meant by the word happiness. For that matter, it’s hard to say exactly what is meant by the word emotion. This problem in definition is serious. How can we understand our emotions if we cannot explain what an emotion is? To a psychologist, an emotion is a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior. Thus, anyone who cares about how people think and act must pay careful attention to emotions. What about happiness, in particular? What do you think happiness is? How does happiness make you think and behave? More importantly, what kinds of thoughts and actions can help you find happiness?

Happiness is a powerful emotion. Like other emotions, it helps to guide human behavior. Unfortunately, many people end up making themselves miserable through their attempts to make themselves happy. This is the basic problem that underlies addiction. Part of this problem stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of happiness. They do not understand that pleasure and excitement are not the same thing as happiness. In this fascinating speech, psychologist Douglas Lisle talks about the Pleasure Trap. He describes how people often make themselves and others unhappy by seeking pleasure in dysfunctional ways.

Our consumer society has trained many of us to believe that money can buy happiness. Of course, severe poverty can produce misery; but after your basic human needs are met, more money does not necessarily have much of an effect on your overall happiness. The modern rat race urges people to “look out for number one.”. Yet the surprising truth is that the best way to find happiness is to practice compassion for other people. Perhaps this truth should not be surprising. Human beings are social animals. We depend on each other for our physical well-being, as well as our emotional well-being. As the British poet John Donne put it:

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee

In this speech, Paul Ekman explains the relationship between compassion and happiness, from his own Darwinian scientific perspective as well as from a Buddhist philosophical perspective:

If you want to find happiness for yourself, you must concern yourself with other people’s happiness, including their right to pursue happiness. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

To understand this statement, you need to understand some legal terminology. A right is a fundamental rule about what a person is allowed to have or what is owed to that person. There are two basic kinds of rights: legal and natural. A legal right is a right that is bestowed by a given legal system. In contrast, a natural right is a right that does not depend on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government and are therefore universal and inalienable. An inalienable right is one that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws.

Originally, this concept of natural rights came from a legal philosophy called natural law, which is supposedly determined by nature (or perhaps by the Almighty) and is therefore universal. The problem with natural law, of course, is that nature does not have opinions. Thus, nature does not give us guidance about what ought to be, as opposed to what is. Nor can you base natural law on religion because a religion involves the customs and beliefs of a particular culture. Thus, natural law is an impossible dream. The most that you can hope to achieve is some international consensus on what rights human beings ought to have.

The closest that humanity has ever come to a worldwide consensus on human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December of 1948. The committee that drafted this declaration was chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Spanish translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.