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Defining Happiness in a World of Chaos

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

The world right now is in a state of chaos, from a two-year-long pandemic to soaring gas prices to lives simply not going back to the way they once were. So how does one define happiness in a world of chaos? Fortunately, happiness is something that we can focus on and pursue even with outside forces beyond our control are making life more challenging than expected. Today, we will define happiness and explore a method of increasing happiness that you can do in under 5 minutes.

Happiness scientists have gone round and round about how to define happiness. Arthur Brooks, an accomplished scientist and professor at the Harvard Business School, and Sonja Lyubomirsky, a positive psychology researcher and author, have done an excellent job encapsulating happiness research and elaborating on this well-established definition.

The Two Prongs of Happiness

Happiness scientists seem to agree that happiness is a two-pronged definition. The first prong is happiness in emotions. The second prong is satisfaction and purpose. You need both prongs to be fulfilled to achieve well-rounded happiness.

#1: Happiness in Emotions

First, happiness in emotions, such emotions as joy, contentment, love, and other positive feelings. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as "the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile."

These emotions stem from the positive experiences we have in life, like date night with a spouse, special moments with our children, being recognized for our accomplishments at work, or even just sipping a yummy coffee in a comfy chair.

While understanding this prong is reasonably self-explanatory, and we feel pretty solid about what emotions create happiness, many miss the boat on the second prong.

#2: Happiness in Satisfaction & Purpose

The second prong in defining happiness has two parts, purpose and satisfaction.


One part of creating fulfilling happiness is to find purpose in one's life. Purpose is how you feel when you are doing the thing you love. This can be some academic research, your work, building a business, being involved in the community, being a parent, and more.

Arthur Brooks says that long-lasting happiness comes from human connection and productive work. He found in his scientific research that it was overwhelmingly clear that a “productive human endeavour creates a sense of purpose in life.”

He says, “What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others.” Therefore, it’s not the actual title of being a lawyer, doctor, teacher, or barista; it's the feeling you get when you are doing what you enjoy.


The second part of the second prong (sounds weird, but try to stay with me) is satisfaction. Arthur Brooks describes, “SATISFACTION = WHAT YOU HAVE ÷ WHAT YOU WANT.”

Many of us think we will be more satisfied, happier even, if we get more of what we want. However, there is this scientific theory called hedonic adaptation that tells us that we get comfortable with what we have, and we always want more. Satisfaction is elusive and doesn’t last with that mentality; it’s like running on a treadmill and never getting to the destination. So, it's basically impossible to "get more" and be happier long term.

This demonstrates that we're chasing the wrong thing. We're pursuing the "want" of the satisfaction equation instead of the "have."

This is so true! It’s what we tell our kids all the time. Be happy with what you have. However, this can be hard to wrap your mind around because of that hedonic adaptation. So, how can one appreciate their haves?

The Reverse Bucket List

The Reverse Bucket List, designed by Arthur Brooks, is a concept created to improve satisfaction, which improves happiness.

He says, “The fewer wants there are screaming inside your brain and dividing your attention, the more peace and satisfaction will be left for what you already have.”

Let’s pause for a second and review. A traditional bucket list is all the dreams and things you want to accomplish. That’s not a new concept, and many of us have written at least one such list in our life. What Arthur Brooks is trying to achieve is a reverse bucket list so that you feel more satisfied with the dreams you've already accomplished and the things you already have.

Keep in mind that satisfaction is not a function of what you HAVE - it's actually an equation of what you HAVE and what you WANT. Think of it like a fraction: the top is what you have, and the bottom is what you want.

When you don’t manage the denominator, the bottom, the wants will expand and sprawl. This is your traditional bucket list.

Instead, I challenge you to start a reverse bucket list.

Write a list of your haves and accomplishments while trying to detach yourself from the wants.

My Reverse Bucket List

For now, I’m keeping it simple and writing down my haves:

  • I have this chair in my living room. It brings me so much joy to sip warm coffee in this chair.

  • I have a body that serves me. Hands that work, legs that allow me to walk.

  • I have a mind that sees lightness through the dark that innately searches for positivity when life feels hard.

  • I have a family that I am obsessed with.

    • Kids who are healthy.

    • A marriage where we prioritize one another and a husband who is kind, patient, generous, and who loves me.

  • I get to give and receive love with the people that I love.

  • I’ve traveled the world to amazing places and had incredible experiences.

My haves list is beautiful and long. It has shown me that my wants are nice but not what will truly make me happier. I have everything I need to be as happy as I can be right now.

What is Your Reverse Bucket List?

If you have made it all the way to here, great job! Now, I want to challenge you to take two minutes to write down 2 to 3 items on your reverse bucket list and share them with me in the comments! After, let’s connect on social at @everydayhappinesswithkatie and join the community on the hashtags #IntentionalMargins and #everydayhappinesswithkatie on Instagram!

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