What is Happiness?

Cynthia was immediately attracted to Harry’s good looks, easy smile and charm. She thought, “This is the guy for me.” A few dates, and she was smitten. A few more dates and everything fell apart. Harry lied to her, had an affair with her best friend, and borrowed money from her, which he did not pay back. What went wrong?

A puzzling situation:

Billy won the lottery. A cool $25 million! He appeared to be a good man with a good character. Of the many types of people who might have won, his friends were happy it was Billy. But two years later he was arrested for drunk driving, resisting arrest, soliciting a prostitute, and having drugs in his car. The arrests continued over the next few years. The excitement of winning did not grow into a lifelong happiness.

Tom, a successful businessman, was a loner who worked  long hours, saving and re-investing most of his profits. He was disliked for his independence and envied for his wealth. Yet his was a life full of contentment and happiness. Why does wealth bring happiness to some and misery to others?

If wealth is not a shortcut to happiness, what about sacrificing for others? Terry volunteers at the soup kitchen 6 days /week, 52 weeks a year, but hates it, hates her life, and has grown especially bitter towards the people she serves. Dora, an engineer, never does volunteer work. If she gives to charity, she does so very selectively and sparingly. Acquaintances envious of her success call her selfish. Yet Dora is very happy.

There are many people who we think should be happy but are not. (Billy the "lucky" lottery winner and Terry the "serious" volunteer.)

There are many people who we think should be miserable but are not. (Tom the "loner" businessman and Dora the "selfish" engineer.)

Some people who seem to have nothing are very happy. Some people who seem to have everything are not. Some jet-setters seem happy while some moral crusaders have become miserable old grouches. Happiness seems very unpredictable, inconsistent, irrational.

What follows is an explanation as to the rational basis of happiness.


Happiness is an emotion. So is sadness, love, hate, curiosity, revulsion, excitement, jealousy, contentment, depression, anxiety, fear, guilt and anger. All emotions have causes, causes which can be understood and controlled.

The emotion of happiness is not caused simply by entertaining your whims. (Whims are an obstacle to happiness.) Happiness is not merely a life lived by accumulating moments of pleasure. On the contrary, happiness is a long lasting enduring enjoyment of life, it is being in love with living. It is your reward for achieving a good character and personal rational values in life. Some important values are a productive career, romance, friendship and hobbies.

Achieving these values requires rationality and takes effort and skill. Two types of skills you can use are thinking skills and valuing skills.

Once you learn to have confidence in your own mind and once you discover the virtues that make it possible for you to achieve your values and that make your life worth living, then you will experience the result - an earned pride and a genuine self-esteem. And of course happiness.

For more information on achieving happiness through rationality, follow the links on this page. If you feel you need professional help, go to "How to Choose a Therapist". You can also ask Dr. Kenner a question, listen to her radio show, and view her Recommended reading list.


"Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to enjoy. Happiness is a state  of non-contradictory joy - a joy without penalty or guilt... Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who  desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but  rational values, and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions...  there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned..."AYN RAND