• davewofford

Taxonomy of Happiness Part 1

I’d like to posit that there are essentially two families of happiness available to humans.


The first category of happiness includes states of being that result from efforts, behaviors, and circumstances. This category includes the experiences of reward, bonding, safety, self-confidence, and physical pleasure. Aesthetic beauty, sensory delight, profound absorption in a task or challenge, deep and lasting friendship, and the joy of service all fall within this category. Even transcendent ecstasy belongs in this list. These experiences are all correlated with specific physiological states – meaning chemicals, electrical pulses, and structural activity. Another thing these forms of happiness have in common is that they all have beginnings, middles, and endings. They come, and they go. It is this last feature that often causes problems, or provokes growth. I would argue that circumstantial happiness is a valuable and valid goal. It is worth expending considerable effort to nourish these types of experience into our daily lives. But the delusion that any of them would ever be permanently or fundamentally satisfying creates great suffering in the world, in the form of disappointment, frustration, and wasted energy.


To repeat, any experience that results from specific behaviors, efforts, or circumstances lies within the boundary of this first category. These experiences are what we conversationally refer to as happiness. They can be cultivated over time through persistent and well-directed intention, and it is probably worth doing so to some extent, even though none will ever be permanent or ultimately satisfying.


The second type of happiness is less commonly referred to, either as happiness or in fact at all. It is not an experience, exactly, but rather can be found in our relationship to experience. Its existence is independent of circumstances and behaviors. It is no more accessible when times are great than when times are tough. In contrast to the first type of happiness, it is boundless in the sense that it remains available regardless of the endless rollicking of transient experience. It is equanimity, tranquility, and peace. And while it also requires effort and practice to access this type of happiness, the effort is a very different type of effort than is required for circumstantial happiness, in that it does not require tinkering with behaviors or circumstances. Rather, it involves de-coupling our essential sense of well-being from any particular behavior or circumstance whatsoever. Behavioral changes may result, but that is a secondary consideration. Because this is not an intuitive approach or goal for most people, this type of happiness is usually overlooked and terribly underrated by most people.


In the case that a person or group feels a desire to make positive change, it is extremely valuable to do the work of becoming clear on what specific type of change is desired. Given that we all have limited time, resources, and energy, it is essential to have a well-defined goal as we expend that time, those resources, and that energy. It is also helpful to know what progress would look like in whatever direction one chooses to grow.

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