Does Happiness Have a Different Meaning to Each of Us?

HappinessThe Big Question
Artwork by: Cinthia Carrasquillo

My idea of happiness was irreversibly changed at the place where many revelatory life experiences occur: summer camp.

When I first arrived at camp, I was nervous but quickly made many friends, all of whom were from different areas of the country and led very different lives. As the weeks went on I became closer with a few of the girls. Most of them were in my bunk, meaning I ate meals with them at least three times a day.

One girl rarely ate the meals provided, opting instead for small bowls of fruit or even just a glass of water. I found this odd as I love to eat. My confusion came to a head on the ceremonial and highly anticipated Doughnut Friday, a day whose name is fairly self-explanatory. As I made my way to the table with three doughnuts tenuously grasped in my hands, I noticed that the girl hadn’t a single thing to eat. I let my questioning nature and persistent confusion get the better of me and asked her about her apparent distaste for the cafeteria food. She responded that she didn’t like to eat at all, that food disgusted her and made her feel vaguely sick. I held out a doughnut, earnestly explaining to her that doughnuts were among my favorite foods; that they made me happy and maybe they could make her happy as well. She pushed my offering away saying she’d tried doughnuts and knew that they made her feel as sick as every other food.

I turned away, sad and a little confused. I understood the basic concept of someone not sharing my interests and preferences, but to be disgusted by something that brought me such joy? I was confounded.

I later learned that the girl was suffering from an eating disorder and had a physical and mental aversion to food.

This experience was my first encounter with such a striking difference in the meaning of happiness. In learning about the girl’s illness, I began to question the concept of happiness and how it differs for each of us. I had always thought that food was something that made every person universally happy, but I realized that there was no way that anything could be universal.There is always someone differentiated by their mental, physical, or emotional background and health, who would be unable or unwilling to feel the same as me. This doesn’t make anyone’s emotions less valid, it just exemplifies the way in which people are unique. Because happiness is specific to each individual person, when someone feels happy it may bring them back to a different experience that made them feel the same way, leading them down a road detailing their own joy.

There cannot be one thing that makes every single person on earth happy. Think of this as a mathematical algorithm, in which every one of the seven billion people currently in existence somehow classified and entered a list of the things that make them happy. The statistical probability of every person having at least one aspect in common is practically zero.

"There cannot be one thing that makes every single person on earth happy."

Each thing that makes me feel happy has a counter in at least one person. The happiness I feel when I see fireworks is the opposite emotion of a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), who may feel definitively unhappy while having the exact same experience. Because of the unique lives we lead, it is near to impossible to find one feeling or experience that would make everyone universally happy.

Because of this are we all truly adrift and separate in terms of our experience of happiness? Or, despite the fact that different things are catalysts for our happiness, do we all share the same actual emotion when we feel it?

For my father, happiness can be described as a sense of calm, as though he is afloat in a sea, unconcerned with any stressful activities. To me, happiness feels like bubbles rising from my chest to every inch of my body, like the sheer force of my giddiness could carry me an inch or two above the earth. I could use any of the many more metaphors or similes to describe this feeling, but I don’t know if any of them can actually encapsulate the emotion.

I often wonder if everyone else feels as I do when I’m happy, regardless of the cause or the description — if the same emotion can be translated differently through language, culture, and experience. Is the way I feel when I listen to an uplifting song the way someone else feels when they look at their favorite piece of art? I would like to hope that the answer is yes; that regardless of any identity or experience, everyone shares the same raw emotion. We might describe or express it differently, but deep down it is really the same basic concept of elation.

I can’t express this sentiment with certainty because I can’t enter the minds of every person and see if they all feel happiness the way I do. We can show where happiness is processed in the brain; but I don’t think we can ever actually know if happiness feels the same way to all of us.

Still, it is my opinion and my hope that we are all unified by a universal emotion, that we are all secretly connected by one all-encompassing experience. So, to answer the question: yes, happiness has a different meaning to each of us, filtered and defined through the course of each of our lives, but the raw emotion is a unifying aspect of human life. I recognize that the belief we all share this binding feeling is idealistic, possibly improbable. But it is a beautiful thought. Even if it can never be fully proven, it is something I think we should all aspire to believe. We all exist in such different circumstances, separated by race, class, gender. Isn’t it a beautiful concept, that if we were to peel back the layers of our humanity, we would find that we all share such a basic feeling with each other? That we are all, at our core, connected?

Grace Luckett is in the 9th grade at Packer Collegiate in Brooklyn, New York. Grace is an avid reader, skier, baker, and singer.

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