A Psychological Definition of Happiness

In her book, The Search for Fulfillment, Susan Krauss Whitbourne discusses the views of Karen Horney. Horney was a psychoanalyst and author of the 1937 book The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. Whitbourne writes,

“[Horney] believed that true happiness involves tearing down the false self and allowing the real self to shine through. The false self is the one that tries to put on a proud face to the outside world to cover up our real feelings about who we are.”

So, can one feel happiness only if showing one’s true self to the world? Could one’s true self be happy hidden behind a public facade?

I read about how Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, said something to the effect that our last freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude about our circumstances. Frankl wrote from the perspective of a survivor of the concentration camps in Germany during World War II who went on to work as a psychologist helping other survivors. I’ve not read the book, but what I’ve read about it seems to indicate that from Frankl’s perspective, the thing that keeps one real and alive in such horendous circumstances is keeping the ember of that true self within glowing depsite what’s going on outside. I could imagine that in some circumstances, one might choose to act in a certain way while still retaining their individuality and unique perception of the world inside. This would argue that what’s inside is the critical element of our happiness rather than what’s outside, whereas Horney’s definition suggests that the facade needs to be stripped away for one to be happy.

What do you think is necessary for happiness? Are the rules different if outside circumstances are good versus if outside circumstances involve tragedy? And on a related note, is it really possible to “cover up our real feelings about who we are”?

5 Replies to “A Psychological Definition of Happiness”

  1. I’m reading yet another book about happiness (The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner) in which there are several quotes about how one knows one is happy. Ruut Veenhoven, the godfather of positive psychology says, “You can have a disease and not know it, but you can’t be happy and not know it. By definition, if you are happy, you know it.” And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “When a person says he is ‘pretty happy’ one has no right to ignore his statement, or interpret it to mean the opposite.” So if you trust these guys’ viewpoints, feeling happy as a result of the cumulative “little things” is a totally valid way to feel happy.

    The thing I’m curious about is how some people are able to remain in an overall happy state even in the face of adversity. Why are some people broken by the horrors of war and others come back from war and resume their peacetime lives just fine? Outside of the war idea, why are the little things enough for one person to feel happy overall and not for another person?

    As far as covering over feelings, I guess I was thinking more of keeping some of one’s true self to one’s self for the purpose of emotional protection. A concentration camp is an extreme example of this, but it is one example of a situation in which it might not be advisable to act completely transparently. I admit that I think I go about my day with some level of artifice. I’m certainly not covering things up with smiles (I’m not really that emotive by nature), but I think I hold things back to protect myself from ridicule or from giving people ammunition to hurt me before I know I can trust them. I also think about the Buddhist principle of non-harming, how it’s not just about telling only truthful things, but also withholding truths if they might be hurtful to another person. I try to make sure that everything I reveal about myself is honest, but I don’t open myself up as a habit. Having the barrier of this blog is helpful. I probably expose more of myself through this (minus the identifying characteristics) than I do on a daily basis. But then, people can either read my blog or not, so I don’t feel such a responsibility to say only the “right” thing.

    Does this attitude keep me from happiness? I don’t know. And I’m not sure what I’d do about it if I found out that it was keeping me from happiness.

    On the other hand, I recognize that a lot of what we as humans communicate is nonverbal, so I’m not sure it’s possible to hide our true selves even if we’re trying to. I think we may well reveal ourselves even as we try to hide. Maybe it’s that wasted energy trying to hide and not being able to that keeps one from experiencing happiness?

    It’s also possible (probable?) I’m overthinking this.


  2. oh and do i have a cover over real feelings. No. i’m not a cover everything with smiles kind of person. so maybe my openness about my feelings makes me happy.


  3. what is needed for happiness i think probably varies greatly from person to person. for example, for me a clean sink, a good hair day, kids that go to bed easily, an email from a friend those make me happy. but those are just happy moments. is our life just a bunch of happy or unhappy moments? does this all collectively make us happy or not? idk. i’d say so. i’ll take all the little stuff. i think that makes me happy 🙂


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