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What is happiness? Stanford Roundtable experts weigh in

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Stanford Roundtable called “Are You Happy Now?” I know my blog post convinced one person to attend: me.

I made it a priority to attend the event after fumbling to define the difference between happiness and meaningful happiness while interviewing panelist Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, about two weeks ago. At the time, I felt sheepish for struggling to articulate the distinction between these two forms of happiness. But as I sat in the Roundtable’s audience, I realized that while many people have little difficulty knowing when they're angry, sad or frustrated, many of us have a hard time knowing when we're truly happy, what happiness is, and what makes us feel that way.

Throughout the hour-and-a-half long Roundtable discussion, three elements - having a clear sense of what happiness means to us, being able to recognize happiness, and understanding what elicits this emotion in ourselves and others - repeatedly surfaced as important ingredients in the recipe for true, meaningful happiness.

Moderator Katie Couric opened the event by asking each of the panelists to give his or her own personal definition of happiness. Every panelist had a different way of thinking about and defining the term.

Dhabhar said, "I would define happiness is a combination of pleasure as well as meaning. Pleasures are generally short lasting, and meaning can be generally long-lasting. By meaning I mean meaningfulness in your life." Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a University of California, Riverside professor who studies happiness, commented that "one of my favorite definitions of [it] is that you want to continue what you’re doing."

Stanford Director David Kelley, who was diagnosed with throat cancer 2007, discussed how his illness helped him identify what truly made him happy:

I highly recommend being diagnosed with a terminal disease as long as you don’t actually have one. It does kind of straighten you right out... It gets you really excited about focusing on what is fun for me? What was I put on this earth to do?... I was convinced that if I survived that I was going to do something that was a really good fit for me.

If you missed the event, or if you'd like to experience it again, a full-length video will be available soon. For now, the highlights can be seen above.

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Are you happy now? Stanford Roundtable spotlights the science of happiness and wellbeingFirdaus Dhabhar discusses the positive effects of stress and Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress

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