Where Logic Meets Love

What Do You Call It? Does It Matter?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

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What Do You Call It? Does It Matter? | Faith Permeating Life
STOP! Before reading this post, please take this quick survey:

As a communication major married to a psych major, I understand the effect that different word choices can make.

For example, this is why there's such a fuss over certain gender distinctions, such as having more forms of address for one gender than another (Miss/Mrs./Ms. vs. Mr.) -- this actually makes us more likely to mentally distinguish between women by marital status than we do for men, and to generalize and stereotype those distinct groups accordingly. And working in survey design, I know that you have to be very precise in how you word questions because different words and phrases, even if similar in meaning, can elicit different responses.

This is why I find it interesting that people use different words to describe a state of generally positive feelings about one's life -- and, in contrast, those moments of exceptionally strong positive feelings that are tied to a specific event.

In The Happiness Project, happiness is defined as that base layer of good feeling. The project itself is not necessarily trying to produce more distinct events that evoke positive feelings (though that can certainly help), but raising one's overall level of satisfaction with life. Or maybe just improving one's overall outlook toward life, which I would call optimism. I think those two are interrelated.

On the other hand, yesterday I was listening to the One Extraordinary Marriage podcast, and they were talking about living in the moment and appreciating when things are going well. One of them was using the word "happiness," and the other finally interrupted and said something like, "I think you're talking more about contentment. It's not so much that we've been in this constant state of happiness -- we had some fights and stressful moments this week -- but overall, life is just good."

Contentment. I liked and didn't like this as a contrast to "happiness." Liked because contentment seems like a more concrete and attainable goal than happiness. Maybe a more realistic one? At the same time, I dislike it for the same reason -- it seems very black and white: Are you content with your life? Yes or no?

I like how Gretchen describes "happiness" in The Happiness Project: You can always find ways to be happier. You can start a happiness project even if you're already happy with your life as a whole. It's something that builds and grows over time if you work at it. I don't feel like you get that same idea of continual improvement with a word like "contentment."

I found an audiobook yesterday called Meditations for Happiness, which is kind of lame, kind of laughable, and kind of good (but that's another post). This author also uses "happiness" to refer to an overall sense of well-being and positive feeling in one's life, as something that can help one bounce back more rapidly from times of sadness or stress. Those brief moments of heightened positive feeling (the opposite of moments of sadness or anger) he calls joy. Part of learning to be happier overall involves recalling moments of joy, but it also involves recalling moments of peace, feelings of being cared for, and other flavors of positive emotions.

When I was going through my "think positive" phase in high school, I generally used the words "happiness" and "joy" the other way around. Happy moments were in contrast to sad moments, but the thing that would sustain you long-time was joy. For me, this is very closely tied to my faith. (This is probably why "Joy" by the Newsboys is one of my favorite Christian songs of all time.) According to the New American Standard version of the Bible on biblegateway.com, there are 172 mentions of "joy" in the Bible and 4 mentions of "happiness" (plus 27 mentions of "joyful" and 16 mentions of "happy"). I have always viewed joy as something more visceral, something deeper than happiness, something you could experience even during sadness. Joy is God's promise -- it is being grateful, being blessed, knowing that your life is so much bigger than this one event and that the whole of your life is good and blessed.

So now I'm curious: Is there a relationship between what you call these feelings and how much you feel them? As a researcher and data geek, naturally I had to create a survey to delve deeper into this. It's not supposed to be rigorously scientific, so even if you've cheated by reading through this whole thing without filling out the survey, you can still do it. I haven't looked yet to see if any actual research like this has been done. I'm just satisfying my own curiosity. And of course I will post my results once I analyze the whole thing. Maybe I will try out my new Illustrator skills to create something pretty :)

If you've filled out the survey and have additional thoughts on these words -- happiness, joy, contentment, optimism, or others -- and whether the words you use can affect your outlook, let me know in the comments!


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