Happiness carries different denotations for every individual. It varies based on attitudes, lifestyle, society, cultures, and so much more. Daniel Gilbert discusses the inconsistencies and definitions of the term in his book Stumbling on Happiness. His experience-stretching hypothesis proved to be extremely interesting when read about in the context of today’s society.
Gilbert states, “all claims of happiness are claims from someone’s point of view – from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context." This idea that people determine happiness on a scale that has formed based on their own individual experiences resonated with me. As young college students at competitive institutions, we are evolving within a society and culture that is built on comparison. These comparisons that people make with others may be based on social media, academic achievements, success in the job market, and on many other forums. Gilbert’s explanation that these comparisons will never amount to an internal realization of happiness is a significant wake up call. He says that our state of happiness is directly relational to our individual experiences. They constitute a pool from which our cognitive selves draw information to elicit a sense of happiness. As a result, the different levels of happiness that we each feel can, in no way, be compared to anyone else’s, because we have all gone through different experiences.
In order to explain this phenomenon, Gilbert writes about the lives of conjoined twins, Lori and Reba Schappell. When we, as external onlookers, observe the lives of these two people, it’s easy to question how it is that they can be happy in such a situation. How can they enjoy life, when they have to share each and every moment with each other? How do they live with the inability to complete simple functions, like running, cartwheels, and so many others that we take for granted? Gilbert attempts to answer these questions with the idea that “not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing." Because Lori and Reba have never been able to run, they do not view the world from the same lens as someone who has. Because they have never experienced it, they do not know to miss it. That act, and its emotional effects, cannot factor into their claim to happiness, because to them it does not exist.
In essence, it boils down to perspective and subjectivity. My life, the experiences I have accumulated throughout it, and the effects that they have had on myself, are different, and will always be different from those of every other person on this planet. Happiness is a subjective claim. This is a concept that should serve as a reminder to us all that we cannot base our happiness on someone else, or compare our current state to that of another individual because our lives are simply incomparable.