This is Part 4 of Bliss & Struggle blog series and explores the definition of Bliss and what makes it our best option for a universal human aim. You can visit the series home page for the full table of contents.

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Post summary for busy readers

This is going to be an absurdly long post on the semantics of bliss. But when you consider its relevance for the project we have embarked on, it feels kind of justified. But for once I want to make your life a bit easier, so let me summarize what’s happening.

Basically I think that “a life of bliss” would be the ideal candidate for a universal human aim (an ideal definition of that “making the most of life” that we were talking about in the last post). The first step to reach that conclusion is to see how bliss can become the objectively subjective term that we were searching for. So this post will look at how bliss is generally perceived, in an attempt to draw the key widely accepted characteristics that would give it a definition universal enough to move ahead with our plans.

Having said that, you have two options: you may skip to the next post and start exploring the fascinating world of a life of bliss, or you might keep on reading and enjoy an uber-nerdy post. Your choice.

simpsons independent thought bliss

GIF By The Simpsons

Bliss, a disclaimer

Let’s get it out there1, I really like the term bliss (as you can tell from the name I’ve chosen for this blog), so I have a vested interest in pushing for it’s use. But again2, words are words; imperfect tools to represent more or less abstract concepts. So even though I’m doing my best to choose a word that I think will generate the less friction for everybody, please don’t get too hung up on my choice and open yourself up to the meaning behind.

That being said… please join me on the first edition of The Bliss Beyond Bullshit’s:

Battle of the Dictionaries – Bliss, a definition (Noun)

This is how the BotD works:

  1. We choose a term (in this case, bliss – noun);
  2. we look up that term across the most widely used English dictionaries;
  3. we discuss, rate and compare the results (well, I’ll do that, but feel free to judge me);
  4. we find a winner (just for fun!); and most importantly,
  5. we end up with a more nuanced idea of what the word might mean for the majority of people, and we can use that as a base to build our own working definition.

So as you can see, the Battle of the Dictionaries is like the Project Runway of semantics, how nerdy and how exciting… Let’s do this!

Minions fight Bliss definition
  • Oxford dictionary:
    Definition of bliss: “Perfect happiness; great joy. / A state of spiritual blessedness, typically that reached after death.”
    Review: Not bad, even though we know that happiness cannot be perfect, the team at Oxford dictionary complements that definition with the more interesting “state of spiritual blessedness”. Surprisingly, it looks like the Oxford dictionary has people reporting from the afterlife, since it establishes that the state of bliss is “typically reached after death”… I mean, if that’s the case, good to know; but I’m not sure how reliable those sources are…
BBB Score
  • Collins dictionary:
    Definition of bliss: “Perfect happiness; serene joy. / The ecstatic joy of heaven.”
    Review: Ok, cool, we can see that there was an attempt to tackle an elusive term through the contrast of “serene” and “joy”. It’s a simple yet nuanced definition. It goes a bit wild with “the ecstatic joy”, but hey, extra marks for literary flair.
BBB Score
  • MacMillan dictionary:
    Definition of bliss: “Complete happiness.”
    Review: That’s it? Lazy and boring and as we know, effectively impossible. I get it that this is a Learner’s dictionary, but I think the learner’s deserve more… Shame.
BBB Score
  • Merriam-Webster dictionary:
    Definition of bliss: “Complete happiness. / Paradise, heaven.”
    Review: Sure, at least they add two meanings, but they do so in the most boring way possible. YAWN. What a disappointment.
BBB Score
  • Cambridge dictionary:
    Definition of bliss: “Perfect happiness. / [American Dictionary] Complete happiness.”
    Review: Double YAWN, adding a synonym doesn’t make it any better. I thought these guys were supposed to be worthy rivals of Oxford… I mean, seriously?
BBB Score
    Definition of bliss: “A state of extreme happiness.”
    Review: They could have stopped there, but I think they realized that the definition would be a bore, so someone at skillfully added “Marriage is often associated with this joyous feeling.” Booya! This made my afternoon. Whoever wrote that, must be a comedic genius, and I must award Bonus points to them for employing lexicographers with a sense of humor3. also mentions that another common association for the term bliss is “heaven or paradise”. Moreover it classifies bliss as “a type of elation”, which defines as “an exhilarating psychological state of pride and optimism; an absence of depression”. That’s also quite interesting, so good job!
BBB Score
  • Dictionary.com4:
    Definition of bliss: “Supreme happiness; utter joy or contentment. / The joy of heaven. / Heaven; paradise. / A cause of great joy or happiness.”
    Review: gets the paradox of bliss, it presents both the feeling of incredible joy as well as the feeling of tranquil contentment. It also gets a bit more creative and avoids using the adjectives “perfect” or “complete”, offering instead a cool “supreme”, which works great for nerds like me. On the other hand those 4 definitions feel a bit repetitive. I get it, there’s a small difference between each of them, but it looks like they are trying too hard to have more definitions than the other dictionaries… I will let it pass this time, though.
BBB Score

Final Score:

The winner of the 1st Edition of the Battle of the Dictionaries is… Dictionary.com5! Honorable mentions for Collins dictionary and

rocky win bliss

GIF By Rocky

But before we take what we have learned with our first BotD and work on our own understanding of the term bliss, I would like to add a bit more food for thought.

Bliss & Blithe, origins

Bliss has a Germanic root which resulted in the Old English word blīths, which eventually derived in two terms still used today; bliss (noun – and also verb) on the one hand, and blithe (adjective) on the other. It might be interesting, then, to explore the concept of blithe to see if there’s anything there that might be useful to formulate our definition of bliss.

South Park Not Again Bliss

GIF By South Park

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do another BotD; I’ll just summarize the findings.

Turns out that the oldest meaning for blithe is to be happy and carefree (as in lighthearted), to be free from serious problems. That originally positive meaning has more recently evolved into a second (and now more commonly used) one. This new meaning carries a negative connotation of lack of concern, indifference, as in doing something without serious or careful thought.

I find this evolution very interesting because it’s in line with a trend towards dualism that we’ll be talking about later on (the gradual disappearance of grays on a black or white world). Right now, though, I would like to rescue the original meaning of blithe, specially in regards to the absence of serious problems, because I think that will be useful when building our understanding of bliss.

Synonyms of Bliss

Finally, let’s take a look at words (and expressions) that can be considered synonyms to bliss to expand our horizons of potential interpretation. I’ll be grouping them by general meaning:

  • Happiness, joy, gladness, delight, felicity
  • Satisfaction
  • Euphoria, ecstasy, rapture, pleasure,
  • Nirvana, heaven, paradise, Eden, Arcadia (harmony with nature)
  • Cloud nine, seventh heaven, walking on air, the top of the world

So what does Bliss mean6?

We have looked at several dictionary definitions, related words and synonyms, but that just scratches the surface of the potential meanings of Bliss. Why? Because there are as many definitions of Bliss as people in the world. And those definitions do not appear in the vacuum of our individual minds, they are conditioned externally by our cultural beliefs, our social framework, our memories and our very identity (which as we will see, entails much more than we think).

South Park balls bliss

GIF By South Park

Now, the aim of this post is NOT to pick and choose one out of those billions of potential definitions and say: “this is the one.” We are looking for a universal, and as I have already explained, that means that we need an objectively subjective term. Bliss is perfect for that because as we have seen, there are indeed a series of universally prevalent characteristics on the way we ALL understand bliss. So instead of a definition I propose that we explain what we will mean with the word bliss in the BBB Blog through a description, by looking at the common characteristics that represent it:

1. Bliss is positive

Bliss is always associated with a desirable/positive state of being. And this applies to every single human, regardless of whether that human believes in a God or is Godless; regardless of whether they equate it to enjoyment or fulfillment or balance or meaning or something else; regardless of whether they think it requires giving or believe that it implies taking; even regardless of whether they are nice and kind or complete assholes…

The concept of Bliss is universally (perceived as) good.

2. Bliss is transcendent

Even the narrowest of definitions of bliss7, qualify bliss as something beyond happiness and joy. Bliss is an existential state of being, beyond the fleeting nature of more basic feelings and emotions – emotional states. That’s why I don’t like the attempts to define bliss as a qualified version of happiness. Doing so gives the false impression that bliss is necessarily opposed to emotions like anger or sadness (as happiness would), which makes bliss sound unrealistic since we are all going to experience those emotions every now and then (at least while we are alive).Ordinary happiness, anger, sadness, pain, fear… exist at a different level than bliss and thus are not necessarily negated by it. Click To TweetA different thing would be if those emotions acquired a more transcendental status, as existential anxieties, depression and struggles, in which case, indeed: they would be incompatible with Bliss. And this matters (a lot), so we’ll get back to it soon.

Terminator be back bliss

Further proof of the common understanding of bliss as something transcendent is its association to eternity, not only among religions that believe in a heaven, but also for other religions (as we have seen, bliss is considered synonym of Nirvana, for example). Now, I’m not a big fan of the idea of bliss after death (not only because I don’t believe in any sort of existence after the grave, but also because of its impracticality as a means to motivate real change in the world we live in), but for the time being, if that vision of bliss is the one that works for you, that’s fine.

3. Bliss is finite

That might seem weird, but what I mean is that bliss as a state does not point towards an infinite abstract goal that cannot ever be reached. Bliss is measured, contained, and achievable with finite requirements needed (which again vary from person to person).

In a way, bliss is similar to contentment (and as we saw, contentment was indeed used in one of the dictionary definitions), as in having all that is required (which is a finite concept). However I personally perceive a slightly negative connotation of contentment (this might be just me) as in involving some sort of giving up on more, as in accepting that even though there could be more, I’m OK as it is, it’s good enough.

Now, that’s NOT how I see the experience of Bliss and how I propose to define it for the BBB Blog. Even though Bliss is also finite and practical, Bliss is NOT about enough, Bliss just IS. I’m not sure if I’m getting the point across, so let me use an example: The difference between contentment and bliss is like the difference between having enough food to eat, and not needing to eat at all. Click To Tweet

4. Bliss is simple

That doesn’t mean that bliss is simply or easily achieved or experienced. What I mean is that it’s a state that by definition feels natural, easy, effortless and simple. Bliss is commonly associated to a feeling of inner peace, some sort of “spiritual” (for lack of a better word) restfulness.

Scary Movie chilling bliss

5. Bliss is untroubled and unafraid

But only at the existential level (as we saw in point 2). That means that I can experience bliss and still be afraid of spiders, and I can still feel troubled about some event or action. What this means is that bliss allows a person to move through life (or after-life if that’s your mojo) without having to battle with the Self. It’s a state of being that is whole, meaningful and unafraid of challenge, and thus can make decisions and take action without the added pressures and constraints of inner fears and doubts. This might remind you of the original meaning for the word “blithe” and is also connected to one of the definitions of bliss that we saw earlier, which referred to it as “serene joy”.

6. Bliss is an attitude

This might initially be perceived as the most controversial (as in harder to universalize) aspect of the meaning of bliss that I’m proposing. But it isn’t really; it’s all down to semantics once again. What I mean is that: What makes bliss be bliss, is not the goal (as in I want to achieve bliss), nor the process (as in the bliss of aiming towards something), not even just the feeling; it’s the attitude. Click To Tweet

Bliss is the way I experience whatever it is that I do with my life (or after-life). And that means that it not only has to do with how I “existentially feel” but also with how “I existentially frame the way I exist”. That’s why bliss is directly connected with meaning.

I know this aspect of the definition can be a bit tricky, but the point of mentioning it is to demystify the possible understanding of bliss as some sort of idyllic destination, or some sort of existential or spiritual journey. Bliss is bliss regardless of when it happens and how we “get?” there.

7. Bliss is intrinsically human

The concept of bliss exists only because we are able to question our meaning. Bliss requires the ability8 to be aware of our awareness, to experience an active identity. Bliss matters because we are able to imagine its possibility. And as far as we know (which admittedly isn’t much) that means that bliss is as human a thing as you can get, even for those of us9 who choose to define bliss as something that we’ll experience after death.

If we couldn’t question the way we experience our life, if just “were” (passive identity), we would live every moment for what it is, we wouldn’t be able to conceive bliss but at the same time we would be unable to experience existential suffering (which explains the origin of the popular – but wholly mistaken – notion that “ignorance is bliss”).

Zohan Adam Sandler knowledge Bliss

Note: Contrary to popular belief, Ignorance is NOT bliss

If we weren’t aware of our awareness, none of the existential struggles would exist. We would still suffer, but we would never suffer because we suffer and we are able to imagine the possibility of a non-suffering state. Now, there’s no doubt that no struggling is awesome, so “ignorance is bliss” rings true in the sense that the less you know, the less you may be concerned about, thus the less you may suffer, thus that is good. But that doesn’t make it bliss (unless you equate bliss to happiness in which case, what the fuck are you doing reading this without reading everything that I’ve written above?).

Ignorance is ignorance, and sure, it can feel great. But bliss requires awareness, and as I hope to prove later on, it can only be truly harnessed through knowledge and understanding.

But all those “ifs” are meaningless, because we do. We do experience existential suffering, and we are equally able to experience bliss. Now, before the bullshit police breaks in and starts shouting, let me clarify that I’m aware that I have not proved this last point yet.

If you recall, that was Hypothesis #3 in the Introduction to Bliss Beyond Bullshit. So I’m aware that some of you might live under the impression that there’s some form of existential struggle that is intrinsically human, and thus unavoidable. To deal with that, it wouldn’t suffice to say that I (or X or Y person) do experience bliss, and thus that is all the proof we need. If I did that, this would become a matter of you having to trust what I claim, or trust the way I feel about my life, which is a really dumb way to prove a point. So that’s not how we’ll validate that hypothesis. We’ll do that by exploring and understanding much more deeply our concept of Self. And even though it’s not yet time for that, we’ll get there.

Barney Challenge accepted bliss

OK, so we have now a pretty much fleshed out definition of bliss which still has enough room in it for subjective interpretation. Let’s finish that process by incorporating bliss into a universal human aim, the aim to live “a life of bliss”. That is shaping to be a great candidate to become our universal benchmark of the greatness or shittiness of the way we live.

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