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In pursuit of happiness

Abhik Roy |


The word “happiness” has been so overused in popular culture that it seems to have lost its edge. Despite the fact that it has become such a trite word, it still fascinates many of us to figure out what makes us happy. The fact that happiness can mean so many things for so many people and the fact that it can’t be grasped any more than air or water certainly adds to its elusive quality. Understanding the nature of happiness is further complicated by the fact that it varies from culture to culture, individual to individual and from one phase of life to another. It is this elusive, relative and subjective nature of happiness, which renders it almost impossible to create a formula for being happy that works for everybody.

Due to the elusive and random quality of happiness, the various etymologies of the word signify luck or favourable destiny. For example, in the English language, the word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic root “happ”, which implies luck or chance. This is probably why we consider someone who is happy to be blessed with good luck.

Although happiness is often tied to pure luck or chance, Western perspective points out that we can use our mind to decide whether we want to be happy or not. It also indicates that although we are all conditioned, we are certainly not influenced by a host of factors that decide for us whether we can be happy or less happy. The Western school of thought informs us that happiness may be out of our control and yet it depends on us. By utilising our reason and willpower, we can increase the likelihood of being happy. This is probably why one finds so many philosophers in the Western world who have written extensively on matters that deal with what kind of life one should pursue to find happiness.

Aristotle wrote one of the most influential works on the question of happiness, Nicomachean Ethics, which informs us that happiness is always pursued for its own sake and never with some other end in view. For Aristotle, happiness constituted the “supreme good.” While we can pursue money for the security and comfort it provides or we can seek fame in order to be popular, happiness is an end in itself. According to Aristotle, pleasures of the senses are important but they do not constitute what he perceived to be a “happy” life. A happy life is more than the pleasures of the body. It is based on love and friendship, knowledge, contemplation, being just and compassionate and so on.

Aristotle acknowledged the fact that happiness always constitutes a pursuit of pleasure but it is always the pleasures of the soul that contribute most to happiness. Aristotle believed that a virtuous life where one follows a golden mean between two extremes was the primary source of happiness. For him, a virtuous life can be acquired by application of reason and by deliberate action in the cultivation of virtues such as courage, moderation, liberality, generosity, gentleness, justice, and integrity, among others. Aristotle summed up the nature of happiness thus: “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue.”

Just a few decades later, another Athenian philosopher, Epicurus, came up with his formula on the ethics of happiness, which was based on pleasure. This philosophy of happiness was quite radical in 306 BC, when Epicurus founded his school. He exhorted his students to get rid of two major fears ~ fear of gods and fear of death. While Epicurus did not deny the existence of gods, he tried to keep them at a distance, believing that gods didn’t have much of an impact on human life. So, he saw no need to pray to them or make offerings to appease them. Unlike his contemporaries, Epicurus didn’t believe in the soul’s immortality since it induced fear of punishment after death.

According to Epicurus, our fear of dying has to do with our imagination because when we are alive we have no direct experience of death. For Epicurus, once these two mortal fears were eliminated we could experience happiness. He observed that our unhappiness was mostly due to our permanent dissatisfaction with life. In his efforts to find a way to happiness, Epicurus made a distinction between three kinds of desires ~ natural and necessary desires (e.g. eating, dressing, having a home, etc.); natural and non-necessary desires (gourmet cooking, fancy clothes, luxury home, etc.); non-natural and non-necessary desires (power, popularity, indulgence in luxuries, etc.). Epicurus believed that if we could satisfy the first group of desires, we would find happiness. One could pursue the second group but it’s better if we eschewed these desires. As for the third group, they need to be avoided at all cost. Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness was based on moderation. The supreme virtue for Epicurus is prudence, which enables us to discriminate between healthy pleasures and unhealthy ones. His notion of happiness ultimately was in having “absolute tranquility of the soul,” which could be achieved by overcoming irrational fears and finding happiness in small things in life such as friendship, love for family, having good health and so on. The German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, believed that happiness depended on following a moral code ~ a person should do what made her/ him worthy of being happy, which meant engaging in acts that were deemed morally and ethically just. However, for Kant, ultimate happiness did not exist in our mundane world. We could attain it only after death. It was a sort of a reward given by God to someone who had led a moral and ethical life on earth, which happens to be the doctrine of most religions.

The other great German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, believed that happiness ultimately depended on our temperament ~ whether we are positive or negative by nature. According to Schopenhauer, “our happiness depends on what we are on our individuality, while in general we take account only of our fate and what we have.” He believed that we simply cannot change our nature ~ an angry person will always be angry, a fearful person will always be a coward, and an optimist is always an optimist and so on. Schopenhauer made an important distinction between what we are (strong, brave, intelligent, compassionate), what we possess (our belongings and possessions), and what we represent (our status, image, glory). While for most individuals the two last points are most important because they believe happiness is based on what we possess and how others perceive us, however, for Schopenhauer, this perspective is totally wrong. He believed that vagaries of fate, rivalry, permanent dissatisfaction, competition and so on will inevitably make us miserable if we build our happiness solely on what we possess and what we represent to others. For Schopenhauer, happiness came from our inner spirit ~ something nobody can give to us or take away from us: “What someone possesses for himself, what accompanies him in solitude and that nobody can give to him or take from him, is much more essential than all that he possesses and all that he is in the eyes of others.” Although Schopenhauer gave great importance to our natural inclinations and believed that the natural sensibilities that we possess were what determined whether we could find happiness, modern scientific research proves otherwise.

According to scientific findings, we are all capable of changing our outlook and our inner spirit if we engage in spiritual and psychological endeavours.

Modern scientific research also indicates that there is a strong connection between happiness and altruism, which was also noted by many in the past. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated: “I know and feel that to do good is the truest happiness the human heart can savour.” In our own day, Matthew Richard informed us about the Buddhist teachings of true happiness being inseparable from altruism since it forms the essential goodness that is accompanied by the deep desire that everyone may flourish in their lives. In The Art of Loving, renowned social psychologist and philosopher, Erich Fromm, reminded us: “Giving is the highest expression of potency…. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

It is clear that many of the great Western philosophers emphasised a virtuous life, possessing qualities such as honour, compassion, integrity, courage and so on while eschewing a life of material possessions and promoting one’s image. They encouraged us to focus on our inner spirit because that is the “real” source of our happiness. It is only when we decide to opt out of having a purely materialistic existence that is marked by avarice, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement and, instead, cultivate the much more rich, fulfilling and uplifting life of the inner spirit and engage in acts of altruism that we have the potential to experience happiness in our daily life.