The Pursuit of Happiness

Today, science is rediscovering the validity of ancient perspectives on happiness—that there are important connections between hope and happiness, for example, or between gratitude and forgiving and happiness, altruism and happiness.”

Darrin M. McMahon, “Happiness, the Hard Way”

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is a phrase found in the American Declaration of Independence. The final four words are also the title of a number of novels, nonfiction books, songs, TV programs and films. Although history reveals different perspectives on the subject, happiness is now generally regarded as a basic human right, and that everyone will strive to achieve it seems self-evident.

We can all think of circumstances and situations that make us happy: enjoying a fine meal with friends; our team winning a major tournament; getting a promotion at work. But are we satisfied with these occasional glimpses? What of the majority of our lives? Can we honestly say we are happy most of the time? If not, we might want to consider our approach to the elusive goal. Does happiness depend on circumstances, or can we achieve it despite living under trying conditions?

For centuries, philosophers, psychologists and academics have sought to define this fundamental emotion, told us how best to achieve it, and argued over its causes and even the validity of pursuing it. In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in academic circles and in scientific approaches to the subject. But as we’ll see, a source of advice and wisdom that predates all of these studies corroborates much of what we have subsequently learned.

First, what is happiness? We can’t pursue something if we don’t know what we’re seeking. Former cellular geneticist Matthieu Ricard describes it as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being.” Further, he declares happiness to be “a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it” (Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill).

With this definition as a starting point, our next consideration in the pursuit of happiness should be to question whether our current thoughts and actions are likely to lead us to our goal.

The Pleasure Principle

In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the pleasure principle is the force that drives us to satisfy not only our need for such things as food and drink but also other physical and psychological urges and our desire for self-gratification. If we were to maximize pleasurable experiences in life, would we be happier?

The philosopher Aristippus (ca. 435–356 bce), a disciple of Socrates and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, taught that the ultimate goal of life is pleasure—immediate gratification, even perhaps at the expense of moral or social conventions. While most would probably eschew this philosophy when identified in such stark terms, it seems many unwittingly engage in a modern form: individualism, or an emphasis on rights and perceived needs.

Richard Layard, who directs the Wellbeing Program at the Centre for Economic Performance (London School of Economics), notes that the 20th century saw a diminishing of both religious belief and the ideals of socialism. The void thus created, he argues, was filled by “the non-philosophy of rampant individualism.” He further contends that individualism fails to make us happy, as it makes us too anxious about what we can get for ourselves. In contrast, he offers that “if we really want to be happy, we need some concept of a common good, towards which we all contribute.”

A study carried out by Michael F. Steger, director of Colorado State University’s Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life, throws an interesting light on this issue. Along with his collaborators, he asked students to complete daily logs indicating whether they had engaged in virtue-building activities (such as volunteering) or pleasure-seeking activities (such as getting drunk or “buzzed”). The students were also asked to fill in daily questionnaires designed to indicate how happy they were. One of Steger’s findings was that the more virtue-building activities people were involved in, the happier they said they were on that and the following day. He found no relationship between pleasure-seeking and happiness.

We might focus less on our own personal happiness and instead on the happiness of those around us, for relentless focus on one’s own happiness has the potential to be self-defeating.”

Darrin M. McMahon, “Happiness, The Hard Way”

According to Layard, “people who care about other people are on average happier than those who are more preoccupied with themselves.” He cites studies that show we experience pleasure when we help others, even when there is no direct benefit to ourselves.

Money, Money, Money

British singer-songwriter Jessie J, in her song “Price Tag,” asks, “Why is everybody so obsessed? Money can’t buy us happiness.” We probably all accept the Beatles’ claim that “money can’t buy me love,” but can it buy happiness?

This is the question researcher and explorer Dan Buettner posed to a number of leading experts in the field of happiness research. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, codirector of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, responded: “You can’t pile up more things and expect an increase in well-being. . . . There is only a very weak relationship between finances and satisfaction with life; billionaires in America are only infinitesimally happier than those with average incomes. One conclusion that the findings seem to justify is that beyond the threshold of poverty, additional resources do not appreciably improve the chances of being happy” (Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way).

When asked the same question, psychologist Ed Diener commented: “Studies have shown that an individual’s income is a poor predictor of their happiness. . . . Materialistic people . . . are seldom the happiest people because they want too much. It is generally good for your happiness to have money, but toxic to your happiness to want money too much.”

So money, the medium of exchange for the majority in our world, is helpful for obtaining the necessities of life. But once we have those needs met, obtaining more money merely activates the law of diminishing returns as far as happiness is concerned. Layard highlights a paradox where despite living standards more than doubling in the United States over the past 50 years, people are no happier. A similar pattern holds true for Britain and Japan.

Why is this? Consider the following scenario: If you had to choose between two worlds in which prices were the same, would you opt for the first, in which you get $50 thousand a year while others average $25 thousand; or the second, in which you get $100 thousand a year while everyone else averages $250 thousand? Layard tells us that when this question was put to a group of Harvard students, the majority preferred the first world, and he reports that other studies draw the same conclusion.

Our relationship with money, then, is a complex one. It isn’t just about how much of it we have but also about how much other people to whom we compare ourselves have.

Looking Over Your Shoulder

On the basis of worldwide surveys, Buettner identifies the inhabitants of Denmark as “the world’s happiness all-stars.” A number of factors facilitate this: a culture of trust, caring and tolerance; a good work-life balance; being physically active. One of the most significant factors that Buettner identifies, however, is a culture of both status equality and economic equality. Denmark has one of the lowest disparities between rich and poor anywhere in the world. A national slogan describes it as a place “where few have too much and even fewer have too little.” Along with this goes the national trait of not drawing undue attention to oneself. Buettner describes it thus: “In some parts of the world, people feel the need to compete with their neighbors. . . . Here there is no pressure to keep up with the Joneses; in fact, you lose points by showing off.”

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that the more unequal a society, the greater the problems it will experience with issues such as physical and mental health, violence, imprisonment, drug abuse, and education. Interestingly, they contend that the negative impact in unequal societies is experienced by the rich as well as the poor. They feel that inequality damages the fabric of society, making it less cohesive and more stressful, and further, that it amplifies concern with status and social hierarchy: “If we are serious about promoting well-being for all, inequality is the place to start” (“How to Be Happy: Divided We Fail”).

While a case can be made for promoting values-based policies that help engender a more equal society, the problem remains that most individuals around the world will find themselves powerless to change their society for the better. We can, however, change ourselves—how we experience the world in which we live and how we react to it. One way to mitigate the negative results of inequality is to develop a more contented outlook on life and spend less time in fruitless comparisons with others, which leave us feeling either superior or inferior. It is truly liberating to comprehend that neither feeling leads to a positive outcome.

Be Happy

In the novel Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Lucy Snowe complains: “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure.” If we agree with Lucy, then we are destined to experience life as it presents itself to us.

In contrast Ricard tells us: “Happiness is a skill, a manner of being, but skills must be learned.” He makes the case that decades of surveys and associated research from around the world demonstrate that only a small amount of life satisfaction is determined by outward conditions such as education, wealth, gender, age, ethnicity, etc. He further contends that it is not the great external upheavals in life that most affect us negatively, but rather the negative emotions we generate from within. As 18th-century English poet William Cowper put it in Table Talk, “happiness depends, as Nature shews, less on exterior things than most suppose.”

Ricard declares that we can, however, greatly affect our levels of happiness by the way we live and think and react to life’s events. He cites a study of quadriplegics, which showed that despite most having initially considered suicide, a year after becoming paralyzed the majority considered their lives to be good. Suffering in life is inevitable, but unhappiness is not. We can fix our minds on the things that drag us down and become immersed in them, or we can challenge our thoughts and emotions and focus on building mental resilience and a positive disposition. Layard quotes psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

The Starting Point

There is a great deal of happiness research and, as with so many areas of academic endeavor, there are claims and counterclaims as to the key factors that determine happiness. In his book on the subject, Buettner identifies six main areas that need our attention if we are to lead happy lives: community, workplace, social life, financial life, home environment and self. Layard identifies a similar set of factors. In all of these areas there will be things we can control and things we can’t. Finding the balance between taking action to improve our lives when we can, and learning to be happy despite circumstances when we can’t, is a valuable ability to cultivate.

It is beyond the scope of this article to cover each of the above areas in detail and do justice to them. Consider this a nudge in the right direction. In our pursuit of happiness, we need first to stop and consider how we are living our lives—how we are thinking and acting, the decisions we are making and our assumptions. We can then begin to challenge ourselves to live in a way that maximizes happiness. But as we have seen, there is no place for hedonistic, self-absorbed individualism.

It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Acts 20:35 

This is where the ancient source of wisdom mentioned earlier comes into play. The Bible makes it clear that God wants us to live happy, fulfilled lives. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

The Book of books offers advice on finding happiness through an overall approach to life that centers on right behavior toward God and man, including an emphasis on concern for others rather than fulfillment of our own desires or needs. The apostle Paul advised, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). And Jesus told His followers: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31–33).

Paul endured enormous difficulties over the course of his life, yet he wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11, English Standard Version). He noted that “godliness with contentment is great gain,” whereas “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:6, 10). Likewise, the wisest man of the ancient world, Solomon, warned, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10, ESV). “Beware!” Jesus said. “Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12:15, New Living Translation).

Summing up the ideal approach to a happy life, ancient Israel’s King David praised God with these words: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Happy Are They . . .

Happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17). 

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2, New Revised Standard Version).

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8, NRSV).

Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land” (Psalm 41:1–2, NRSV).

O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you” (Psalm 84:12, NRSV).

Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways” (Psalm 128:1, NRSV).

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding” (Proverbs 3:13, NRSV).

Happy are those who are kind to the poor” (Proverbs 14:21b). 

Happy are those who are hungry and thirsty for true goodness, for they will be fully satisfied! Happy are the merciful, for they will have mercy shown to them! . . . Happy are those who make peace, for they will be known as sons of God!” (Matthew 5:6, 7, 9, The New Testament in Modern English, J.B. Phillips).

We were created in such a way that certain thoughts and behaviors will lead to true happiness, not just passing moments of pleasure. The website for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania states: “Activities that make people happy in small doses—such as shopping, good food and making money—do not lead to fulfillment in the long term.”

Historian Darrin McMahon argues that our modern take “tends to imagine happiness not as something won through moral cultivation, carried out over the course of a well-lived life, but as something ‘out there’ that could be pursued, caught, and consumed. Happiness has increasingly been thought to be more about getting little infusions of pleasure, about feeling good rather than being good, less about living the well-lived life than about experiencing the well-felt moment.”

Learning how to be truly happy is a skill that takes practice. Knowing where to look for the advice that will lead us onto the correct path to pursue it is the first step in the right direction.