What Is Happiness?



Happiness is commonly defined as a state of mind marked by such pleasant feelings as satisfaction, contentment, freedom from anxiety, mental tranquillity, and other similar positive moods. The Chambers Thesaurus (Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 2004) lists twenty-four synonyms for the word "happiness" including joy, gladness, cheerfulness, contentment, pleasure, delight, gaiety, life, merriment, light-heartedness, exuberance, high spirits, elation, ecstasy, and euphoria. The list suggests the wide range and variety of feelings covered by the term happiness. No wonder the concept of happiness is sometimes described as a little too vague for precise definition.

Although we may not be able to say exactly what happiness is we know that "happy" is what we always want to be. Living and loving are two experiences we rarely ask questions about; we take them for granted. In the same way we don’t normally bother about what happiness is, or ask why we want to be happy. This may be because happiness is desired for its own sake, not as a means to an end.

In normal circumstances, there are other things that we set our minds on, such as knowledge, power, reputation, riches, and sound health. One might pursue these for their own sake, but they are still subject to the question "What for?"; and the ultimate answer may be something like "For self-fulfilment", or "For a sense of well-being", or "For the pleasure of gratifying sensual desires", for which we may substitute one word "Happiness". We follow many different goals in life; but all these are ancillary to the goal of personal happiness.

For thousands of years religions have recognized the general unsatisfactoriness of earthly existence, and have each advocated a specific course of religious conduct in order to escape from it and attain to a state of everlasting happiness after death. They also teach how people can achieve mundane as well as spiritual happiness here and now through prayer, practice of virtue, penance, pilgrimage, and fasting, etc. At any age for most people this kind of happiness is a distant ideal. For the average person, happiness consists in the pleasures of the body and mind.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the great Greek philosopher, explained what he considered the popular view of happiness thus: "What is the highest good achievable by action? … both the ordinary people and people of education and good judgement say it is happiness". In all cultures in the world even today people share the same attitude towards happiness. A great tribute paid to happiness in modern times was its mention at the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence adopted by Congress on behalf of the Thirteen United States of America on July 4, 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Buddhism, which inspires the majority of Sri Lankans, teaches its followers what is claimed to be the true nature of existence - its unsatisfactoriness, and the way of emancipation from that state of suffering. "Craving" is identified as the agent that perpetuates suffering by a process whereby a person comes into being again and again. The elimination of craving by the individual through the practice of the specific spiritual conduct suggested by the Master is shown to be the way to the realization of the supreme bliss of nibbana (freedom from the defilement of desire or craving). Buddhism also teaches how to live a happy life in this world in a way that is compatible with the practice of virtue. References to "sukha" (happiness) are as frequent as references to "dukkha" (suffering); on the whole, a follower of the teaching of the Buddha should always be happy, calm and confident amidst the vicissitudes of mundane existence. (The remarkable resilience that our people have demonstrated in the face of disastrous experiences such as the December 2004 tsunami and the recently concluded terrorist scourge may be attributed to the effect of this positive frame of mind inculcated in them by Buddhist teachings.) Contentment (santhutti) – a feeling of quiet happiness and satisfaction with one’s own lot acquired through wisdom – is praised as the supreme asset that one could possess. The Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE) echoes a similar view: "Good food and rich clothes, all possible luxuries, are what you call happiness, but I believe that a state of being where one wishes for nothing is the greatest of all bliss. To be able to approach the greatest happiness one must get used to being satisfied with little". Religions which are based on other world-views too teach their adherents the way to liberate themselves from the imperfections of worldly existence, and attain to a state of everlasting happiness. All religious systems teach us how to achieve this ultimate liberation from the unsatisfactoriness of earthly life .

Generally, the ultimate happiness that each faith teaches as its summum bonum is achievable only after the extinction of an individual’s life on earth. However, the highest form of happiness that one can realize before death is that which results from a life of contemplation according to the traditions of religious and philosophical thinking both of the East and the West. Aristotle spoke about three kinds of happiness: the first is the happiness experienced by "ordinary" people (who, in contemporary terms, we may think of as those of the working class who are rightly or wrongly considered to equate happiness with immediate pleasures such as drinking, watching a play or a cricket match, etc); the second is the happiness of people of "superior refinement", that is, the educated, sophisticated, and the materially better off who rely on achieving long-term goals such as career or business success to be happy; and the third, which Aristotle identified as the highest form of happiness, is the happiness produced by a contemplative life.

However valuable or exalted the happiness derived from a tranquil life of meditation may be, not everyone can pursue such happiness except perhaps occasionally; it will appeal to only a handful of individuals as we implied before. It is not suitable for ordinary people who want to raise a family, follow a profession, and fulfil obligations towards others, in short for people for whom "renunciation" is still not an option. Therefore let us focus on the temporal sort of happiness that is relevant to us all.

I mean the kind of less ethereal happiness that certain seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers such as John Locke (1632-1704) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) defined. They argued that happiness correlates to the number of pleasures in one’s life. University of London psychology teacher Michael W. Eysenck, the author of HAPPINESS – Facts and Myths (1990), says that this attitude corresponds more closely to contemporary thought and that it manages to rid views of happiness from what he calls "moralistic overtones": "… pleasure enhances happiness regardless of whether our pleasure derives from disreputable and reprehensible activities or from noble self-sacrifice". As I understand it, the author means that according to contemporary thinking happiness is amoral (non-ethical, morally neutral like the gods in ancient Greek mythology). But perhaps, this is not what he actually means, for one of the philosophers Eysenck refers to approvingly, Bentham, holds that all actions are right that promote "the happiness of the greatest number". Will "disreputable and reprehensible activities" promote the happiness of the greatest number?

Where there’s a society there must be common ethical standards of behaviour that ensure its survival and the freedom of the individuals within it to enjoy all the benefits of living in such a community; individuals cannot conduct themselves in ways that obstruct the others’ freedom to do the same. Can a person indulge in an activity that brings them pleasure, but simultaneously wrecks the happiness of others (like rape for instance), and still be described as happy? However, there may be societies, or societies within societies, that hold a different view.

I think that, except in a totally selfish materialistic society, a pre-requisite for happiness is relative freedom from the idea of self. Reaching out to others is essential for personal happiness. Long time Oxford University social psychology professor Michael Argyle (1925-2002) who was fondly called the "Professor of Happiness" on obituaries on his death at 77 in September 2002 after a swimming accident from which he never recovered believed that good relationships are one of the factors that account for an individual’s happiness. His book "The Psychology of Happiness" (1987, 2nd edition 2001) contains a discussion of his empirical findings. One of these findings is that happiness is certainly enhanced by relationships, sex, eating, exercise, music, success, etc, but probably not by wealth. He, together with his colleague at Oxford University Peter Hills, developed the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (containing twenty-nine items) with simple instructions for computing an individual’s Happiness Score. I am reproducing below some sample questions (with their serial numbers) from this questionnaire:


1) I don’t feel particularly pleased with the way I am.

2) I am interested in other people.

15) I am very happy.

28) I don’t feel particularly healthy.

29) I don’t have particularly happy memories of the past.


In a later comment, Professor Argyle said that an averagely happy person gets a score of 4 (in terms of the scoring method that is explained, which I have not given here).


Positive psychology researchers like Michael Argyle describe three kinds of happiness (not very different from the three types identified by Aristotle): pleasure, engagement, and meaning. According to him, happiness consists not only of positive emotions, but positive activities as well. Argyle believed that dancing is the happiest activity that one can participate in. Professor Argyle himself had a passionate love of Scottish country dancing.

We know when we are genuinely happy, because we feel happy when we are happy. But it is not so easy to say if someone else is truly happy or not unless we see evidence of the same in their verbal and non-verbal communication. This is because people try to hide negative feelings from others; they consider it improper or unseemly to betray such feelings to those around, something that psychologists call "social desirability bias". British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) claimed that "the most universal and distinctive mark of the happy man" is zest. However, a person could still be pretending to be happy, unless their happiness is borne out by other signs as well.


Lateral Commentaries
By Rohana R.Wasala

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