“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” Marcel Proust
We all try to be happy, live happy, bring others happiness. There are studies on how happy people are in different countries (World Happiness Report) and many philosophers have dedicated part of their writings to happiness. There are so many philosophers who wrote about happiness, so I will discuss only a few of them.
Already in the 4th century BC the Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius wrote about happiness and how to pursue it. According to him there are two kinds of happiness: the lesser self tries to find happiness through satisfying biological desires like food and sex, and the greater self tries to find it through achieving a higher purpose.
Regarding the latter, he wrote about what he calls the “sprouts of virtue”, of which there are four. The sprouts are humanity (growing from commiseration), righteousness (from the feeling of shame), propriety (from deference) and wisdom (from the feeling of right or wrong).
“When they are rejoiced in, they will grow. Once they begin growing, how can they be stopped? As they cannot be stopped, unconsciously one’s feet begin to dance and one’s hands begin to move.” So, if we perform acts of kindness to other people we feel better, we are happier. In this perspective righteousness, kindness, humanity etc. are not just duties but they actually bring us happiness and fulfillment. By doing the right thing we get a sense of joy that he calls ren.
During the same era lived the Greek philosopher Aristotle. A central concept in Aristotle´s view on happiness is eudaimonia. This is a Greek term consisting of the words eu (good) and daemon (spirit). Eudaimonia is the ultimate goal in a person´s life. Desires like money, pleasure and honor are means towards obtaining happiness and only happiness is an end in itself.
The most important aspect in the pursuit of happiness is being virtuous which requires a strong effort to do the right thing. Emphasis is given to doing the right thing; thinking about it or intending to do the right thing is not enough.
Another philosopher who wrote on this subject, is the Muslim philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) in his Alchemy of Happiness. “He who knows himself is truly happy.” He takes a more religious stand by saying that supreme happiness is the ecstasy of union with the divine. If a person doesn´t give into physical pleasures and thinks more about God, he will become more intuitive and be happier.
The cause of unhappiness in people is the recourse to physical pleasure to relieve pain. But pain can only be relieved by self-knowledge. Self-knowledge starts with knowing that we are made of an outer part (our body) and an inner part (our heart/soul/spirit). Our inner parts were perfect but have been obscured by desires. To achieve happiness one must correct this and seek a life of meaning.
Currently, most ideas on happiness are based on research on happiness. Like the researcher Ed Diener, also called Dr. Happiness. It seems nearly impossible to research if people are happy or not, since the definition of being happy is culturally so diverse. But Diener states that people are happy if they think they are happy. He has named this measure of happiness the Subjective Well Being, or SWB, which is measures by the questions “Are you happy?”, “How would you rate your happiness on a scale of 1-10?”. From the results of his research, Diener has come up with four aspects for a happy life:
1. psychological wealth is not only related to financial success.
2. happiness is beneficial to health, relationships and work.
3. realistic expectations about happiness are beneficial to being happy.
4. positive thinking helps to obtain happiness.
Another contemporary researcher on happiness is Martin Seligman, who says the three paths to happiness are (in his book “Authentic Happiness”):
1. the pleasant life: using the senses to have as many pleasures as possible.
2. the good life: using your signature strengths to obtain abundant gratification in the most important realms of life (work, play and love).
3. the meaningful life: using your signature strengths for a purpose greater than oneself.
Of course, there are many more views on happiness and how to achieve it, but I guess I would have to write a book then (or two)…
For more reading on this topic, check:
1. feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.
2. showing or causing feelings of pleasure and enjoyment.
3. pleased or glad about a particular situation, event, etc (source: Merriam Webster),
The English word happy comes from Middle English hap (chance/fortune).
Dutch gelukkig finds its roots in Middle Dutch gelucke (chance/fortune, like the English luck)
Spanish feliz and Italian felice come from Latin felix meaning fertile, from Proto-Italian *fēlwī- (lactate), from Proto-Indo-European dʰeh₁li- (to suck).
Happy in other languages:
Dutch: gelukkig (also: blij)
Categories: Matters of the Heart