Thursday, October 29, 2009

The secret of happiness

by Richard L. Weaver II

There is a secret to happiness, and I will reveal it in this essay. I was sitting at our dining- room table finishing a lunch of an omelet made of fresh vegetables, a bowl of mixed fresh fruit, and a large cup of iced half-and-half decaffeinated /caffeinated coffee with skim milk. As usual, I was reading. But the sun was shining in from the window in back of me, and when I looked out the front windows, I noticed blue sky. What occurred to me at that moment and what has recurred often, was how incredibly happy I am. Of course, when I think I am happy, as a writer, I want to not just capture the moment, but I want to think about it, examine it, analyze it, and, eventually, write about it. For me, that is the etymology of this essay.

In writing, there is a convergence that sometimes occurs when I am thinking about a subject and on one of my weekly excursions to the local public library, I discover a book on the same topic. One such trip produced Richard Schoch’s book, The Secrets of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life (Scribner, 2006). In this essay I have borrowed from Schoch’s ideas --- sometimes verbatim and sometimes only slightly --- and it is his thinking that has, for the most part, guided my own. I have refrained from using quotation marks every time because it interferes with reading, but make no mistake about it, much of this essay relies on Schoch's fine book.

Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as “the pleasurable experience that springs from possession of good or the gratification of desires.” Also, they add as a second definition for happiness: good fortune, luck, and prosperity. It is easy to believe that what I experienced (explained in paragraph one) can be easily explained using the synonyms Webster’s supplies for the word happiness: bliss, cheer, comfort, contentment, delight, enjoyment, joy, mirth, pleasure, or satisfaction. If that’s all there is — feel-good moments — then that is what I have.

Of course, if that’s all there is, then we all have feel-good moments. Walking on the beach along the ocean, scoring the winning points in an athletic contest, experiencing something extraordinary with a loved one, being swept up and carried away by a rapturous piece of music, or, reading a well-crafted, creative, and engaging novel. These are the kinds of incidents that delightfully crowd our lives and, with enough of them, could by the warmth and glow that radiates inside us when they occur, constitute a happy life. Such feelings, however, are only the beginning of happiness.

Beginning? There is more to happiness than pleasurable experiences. For example, what about the integrity of your values and beliefs? What about your accomplishments? What about those you love? What about your legacy — what you are leaving to the world? What about the well-being of people in your life? And, what about the well-being of people not in your life? This level of happiness suggests that it involves more than pleasing yourself; it means pleasing others, especially those you are destined never to know. It may be that happiness isn’t as much about feeling good as it is about being good.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that we are created for happiness; it is the ultimate goal of life. But, Aristotle argues, it does not come to us easily. He continues by pointing out that those “feel-good moments” mentioned above, do not and cannot make a whole life happy. Aristotle believed that happiness is an activity and by that he meant that it requires skill, concentration, and focus — it demands active effort. We must resolve to achieve it.

The statement, “I am happy,” has no objective meaning. That is, you cannot tell what those three words mean without knowing the person, the subject, and the context in which it is made. It takes on its meaning only when its frame of reference is described because it means something different to every person who utters it. For example, go back and read the first paragraph of this essay to see if you can decipher what I meant when I said, “I am incredibly happy.” Was it the food, the sunshine, the book, or a combination of these? Could it have been thoughts of contentment because of a wonderful family, substantial and rewarding achievements, and a secure financial future? On the other hand, could it have been the completion of a satisfying vacation and the prospects of another one coming up soon? Or, in still another scenario, could it simply have been a reflection on a satisfying and fulfilling life?

What this examination proves is that happiness is less an objective fact to be encountered in the world and more an experience to be cultivated by each one of us. With this as a base, then, it is better not to speak of any single secret of happiness that would be applicable to everyone, rather it makes more sense to discuss a secret of happiness that is unique and specific to each person. It can never by identical between people because each person controls its definition and parameters. Even a similar culture, community, or family will not and can not create a uniform or interchangeable “happiness.” Individuals face trials and tests that are uniquely their own just as they have distinctive thoughts, beliefs, needs, hopes, and desires so that their happiness rises up in correspondingly idiosyncratic ways. Your happiness belongs to you and you alone.

I often explained this to my student advisees in college who set as one of their goals “to be happy.” Happiness is not something that you will find elsewhere and import into your life, I told them. It is something over which you have direct control; you make it happen. So often, students will set their goals too high. They want to be number one, the very best, the top student. They want to experience the firework displays, palpitations, and extreme of feelings that go with being declared the winner. Better that they reduce their expectations to realistic proportions, set goals and make plans that are clearly attainable and within their reach, and make their own happiness through rational, pragmatic, level-headed, and sensible thinking.

In his book, The Secrets of Happiness, Schoch says that “Every conception of the good life that has emerged throughout history, in whatever culture, takes up the same four themes: pleasure, desire, reason, and suffering. These,” says Schoch, “are the irreducible elements of our happiness, its fundamental shape, its indelible nature. These are the things we reckon with as we strive to become happy. But we reckon with them in a particular way: we must be able to moderate pleasure, to control desire, to transcend (or rely on) reason, and to endure suffering (p. 21).”

The secret to happiness is that it does not fit into precise categories; it can be conjured in moments of your experiences. It depends on your pleasure and your desire. With a reasoned approach, and a willingness to endure suffering as you proceed, happiness is attainable in both “feel-good moments” and in a “being-good lifestyle.”
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SelfGrowth.com, includes an essay, “What is Happiness and How to Achieve It?,” by Ashok Kumar Gupta. This is an excellent essay with a great deal of useful advice.


David B. Bohl has written an essay, “Four steps to achieve happiness, fulfillment, and success in your life,” at the Dumb Little Man: Tips for Life website, where he lists, 1) Visualize, 2) Take responsibility, 3) Learn, and 4) Appreciate as the four steps. He ends his essay saying, “By doing this you will setup the perfect recipe for happiness in your life – and will be a better person because of it.”

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Copyright October, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

1 comment:

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