The Pursuit of Happiness (Wealth? Health? Wait for it…)

Since the dawn of time, men (and women) –- after their biological needs were met – have been searching for this illusive happiness. Mankind pursues happiness with vigor. Everyone wants it: it is even written within our constitution. As a state and a subject, happiness has been pursued and commented on extensively throughout world history. This reflects the universal importance that humans place on happiness. However, even as we universally looking for happiness, our philosophies on how to get there diverge. Some people believe that happiness resides in money.

Thus they put all of their life into becoming rich so that they can live the glamorous and luxury lifestyle depicted on TV. In the end, however, empirical research has shown little correlation between money and happiness. (Santrock, 2005) Other hopeless romantics seem to believe that happiness lie within a beautiful woman. In the past, men have fought duals and even waged wars against each other over beautiful women ( e.g. Helen and Troy). Today, our popular culture and our media seem to confirm such value as well: win the “skinny, blond, white girl,” bed her, and you will find happiness. Researchers shun this subject, but if you listen carefully to Bruce Springsteen’s popular song called “the Secret Garden”, you’ll find that the illusive happiness promised by the beauty of a woman is like “a secret garden, where everything you want … will always stay a million mile away.” Another word, it’s not there. So does this mean happiness is completely subjective and random? Not necessarily. There have been a few, familiar philosophers whose theories on the pursuit-of-happiness have stood the test of time. They are Buddha, Aristotle, Frankl and Seligman, and Jesus.

Buddha is probably the earliest recorded thinker to discuss the role of the mind in the pursuit of happiness. In Buddhism, the third of the Four Noble Truths states, “to eliminate suffering, eliminate desire”, thus establishing happiness as beyond material and emotional possession and attainable only through a conscious process of overcoming desire.” (Hackney, 2002) So Buddha noticed that everything in this world is transient and thus empty, therefore Buddhism shuns human progression and focuses instead on meditating over these characteristics of status quo. The meditation on this eternal emptiness of the world purifies us of our desires — that which causes pain, suffering, and grief in the long run — and thereby granting us eternal happiness. However, some people disagree with Buddha and believe that our desires are the “treasures of our heart” – something that gives us passion, vitality, and life.

Another philosopher on happiness is Aristotle. He believes that happiness is characteristic of a good life, that is, a life in which a man or woman fulfills human nature in an excellent way. The happy person is virtuous, meaning he or she has outstanding abilities and emotional tendencies, which allow him or her to fulfill our common human ends. For Aristotle, then, happiness is “the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason” (Hackney, 2002): happiness is the practice of virtue. ‘Aristotle argues that happiness depends both on variables that we can fully control, especially virtue, and some variables that we can only partially control, such as wealth and social relationships.’ (Wikipedia) People have argued against Aristotle’s guide to happiness as a parallel guide to collective, ethical behaviors – too idealistic.

The next philosophers to attempt this belong to the contemporary Humanistic, Positive, and Logotherapy groups — Frankl and Seligman. Positive Psychologists have found that there are three genres of life-components that make one happy: pleasure, engagement (the depth of one’s involvement with family, work, romance and hobbies), and meaning (using personal strength to serve some larger end). (Wallis, 2007) Logotherapy, developed by Viktor Frankl, also independently came to that conclusion. Logotherapy focuses on finding meaning to life as the ultimate goal of a human being.

(Frankl, 1997) Frankl makes it clear that it is not pleasure or satisfying the sum-of-our-drives that makes us happy: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” (Frankl, 1997) Of those 3 paths to a happy, satisfied life, offered by Positive and Logotherapy Psychology, pleasure is the least consequential of the three. However, so many people build their lives around the pursuit of pleasure, and it turns out to be the least consequential of the three. Engagement & meaning are much more important.

And finally, Jesus as a guide to happiness is ideologically very similar to Buddha where the emphasis is put on permanence and eternity. ‘God has set eternity within the hearts of men.’ (Eccl 3:20) However, Buddha depicts life as a state of eternal emptiness, Jesus fill that emptiness with a transcendental calling to God and God’s will. Because God’s will is perfect and eternal, and those ‘who give up his life for [God] will gain it [in heaven].’ (Luke 5:12) Some people question Jesus’ calling to “submit to God’s will” – or our innermost intuition – without critical thinking. They argue that the 9-11 terrorists were also submitting to their “god” before crashing planes into buildings full of people. Thus critics argue that we need to bind intuitive or mystical, religious callings (God’s Will) with critical thinking and human reasoning.

“An average person’s happiness is often revolved around the presence of favorable circumstances such as a supportive family life, a loving marriage, and economic stability. Unfavorable circumstances, such as abusive relationships, accidents, loss of employment, and conflicts, diminish the amount of happiness a person experiences.” (Wikipedia) Our pop culture goes even further in depicting happiness as something more transient and fleeting ( e.g. glamour, fame, and sleeping with a “skinny, blond, white girl”). However, the true, bumper-sticker philosophers of our age and old-time prophets of happiness seem to be calling us to something higher in unison – something more transcendental and eternal. Our intuition tells us that our bodily-pleasure is the best route to happiness. But what these philosophers and prophets identify as routes to “true happiness” are counter-intuitive to us.

1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.

2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

3 Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1)

Whether it’s meaning or engagement or following God’s perfect will, these philosophers and prophets advise us to not revolve our lives around the pursuit of pleasure. They describe moment-to-moment experiences as putting too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. They claim that life and happiness are more than just chasing after temporary highs, because that’s like chasing after the wind. Happiness, the prophets and philosophers say, goes much deeper than that, and life, as well.

Author: Charles L. Wang

I lived a good life - a hard one, but I sleep peacefully at night knowing that I have made a difference in someone's life... Oh by the way, I'm from China: Downtown, China... Read my full bio.