An Essay on the Infinite Ways to Find Lasting Joy
Happiness is a concept that has been explored and discussed for ages. Religions, philosophers, writers, artists, scientists, and even everyday people have pondered the meaning of Happiness. However, even with all of the ideas and studies on the issue, there is yet to be an agreement on how to define or assess it. So, what exactly is Happiness? And how to reach it? The present essay will explore the concept from multiple angles and perspectives to answer the question. I will first investigate the broad notion of Happiness before delving into how Happiness might be reached in various cultures and faiths.
In this book, I examine the concept of Happiness and how it has evolved through history, philosophy, mythology, arts, literature, and science, but also through religions, religious thought, and mystical traditions. However, the goal here is not to persuade people of any faith. It is not for proselytising. It is not intended to affirm or refute any religious views. This is a sociological analysis, not a theological book. The goal is scientific. That is why nothing vital gets overlooked in the human pursuit of happiness through time-space beliefs (including religion), arts, and other practices
Once upon a time, an immortal goddess graced a little town with her enchanting presence, giving the country a profound feeling of contentment and love. Months went by, and the villagers couldn’t help but wonder why they were still so happy. But when they learned it was due to the goddess bringing them an endless supply of ice cream, they understood that genuine pleasure comes from inside – particularly when there’s free dessert!
That is the simplest method. What if we dive a little deeper? I recall two mythological examples:
1- The Greek mythology narrative of Cupid and Psyche, in which two star-crossed lovers, against all obstacles, discover each other and live a life of bliss and mutual understanding. In some ways, it’s a narrative of love triumphing against all odds. But, on the other hand, it’s a moving story about the power of real love to bring people together and make life worthwhile.
2- The ancient Greek tale of Demeter and Persephone depicts the great delight of reunion. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, was devastated when Hades, the deity of the underworld, kidnapped her daughter Persephone. Demeter was reunited with her daughter after a long and painful separation, and both can live in joy and harmony again.
A similar pattern emerges in both stories: the characters attempt to achieve a goal or maintain a condition of satisfaction. Obstacles and other hurdles impede their progress. They must face a confrontation that will put their patience, passion, and commitment to the test. After conquering difficulties, they achieve Happiness.
Happiness appeared at the end of these two mythological tales as the outcome of a complex and painful test. So, it is a victory. The protagonists faced foes and difficulties that stood in the way of achieving their goals. But, finally, they triumphed and recovered their freedom.
Hence, a first question: Is Happiness freedom?
For millennia, “Happiness” has been the subject of philosophical and psychological dispute. To determine if Happiness is freedom, we must first explore the complexities of each term.
Happiness is a subjective feeling, with different definitions depending on individual beliefs and societal standards. Conversely, freedom is typically understood as an absence of external constraints, allowing individuals to act without restraint and achieve self-fulfilment.
The question of whether Happiness is freedom can be seen through various lenses, depending on individual interpretations. From a philosophical perspective, freedom can only be achieved when individuals are able to choose between different courses of action to reach their desired goal. In this sense, true Happiness is attained when an individual can make autonomous decisions without being constrained by external forces.
Since the beginning, it seems inevitable that there is no prospect of Happiness without free choice. As a result, Happiness requires freedom.
Happiness can be understood as a mental state of well-being, usually characterised by positive emotions such as contentment, joy, and optimism. However, it is important to note that Happiness is not a uniform construct and can vary depending on the individual’s circumstances. So, one could say that “unhappiness” is any mental state that is not a feeling of well-being or the absence of negative emotions like sadness and anxiety.
Let’s push a little further and try to know Happiness by its opposites. What is unhappiness?
Everybody knows about Sisyphus, the iconic figure of Greek mythology, widely regarded as the quintessential symbol of the human condition. His punishment for tricking the gods, namely to endlessly roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill only for it to roll back down again, has come to symbolise the fruitless labour of life and hence serves as an apt metaphor for existential angst. One may therefore argue that unhappiness is rooted in the human condition.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is often regarded as a figure of tragedy and misfortune. His iconic plight of having to continually roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again serves as an enduring metaphor for the futility of existence. This narrative arc has been interpreted by some scholars as an allegory for the existential angst associated with feeling trapped in an endless cycle of unhappiness.
In his Essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus (1942) proffered that the plight of Sisyphus is an apt metaphor for the absurdity of human existence. In his view, humans are perpetually striving and undertaking various forms of labour while continuously being subjected to preordained futility; much like Sisyphus, who is eternally doomed to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again and again.
Camus characterised the plight of Sisyphus as an absurd struggle that was emblematic of life in the modern age. He argued that Sisyphus’ task of repeatedly pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, encapsulated the futility of human existence and our vain efforts to find meaning in life. It demonstrated the inevitability of one’s fate and highlighted how humans exist in a state between hope and despair.
Nonetheless, reducing the human condition to a unique state of irredeemable absurdity does not help man. That’s why Camus and Sartre, among other existentialists, had to go beyond the absurdity of life.
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that started in the 19th century. Its main focus was on what it’s like to be a person in a world that doesn’t make sense. The concept of the Absurd is heavily intertwined with Existentialism, and it refers to the feeling of disconnection between humans and their perceived meaninglessness in life. As such, Existentialism focuses on liberating individuals from this existential angst by examining their personal freedom, responsibility, and choices. This philosophical approach often draws upon themes of alienation, anxiety, dread, meaninglessness, and absurdity in its attempt to grapple with the human condition. Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre advocated that individuals must accept their freedom and create their own values in order to overcome feelings of powerlessness and despair. Sartre espoused the notion that man must actively choose to emancipate himself from the existential quandary of the human condition, or what he famously termed the “absurd plight”. To facilitate this emancipation, Sartre advocated for a conscious and constructive embrace of freedom and responsibility, as well as an effort to focus one’s energy on creative endeavours in order to enrich their life with meaning. In order to liberate mankind from the absurd plight of meaninglessness and despair, Sartre advised, we must accept the inevitability of our own death and recognise the possibilities for freedom within the confines of this inescapable finitude. He articulated this view with a particular emphasis on Existentialism, which holds that individual choices provide meaning to life and that it is up to each person to create their own purpose in life.
So, even though we occasionally feel destined to roll our rock indefinitely, like Sisyphus in the Greek tale, we should be able to perceive choices for emancipation that lift us beyond the ludicrous existential state. If we are able to achieve liberation, then we will be able to reach contentment and Happiness.
It is widely accepted that Happiness and unhappiness are two distinct yet interrelated concepts. There is a dialectical relationship between Happiness and unhappiness, where one cannot exist without the other. The link between these two states of being has been studied and discussed for a long time, and most people agree that they can’t be separated. Unhappiness can be seen as a necessary counterpoint to Happiness, in much the same way as the positive and negative charges of an atom form a dynamic equilibrium. This implies that the two can be seen as mutually dependent, creating circular causation where neither emotion exists independently of the other.
Happiness is not simply a state of pleasure or contentment. While most people desire to be happy, they also want to feel good physically and emotionally.
Conversely, unhappiness is a subjective state of being that is antithetical to the concept of a positive emotional disposition. It is characterised by an absence of contentment, as well as agitation and distress. Unhappiness can manifest itself in various ways. It may be transient or persistent, depending on the individual’s circumstances. Unhappiness can also be temporary or long-term, personal or relative, and have many different causes and effects.
The antithesis of Happiness is an emotional state of dysphoria, characterised by a lack of positive affect and an overall feeling of distress. This may manifest itself as feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, apathy, or discontentment. Dysphoria often has a cognitive component in which individuals become fixated on negative thoughts, leading to rumination and ultimately reinforcing the unpleasant emotional state. Additionally, dysphoria may have physiological components such as changes in appetite and sleep patterns.
The concept of the antithesis to Happiness is an often explored but elusive one, as there is not necessarily a single term that can be applied to the inverse of this emotion. Indeed, the duality of emotions necessitates the inclusion of multiple terms that may together encompass what is often referred to as ‘unhappiness’. These terms may include such concepts as sadness, sorrow, dejection, melancholy, and despair, among others.
I may now propose two preliminary definitions of Happiness:
- Happiness can be conceptualised as a multifaceted construct that is both subjective and experiential in nature. From an evolutionary perspective, it is hypothesised that Happiness serves a functional purpose, such as maintaining homeostatic balance or providing incentives for behaviours that increase the likelihood of survival. Studies suggest that there are both intrapersonal and contextual determinants of Happiness, from an individual’s genetic makeup to the impacts of their sociocultural environment.
- Happiness is a complex psychological construct that involves various cognitive and affective components. It is hypothesised to represent a state of well-being characterised by feelings of contentment and satisfaction which stem from the achievement of goals and the realisation of one’s potential. Additionally, it is believed to be associated with life satisfaction, positive emotions, and meaningful relationships with others. In sum, Happiness entails an individual’s subjective evaluation of their current life circumstances in relation to their desired outcomes or aspirations.
In the next chapters, I propose to look at many definitions of Happiness as they appear in ancient Hindu, Greek, and Chinese thought, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their respective mystical traditions. The historical viewpoints are of particular significance in this Essay. One must consider a variety of factors when attempting to discern which civilisation among Hindu, Chinese and Greek thinkers preceded the other. This is due to the temporal complexity associated with each culture, as there are both regional and international nuances that must be taken into account. Additionally, there exists an intricate interplay between religious, philosophical and ideological systems which further complicates this issue.
The question of which culture produced the earliest thinkers among Hindu, Chinese, and Greek civilisations is a contentious one. While there is certainly evidence to suggest that certain aspects of intellectual inquiry developed independently in each culture, recent scholarship has focused on attempting to identify clear precedence between them. From a comparative perspective, the consensus appears to be that the Hindus had the earliest record of philosophical contemplation, followed by the Greeks and then by the Chinese. That’s to explain the order of this book’s chapters.
Then we’ll halt on the notion of Happiness in mythology and contemporary literature, primarily through the eyes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s author, Lewis Carroll, and two opposing figures: Dostoevsky and Marquis de Sade. The last choice is based on the fact that they both stood at two opposite extremes, thus providing us with antithetic conceptions of Happiness. Dostoevsky was an immense moralist, a fine analyst of the human psyche, and a representative of orthodoxal Christianism and Sade was an atheist libertine associated with the radical rationalist trend.
I also devoted a chapter to Happiness in the arts, and reserved the last words to the scientific approach to Happiness, with a special emphasis on Quantum physics.
Finally, although this Essay is not intended to be a comprehensive study of Happiness, it may serve as a basic introduction to the topic as it investigates the notion, analysing its different meanings and how it might be attained. Written in an accessible and engaging style, What is Happiness? offers readers an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of this elusive emotion.
Hichem Karoui (London, 12 December 2022.)
“What is Happiness?” is a comprehensive study of the concept of happiness, its various meanings and how it might be attained
“What is Happiness?” has been written by a leading scholar in the field, who has spent years studying the subject
Readers who are interested in what happiness really means and how to attain it will find this book very useful.
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