Dennis Waite dwaite at INTERALPHA.CO.UK
Tue Jan 14 15:57:50 CST 1997

Below is the 1st part of the promised essay on the subject of Happiness. I
will post the 2nd and final part tomorrow or Thursday. Note that the essay
sets out to present Advaita concepts to a naive reader, thus introducing him
to and making him interested in this philosophy. There will not be any
revelations to anyone on this list but I hope you will find it interesting
and perhaps suggest improvements or additions.


Happiness is clearly fundamental in our lives. But we seem to spend most of
our efforts pursuing it and all too little time actually experiencing it.
And things seem to be getting worse in modern society. Apparently there is
increasing scope for attaining happiness (or so the media would have us
believe); possibly there is an increased demand and certainly there seems to
be an increased expectancy. People are persuaded, again by the media, that
they have a right to this or that material possession and the supposed
happiness that will accompany it. Swami Chinmayananda says "The tragedy of
human history is decreasing happiness in the midst of increasing comforts".
Modern technology has brought us so much to make life easier and more
enjoyable, yet it would seem that, if anything, people are more dissatisfied
than ever. Why is this? What is happiness? What makes us happy or unhappy?

This essay aims to look at the issues involved and provide some pointers to
this topic, which is so close to our hearts and yet so seriously
misunderstood. It is suggested that things are not so hopeless as Solon ("No
one can be said to be happy until he is dead") or The Hitopadesa ("Happiness
hath he who renounces this cycle of being, which is utterly insubstantial
and overwhelmed by the pains of birth, death, old age and disease") would
have us believe. Furthermore, I suggest that we can learn something about
the subject and perhaps thereby increase our supposed lot of happiness, in
contradiction of the sentiment expressed by Anne Swetchine that "The best
advice on the art of being happy is about as easy to follow as advice to be
well when one is sick".

Albert Schweizer suggested that "Happiness is nothing more than good health
and a bad memory." and Socrates that "Happiness is unrepented pleasure."?
(But then what is 'pleasure'?) William Lyon Phelps said that "The happiest
people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide
to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good
books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest
people in the world." But don't we all like 'good books'? If we enjoy
something, don't we often call it 'good'? And what if we are unable to
obtain these things? Does our 'loving of good things' suffice to make us
happy without the things themselves? I suggest not! Indeed, not getting the
things we want is a frequently claimed cause for unhappiness. Good health
may well be a reasonable justification for happiness but we tend not to
appreciate such things until we lose them! Those who live life to the
fullest and enjoy every moment are all too often those who have a limited
life expectancy for whatever reason or who have realised their vulnerability
through a narrow escape from death.

It seems we often indulge in activities which we think bring happiness but
which, under scrutiny, we would have to concede are really only displacement
activities, to avoid having to admit that the lack is still there and that
we need to search in some more fruitful direction. Samuel Johnson quipped
"There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much
happiness is produced as by a good tavern." and this is clearly as popular
now as it has ever been. Arthur Miller suggested an updated equivalent "The
main thing today is shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn't
know what to do....he'd go to church, start a revolution - something. Today
you're unhappy? Can't figure it out? .... Go shopping." One might almost be
led to conclude from the attitudes of these people that happiness is an
escape from the existential vacuum of the Self in isolation; that if one is
left to one's own devices, with absolutely nothing to do, one comes face to
face with the awful blankness of oneself and true unhappiness. It is amazing
how often things are totally the reverse of the way they seem at first sight!

Much of the problem with our perception of happiness lies in our relating it
to our imagined happiness of others. Montesquieu said "If one only wished to
be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than
other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be
happier than they are" and Confucius, he say "We take greater pains to
persuade others that we are happy than in endeavouring to think so
ourselves". Bertrand Russell even cynically suggested that we are more
interested in seeing others to be unhappy than in making ourselves happy:
"If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired
their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we
could have paradise in a few years". This attitude is not so ridiculous
either when one sees the time allocated on news programmes to show and tell
us about the variety of misfortunes and tragedies throughout the world. Real
life crime and hospital programmes are increasing in popularity. 'There but
for the grace of God....'?

Popular philosophical and religious views often relate happiness to the
heart - an unselfish, outward love of others - giving and not taking. Here
we already have a reversal of the attitudes expressed above - it is not what
I can get which will make me happy but what I can give. No wonder
Christianity has seen a decline in popularity in this century! It is hardly
compatible with the capitalist ethos. Swami Chinmayananda expresses the
sentiment tersely: "Happiness depends on what you can give, not on what you
can get"; Emerson poetically: "Happiness is a perfume which you cannot pour
on someone without getting some on yourself".

An interesting first observation, which many will have experienced, is that
happiness is elusive. We cannot just go out and find it, as C. P. Snow
points out: "The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase; if you
pursue happiness you'll never find it". It does not seem to be possible to
have any certainty with respect to its experience. Just because a particular
situation or experience has been a happy one in the past does not guarantee
that its repetition will be equally so. If we find ourselves in happy
circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we should wish this to continue.
Of course it never does. Furthermore, it might have been noticed that any
conscious attempt at the time to prolong the happiness is likely to have the
immediate effect of causing it to go away! Goethe expressed this succinctly:
"Happiness is a ball after which we run wherever it rolls, and we push it
with our feet when it stops" and John Stuart Mill said "Ask yourself whether
you are happy and you cease to be so". It is as though it creeps up upon you
unawares and, as soon as you notice it, it runs away again.

As will be discussed below, happiness cannot be sought and obtained or found
in external objects and, indeed, does not seem to be related to material
possessions at all. Anon puts this plainly: "Where ambition ends, happiness
begins" and Roger L'Estrange said "It is not the place, nor the condition,
but the mind alone that can make anyone happy or miserable". Camus suggests
"But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life
he leads".  Denis Waitley attempts to put it firmly on a spiritual rather
than a material plane: "Happiness cannot be travelled to, owned, earned,
worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every
minute with love, grace and gratitude".
Having begun with a brief survey of some popular views on the subject, as
expressed by quotations from those whom we might be persuaded to respect,
let us now begin to analyse more closely some aspects of this thing called

An initial insight might be gained by noting how we relate happiness to
desire and how the objects of desire change as we mature. As a child,
happiness would seem to be easily won. We see a ball of paper, we want it,
acquire it and, for a time are happy to screw it up, tear it and so on. Then
we are introduced to toys and (eventually) come to see these as somehow
containing something extra to give us more lasting happiness. But the
novelty wears off and we begin looking elsewhere - bicycles, television,
computer games. And we look to others as a source of providing happiness;
initially our parents and family, then friends and eventually a special
friend, a partner. It is not that we necessarily always drop the earlier
sources completely but there is a sense of progression, a moving on to
higher and more sophisticated things. (There is a clear analogy with
Maslow's hierarchy of human needs here, with basic requirements for food and
shelter at the bottom of the ladder and self-actualisation, whatever that
means, at the top.)

And unhappiness is not simply the lack of the particular desired object of
the moment. If the attention is directed (or taken away) to other things, so
that the supposed lack is temporarily forgotten, the unhappiness disappears.

Thus we come to see that lasting happiness is not to be found in objects or
in relationships with others; nor in money or status - these are only means
to the ends of objects or relationships. They do bring much apparent
enjoyment but this is invariably superseded by its complement, misery or
pain. Taken to its logical conclusion, it can be appreciated that there is,
in fact, nothing outside which can bring us to this state, other than for a
short while. And so this yearning for fulfilment persists, apparently doomed
never to be satisfied, like a vacuum waiting to be filled.

But where is this happiness when it occurs anyway? Clearly it is not in any
sense contained within the object or situation. What is a cause of happiness
for one may be a source of pain for another. Each individual nature looks
for its satisfaction in widely differing places. No, the happiness is
perceived within, when the desired object is obtained or the hated object is

One problem is that we do not differentiate between happiness and pleasure.
We often naively equate these two and, for a hierarchy of pleasures, we
might suggest that at the lowest level we have bodily pleasures, then
emotional, intellectual and aesthetic and possibly culminating in a highest
level which we consider to be spiritual. But all of these are inherently
transient and what we are searching for is something which is lasting -
eternal 'bliss' to differentiate this from commonplace (!) happiness.

Perhaps the problems arise because, although we do occasionally experience
true happiness, we very quickly start to interfere. We want to analyse it
and understand what is happening in order that we can prolong the experience
and subsequently repeat it. The happiness is transformed into pleasure;
desire is born and, this being inevitably thwarted, pain results. And that
is a form of fear; we do not want to lose what we have and we are afraid
that we will  not be able to get the things we want. (Indeed fear is simply
the obverse of desire - we desire 'A' or we fear 'B' i.e. desire 'not-B').
Bliss is in the moment and beyond thought. Thinking about it turns it into
pleasure and the moment is lost.

Let's take a closer look at the relationship between happiness and desire,
because this is key to understanding the nature of happiness. The commonly
held view is that we desire something and feel the lack of that desired
object. When the desired is fulfilled, we experience happiness because, we
suppose, we have got what we wanted. But perhaps the expression of  'having
satisfied the desire' is not an accidental one. An alternative way of
looking at the situation is to suppose that the desire obscures the
happiness which is always naturally present. When the desire goes away,
because it has been temporarily satisfied (like giving a bone to a nagging
dog), the happiness is revealed.

*****************************  End of Part 1 ***************************

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