Why Happiness Matters
Pleasure is different to happiness. The former is an experience that comes and goes, that is dependent on a stimulus. Pleasure is a state of having. Happiness is a state of being.
We directly seek out pleasure but we can only indirectly seek happiness as a by-product of a life well-led. Happiness is an emotional state and cannot be induced by sense-stimuli alone. Repeated pleasure can certainly induce a happy state, but it will not be a stable one. Happiness is much more an agglomeration of pricks of pleasure. It is a portmanteau state that conditions our whole outlook on life and the way we interpret the world.
The happier we become, the more energy we have, the more committed we feel and the more we engage with others. The less happy we are, the more energy is sucked out of us. Life becomes heavy and dull and even simple tasks become an effort.
The more we grow into our true selves, the happier we become.
The 'happiness' referred to here differs from the term as it is used in positive psychology. Here, it is a by-product resulting from a moral life. I am convinced that happiness merges when we live in respectful relationships with others and with our deepest and most principled selves. It is a richer and more fulfilling experience either than mere pleasure or happiness as it is conventionally understood by positive psychologists.
To achieve this kind of happiness requires conscious work. The more we grow into our true selves, the happier we become. Happiness is a necessary stage on our journey in life. We need to become responsible members of society, loyal friends and family members, good people working in jobs that ideally fulfil us. When we achieve this, we experience happiness. It is a stable and highly rewarding state.
Why Happiness is Not a Selfish Aim
Making ourselves happier is neither self-centred nor selfish. Indeed, being unhappy drags down everyone around us, especially those who love us, whereas being happy gives thm a boost. It could be said that we have a duty to live in a way that makes us happier.
Happiness matters on an individual level and it matters very much in families, but it is also crucial at a more institutional level. The success of organisations is critically dependent upon the contentment of its members, and in particular its leaders. An unhappy leader, who is at war with him or herself can make life a misery for everyone else.
The cost of unhappiness is borne heavily by health services. Depression and anxiety are widespread all over the world, and result in so much incapacity, illness and inability to work. In 2012, there were some 40 million prescriptions in Britain alone for antidepressants. Depression and anxiety among the young are increasing significantly, and the age at which such illnesses manifest has fallen sharply.
The Eightfold Pathway to a Happier Life
I regularly ask students from all backgrounds what they most want in life. The answers are almost always 'wealth', 'possessions' and 'power'. Ask yourself whether that's what you want.
This can be painful. It certainly was for me. I have had to force myself to abandon my fascination with objects of pleasure, status and power in order to go in search of what is of real value. Any transformation that has occurred has been hard-fought for.
We need to work to improve the quality of our living, we need to act deliberately if we are to attain higher levels of happiness. In my own life, I have made use of eight different paths that lead to greater happiness and fulfilment. They are drawn from the wisdom of millenia and blended with observations I have made about my own experience:
1) Accepting ourselves and others will improve our relationships and bring greater honesty and depth into our lives.
2) Belonging to good organisations and being part of something bigger than ourselves makes us feel connected and reduces isolation, which is such a potent source of unhappiness.
3) Character virtues help us to live more moral and fulfilling lives.
4) Discipline is vital to strengthen our resilience and to help us live in accord with our aims and values.
5) Empathising and showing compassion and appreciation to all deepends our relationships and enriches our lives.
6) Focusing on our goals and the search for meaning is essential if our lives are not to be aimless.
7) Giving to and serving others elevates and energises us.
8) Healthy minds, bodies and emotions maximise our opportunities for experiencing happiness.
Perhaps this all sounds like very demanding work. Thes strategies for living will rarely feel like the easy option, especially until we have built up the habit of incorporating them into our lives. But I can assure you that they bring huge rewards: the journey is enjoyable. Besides, what is the alternative?