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Question of the Month

How Can I Be Happy?

The following answers to this central human question each win a random book.

Pleasure, health, wealth and good personal relationships come readily to mind when characterising happiness. These and other elements may combine to form a state of equilibrious contentment. But happiness springs from a weighted balance between them, rather than, say, endless pleasure or limitless wealth. The Ancients summed this up long ago when Aristotle wrote about ‘the good life’ and propounded his ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, which tells us to take the good middle path between evil or deleterious extremes. Writing before Aristotle, Plato had also warned against the dangers of excess, and although Plato’s later dialogues revisit the place of pleasure, those of his middle period are vigorously anti-hedonistic. Mill reflects a concern with pleasure when he includes ‘moments of rapture’ in his recipe for happiness. He identifies ‘many and various pleasures’ and ‘few transitory pains’ as what lead to happiness, and he follows Aristotle in recommending a decided predominance of the active over the passive (although Aristotle does commend philosophical reflection), and warning against expecting more of life than it is capable of bestowing.

Health is largely, but not entirely, outside our control. To some extent, smoking and obesity-related illnesses, together with those arising from other addictions, are matters of choice, and every effort should be made to avoid these pitfalls. There is little doubt about the corrosive effect of excessive wealth, but as Dickens’ Mr Micawber warns us, a surplus of income over expenditure, however small, is vital to happiness. Many people in today’s world find themselves heavily in debt because of imprudent commitments, and this can only result in misery.

Goals we set for ourselves should be realistically achievable, not just pipe dreams. Once entered into, commitments should be honoured. This is the basis of good relationships, and establishing and maintaining these is a vital element of happiness. Comparison with others should be avoided: vanity in a sense of superiority, or bitterness when feeling inferior, are both anathema when striving for true self-respect. As the old adage goes, there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

These elements help me to construct a map for a route to happiness. The maxims I’ve formulated provide the basis for a suite of behavioural habits which, together with a modicum of good fortune, play a large part in helping me to be happy.

Ray Pearce, Didsbury, Manchester

Happiness is the experience of functioning well, so to be happy we need to find out how to function well. To do that we need to know two things: what we are good at, and what is good for us. When we do what we are good at and get what is good for us then we function well and experience happiness. The Greeks called this good functioning eudaimonia – a word composed of eu, ‘well’, and daimon, ‘spirit’. A daimon was a disembodied being somewhere between mortals and gods. Unlike the English derivation ‘demon’ though, it was not necessarily malevolent: some spirits were malicious, but some beneficial. If one were accompanied by a eudaimon – a sort of guardian angel – then one’s life would go well. Hence the translation ‘happiness’. To be happy is to be accompanied by a good spirit.

Disembodied spirits aside, there is one spirit which always accompanies each of us, our own spirit, I mean, our own private experience of life. If we are healthy and functioning well, then we experience well-being, and so, happiness.

Consider physical exercise. If your body is functioning well – if all the bones and muscles and sinews operate smoothly and have sufficient strength and endurance – then it feels good to move. The pleasure of exercising a healthy body is not separate from nor a result of the exercise: it is simply the exercise as we experience it. Similarly, the feeling of well-being which we experience when our life is going well is simply our own healthy functioning observed from the first-person point of view. Functioning well means doing what we are good at in a good way – which, among other things, means a way that promotes and enhances our ability to do it. When we function wel l, we experience happiness, fulfilment, eudaimonia.

There are things that some of us are good at and others are not. Some have special talents for sports, for instance, or mathematics, or music; other have different talents. Each of us needs to find out what we are good at personally and pursue and develop our gifts. There are also things that everybody is good at, by virtue of being human. That’s what a lot of philosophy is about: finding out what humans essentially are and how we can function in an excellent way. That effort is itself an exercise of an essential human capacity, the capacity for self-knowledge. So, to be happy, know thyself.

Bill Meacham, Austin, Texas

You can be happy by knowing yourself, and feeling comfortable with who you are, and feeling you have an integrated life, that you are a part of society. If you have a close family and/or a close group of friends, they can lift your spirits and have stimulating conversations with you on a variety of deep and meaningful topics, and this is one path to personal happiness. Each individual has something to offer, and can find some happiness by reaching his goals and achievements. It is good to have a variety of interests, and take what you wish out of life: if you listen to a good piece of music, a great guitar solo for instance, you feel joy. Words can also make people happy, with humour, or by the way someone uses phrases.

Eudaimonia is a big component of happiness. It means flourishing as a person in every way. Philosophy is a way of dealing with problems head on, almost a comfort thing, and this may reassure a person. Another aspect that leads to the root of happiness is freedom to explore both the external and internal worlds, and to explore for oneself the direction that one needs to take. The more exploration has been done individually, the more happiness will be taken from this. And if more people get rid of their preconceptions and judgementalism, the world would become a happier and more peaceful place.

Rebecca Sherwood, Cambridge

Generally, happiness can be supposed to be dependent on the satisfaction of a hierarchy of human needs, such as was identified by Maslow in the 1940s. This hierarchy of needs augments basic biological and physiological needs with safety and security, belonging and love, self-esteem, self-realisation and self-actualisation. More recent efforts at developing objective indicators of well-being have resulted in the The Human Development Index, accepted by the United Nations. More specifically for the present question, the how of being happy will be different for different people at different stages of life, depending on their underlying biological, neurological and psychological priorities in relation to their changing social, cultural and natural environments.

Given all these determining features, I can experience happiness when my state of consciousness is dominated by a sense of well-being. I gain this tranquility and contentment with my lot as a consequence of being in the midst of the manifestations of human life at its best, and as far as possible being engaged with these manifestations. In no particular order, this includes pursuing creativity with intelligence and ingenious inventiveness and skill, in the arts, humanities, sports, sciences and technology; and pursuing social justice, good-will, love, affection, generosity, kindness of spirit, engaging good humour, and ethical discernment. Unfortunately, and I suppose inevitably, the sense of happiness can soon give way to that of gloom, melancholy, and even despair, when the many tragedies comprising the human condition loom large and overwhelm awareness. Then the question ‘How can I be happy?’ seems to dominate.

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Ducks. Well, more precisely, according to my two-year-old son, “feeding duckies.” Okay, so complications can still arise, such as being so hungry that you eat the duck’s bread yourself, or arriving at the duck pond so late in the day that the ducks have already been stuffed by the offerings from the other neighbourhood toddlers. But generally, feeding ducks is happiness.

Watching my son’s reaction to this mundane activity suggests that happiness is not linked to cognitive ability. Indeed, this is not exactly a new observation, and it’s humorously pointed out in an excellent episode of The Simpsons, where Homer is turned into a genius by the discovery and subsequent removal of a crayon that had become lodged in his brain as a child. Although Homer’s relationship with Lisa is transformed, he soon re-inserts the crayon, maintaining that he was much happier when he was stupid. More seriously, this point about happiness being easier the less complicated your thinking is, was driven home to me during a recent visit to a developmental centre in the US that’s home to a community of extremely-low-IQ individuals – people who cannot function in normal society. Credit must go to the staff of that unit as I have never been in a happier place. Granted, work activities included folding paper and sorting paper clips, but the residents seemed so happy, and were enthusiastic about welcoming visitors.

One thing that my two-year-old son and the developmental home residents seem to have in common is little understanding of the future. They very much live in the moment, and if their activity is currently satisfying, they are happy. Those of us who have ‘grown-up’, or (even worse) have philosophical tendencies, can never escape the discovery that actions have consequences – that we are responsible for obtaining life’s provisions, and that, ultimately, we face a step into the unknown, through death. We can do our best to try and live in the moment, to temporarily forget these things. However, the uncertainties in life remain the main barriers to happiness. The more we worry about life, the less happy we are, implying that happiness is closely linked to being satisfied in the moment, and indeed, finding the time to enjoy feeding the ducks.

Simon Kolstoe, Botley, Hampshire

There is a tendency in the modern Western world to measure happiness materialistically. Studies reveal that a minimum degree of wealth is necessary for happiness, but beyond a certain level, acquiring wealth does not correlate with acquiring happiness, so this criterion for happiness is a distorted result of the consumerist society in which we live. In reality, happiness is dependent on our relationships with others. Cultures which existed with the most meagre technologies knew this, including many that are still around today. Aristotle also understood this, as exemplified in his renowned essay on friendship in the Ethics. The thrust of Aristotle’s discussion was that true friendship, on the basis of love of your friend (as opposed to ‘utilitarian’ friendship), is itself a moral virtue, and that friendship of this quality is dependent upon moral character. Aristotle was aware that one cannot obtain a good friendship unless one is a good person. I believe that this is the key to happiness, because by necessity living requires an interaction with others, and the quality of those interactions by and large determines the quality of our lives. Whilst this is as much psychology as philosophy, it is the essence both of living a ‘good life’ and of being a ‘good person’.

So the quality of friendship that we all aspire to has a moral component as well as a self-fulfilment component. In other words, seeking friendship simply for material gain, or manipulating friendships for our own ends, will ultimately defeat the purpose of the friendship, and destroy our moral credibility at the same time. This is related to another trap we fall into when seeking happiness, which is self-obsession. This is normal when we are children, but an obsession with oneself as an adult, paradoxically, has an effect opposite to that for which one strives. This is the real secret to happiness, as revealed by George Vaillant, psychiatrist with the Harvard Medical School, and responsible for a forty year study on over 200 males of diverse backgrounds. He found that irrespective of background, as people got older, the trend was for them to become less obsessed with themselves, more generous in their love towards others, and more happy as a result. His conclusion was that happiness is found in being more compassionate, more empathetic, and less preoccupied with oneself.

Paul Mealing, Melbourne

How can there be happiness in this world when our lives are constantly marked by death, destruction, sickness, ageing, disasters, betrayal, indifference, war, violence and retribution? How can there be happiness when we live in a world of paradoxical choices? Think of all the things in life that make people feel good: food, wine, ice-cream, chocolate, sex, cigarettes, shopping, alcohol, coffee, entertainment, wealth, possessions, money, travel. Over-indulgence in any of these could so easily wreck our lives and contribute much pain and suffering. Maybe after all our destiny in this world is to catch only a fleeting glimpse of what happiness might be … By contrast, we are all too aware of what constitutes unhappiness, and how it can lead to emptiness, insanity, depression, loneliness, boredom, and possibly suicide. So the question should not be how to seek the non-existent route to happiness, but on the contrary, how to be on guard to avoid the pitfalls of unhappiness. After all this is what survival is all about. However, life does not mean stretching out existence just for the sake of being. It takes more than that. We’re on the never-ending quest to live a meaningful life with a clear sense of direction, which helps us deal with adversity and the setbacks we face from time to time. And the key to effective living lies in ensuring that the body, mind and soul are maintained in a healthy, harmonious balance with each other. The problem in life is that most people easily lose sight of these three essential elements, or else focus misguidedly on one to the detriment of the others.

Happiness therefore requires us to look after:

The Body – Regular exercise, good sleep, dining healthily and moderately; the control of vices, a good sex life; acceptance of the ageing process; smiling; controlling your wealth, and otherwise taking good care of your body.

The Soul – Seek compassion, peace and justice in life; find some quiet time for meditation; control your anger and hate; never compromise honesty and integrity; stick to your values and principles; invest in your relationship with family and friends; share your experiences; listen to nature, and live for the now.

The Mind – Be Positive; cultivate a Right Attitude; be always curious to learn; balance creativity with routine; accept that death is part of our lives; seek wisdom; have a sense of humour; show commitment in what you do; expand your mind; be proactive; and concentrate on results.

Ian Rizzo, Zabbar, Malta

In modern society, the pursuit of happiness seems to be dependent on the ability to remain young, or at least to appear young. The continual purchasing of cars, computers or cosmetics can go some way achieving this. However, Western society is so rich, and yet so dissatisfied with its lot. Are we too intent on obtaining happiness? Facetious advice for happiness might be: partake in drugs, alcohol, and sex. But critics of such advice would wish us a happy life overall rather than fleeting moments of pleasure. And, like plastic surgery and retail therapy, they are ultimately self-defeating acts, resulting in unhappiness. A kind of paradox is at play here: money and material goods are unlikely to make us miserable; but what can be said with some certainty is that if we are wealthy yet without friends, family, or freedom, we will never truly be happy.

I believe to attain happiness one must accept the unpredictable nature of life. The Romans worshipped the goddess Fortuna, who brandished both a rudder and a cornucopia. We must acknowledge that the cornucopia can, with no warning or apparent reason, dry up; and the rudder can shift so that we must make for a different course. A message not too dissimilar to this can be found in the Wu-Wei principle of Taoism, which tells us to ‘go with the flow’. And so like a dog on a lead, we must accept that by and large, our future is out of our control.

One must also have external interests on which to focus. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates: but what of the over-examined life? I recently found that too much introspection was detrimental to my mindset, such that I regularly became depressed. I recall a pertinent quote by A.C. Grayling from an earlier edition of this magazine: “Happiness is gained by being outward-looking in work and relationships, and lost by being wrapped up in one’s self.” Having goals beyond goals is equally important. We must not believe that the achievement of a particular objective will guarantee permanent happiness. To quote Oscar Wilde, “The only thing worse than not getting what one wants, is getting it.”

S.E. Smith, Clitheroe, Lancashire

To be honest, I probably cannot be happy. It is too late for me – but it may not be too late for you. So here is some advice from someone who took too many wrong turns.

If you think that happiness is to be found in seeking pleasure – wine, women and song – you are likely to end up obese, disease-ridden and bored. The life of swine is not for us. If you think that happiness is to be found in fame and prestige, with honours crowning your head, then you will always be looking for the recognition of others, and will never be able to find meaning within yourself. What can be given by others can too easily be taken away. So true happiness comes from living a life of questioning, contemplation and self-betterment. As it is never too late for questioning, contemplation and self-betterment, then maybe it is not too late for me after all. Life is about being on the journey, and not just about the final destination.

Max Bini, Victoria, Australia

Next Question of the Month

The next Question of the Month is quite a difficult one: How Does Language Work? The prize is a random book from our philosophy book mountain. Let us know what linguistic meaning is and how it operates in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question of the Month’ and must be received by 16th April. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your full address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

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