The Meaning, Philosophy and Spiritual Basis of Happiness

Inner happiness

by Jayaram V

Many theories, philosophies, scientific discoveries and books focus on the problem of suffering and its resolution. They approach the subject of happiness with the assumption that your life will be better off if you are free from sorrow and if somehow you learn to cope with it and deal with it. In this there is an implicit belief that happiness is absence of sorrow. You may experience relief in the absence of sorrow. But I am not sure whether it will always lead to happiness on a sustaining basis.

Suffering is universal. We know it. What is universally common to all of is we are vulnerable to suffering. Nature has not been able to mold our minds and bodies according to our vision and ambition. It has put an incredibly limitless mind in a tiny puny little body, which is vulnerable to death and destruction.

We are therefore destined to suffer from disappointments, setbacks and failures. Not a day passes without you having some problem or the other and without you experiencing anxiety or fear in some form. However, in this drama what gives us the ability and the strength to cope with our suffering is the hope and the possibility of experiencing peace and happiness through intelligent effort. It is what pushes us forward and makes our lives worth living for. It is what keeps us from jumping off the cliffs or going crazy.

The promise of happiness is you can heal yourself and you can establish conditions for a positive and meaningful life. Dealing with pain and suffering is important because we experience negative emotions frequently, which we need to resolve. But it has to be done with the awareness that we cannot secure happiness by merely dealing with our suffering. At the most, it is a partial solution. For our wellbeing and fulfillment, we need a wider strategy that will not only try to deal with our suffering but also focus on increasing our happiness and positive emotions to the extent possible by adding meaning and purpose to our lives and actions.

In our preoccupation with the problem of suffering, we do not have to sacrifice our happiness or live selfishly, but with a positive mind and meaningful purpose. Overall, you must feel good. You must have the satisfaction that you are living a life you can be proud of and you are living with a purpose that is far greater than your self-love. That is all there to your essential happiness.

If you secure these three key components of success, you are on the road to a happy and fulfilling life. This is the theme of this discussion. This article is meant to help you in this journey and come to terms with your happiness. It lets you know what great minds and recent developments in psychology have to say about happiness and what you can and cannot do to increase your happiness levels without losing sight of the essential purpose of life.

What is happiness?

If you want to increase your happiness, you need to know what happiness is. Ask your friends what happiness means and they will most likely find it difficult to give a straight answer. I have seen lot of people struggling to answer this question, which made me wonder whether people really seriously think about happiness at all. If we do not know what we are searching for, how are we going to find it?

The Webster Dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment or a pleasurable and satisfying experience. Bliss, rapture, joy, elation, exultation, ecstasy, euphoria, delight, enjoyment, exuberance, glee, jubilation, gratification are some of the synonyms associated with it. They suggest that happiness is a state of mind characterized by positive emotions.

The word 'happiness' said to have originated in the 14th century from the root word, 'hap,' meaning chance, fortune, or luck. Etymologically, its opposite is hapless, meaning misfortune or not having luck. Happiness may be difficult to define, but we experience it generally as a positive state of mind or as positive emotions in the form of being happy, contended, satisfied, curious, enthusiastic, excited, elated, interested, hopeful, joyous, friendly, romantic, thrilled, pleased, appreciated, accepted, proud or successful.

If you are feeling good that is pure and simple happiness. If you are smiling or laughing genuinely that is pure happiness. If you are full of hope and inspiration that is happiness. If you are feeling connected to or related to someone or something, that is happiness. These are various positive emotions we experience in the course of our lives, recurrently and frequently.

We may call happiness a positive state of mind characterized by any or all these positive emotions. It includes the overall satisfaction we may feel about our lives and ourselves. You happiness manifests both physically and mentally. When you are happy people around you know it and feel it. The language of happiness is universal. People may not understand you or the language you speak, but they will understand your happiness and they can relate to it. The emotions associated with happiness may arise momentarily for a short time or they may remain for long and become part of our core nature or what some call chronic happiness.

Our aim should be to prolong the positive emotional states so that we will experience happiness consistently on an ongoing basis. When we are dealing with the world, we are bound to experience both positive and negative emotions.

Life teaches us that it is not possible to remain intensely happy all the time or spend every ounce of our energy in the pursuit of it. However, since happiness is important for our overall wellbeing, we should do everything possible to stay happy and maximize our positive feelings.

If not, we should aim to remain happy and contended, at least moderately, most of the time. The longer we experience positive emotions the better it is for us, than having a great time once in awhile followed by long periods of negativity and depressing feelings.

Happiness should be our ultimate goal. It should be the sum total of why we are here. Unfortunately most people do not think and live that way. Hence, you have a world full of miserable people who do not know what happiness is and what they can do about it.

The purpose of happiness

What is the need for happiness? This seems to be such a silly question that you may wonder whether it needs an answer at all. Frankly it is an important question, which we need to ask and look for answers. If we do not know the value of happiness, we are not going to look for it or work for it. To improve the quality of your life and the level of your happiness, you need to spend some time trying to answer this question. When you find the answer, you will find the solutions also.

Many people think that they value happiness in their lives. But their actions and lifestyles tell a different story. To those who want to smoke, drink and take drugs for fun and enjoyment, here is an important message. What they experience is not true happiness. At the end of the road they will only meet with suffering, pain, loneliness and days and nights filled with remorse and guilt. You cannot call it enjoyment. It is worse than hurting yourself with pins and needles.

Happiness and wellness go together. You cannot go far on the road to self-destruction with happiness as your aim. Commonsense tells us that we need happiness for our wellbeing, for feeling good and doing good. Our happiness should not diminish the happiness of others or ours or become the cause of it. Our happiness should rest on a firm foundation of virtue and responsible living and form part of a meaningful life with a purpose. Commonsense also tells us that if there is anything worth living for, it should be happiness. However, when we examine our actions and motives, we realize that we do not always follow this important principle in our lives.

For one reason or another, we engage in actions such as the ones mentioned before, which lead to pain and suffering in the long run. If this is not so, most if not all would remain happy most of the time. Many people sabotage their lives and their own happiness by engaging in self-destructive actions, pursuing harmful habits and harmful goals even when they know that it would lead to pain and suffering. They remain stuck in unhealthy relationships, negativity, and professions that continue to give them pain and suffering. It is as if they have placed a curse upon themselves.

It is necessary to know how important happiness is for you and what you need to do to get the best out of it, keeping your long terms interests well in mind. In truth, your happiness is neither a response nor an answer to suffering. It has to be pursued for the sake of a positive experience and to discover and actualize the ultimate purpose of our very existence.

Happiness is a teacher. It serves an important function in our lives. It lets us know what we are doing with our lives, and whether we are living correctly, making right choices and progressing in the right direction. Or not. If you are happy, it means you are doing well and you are in good shape. If you are not happy, it is an indication that something needs to be changed or improved about you or your life.

Happiness has its own intrinsic rewards. It increases your confidence and self-esteem and your engagement with the world. When you are happy, you feel encouraged to transcend your limits, seek new goals and pursue better rewards. You need happiness for good health.

Studies prove beyond doubt that health and happiness are interrelated. It is difficult to say which comes first. Good health leads to happiness and happiness leads to better health. Studies also show that prolonged states of happiness means infrequent visits to hospitals and consultations with physicians. Happiness adds certain glow and aura to your personality, which no expensive plastic surgery can.

There is a direct correlation between happiness and the quality of life. According to a study done by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener in 2005, happy people possess adaptive and positive traits such as optimism and resilience which helps them to stay on course in reaching their goals. In turn they lead to better social engagement, coping skills and emotionally satisfying and rewarding personal relationships.

Happy people also tend to be people oriented and manage their marriage and family relationships well. Studies show that happy people are more likely to get married, have more friends, lead a busy social life and raise a family. A fifteen year study in Australia by Gary Marks and Nicole Fleming indicated that happy people were more likely to marry in the following years than those who were not.

Since happy people also tend to be more positive, they are more likely to succeed in their professions, earn higher income and show greater initiative and enthusiasm in accomplishing their tasks or resolving problems and conflicts. In short you need happiness to feel good about yourself, to succeed in life, for better health, to relate well to the world, live for right purposes and causes and experience fulfillment and the inner satisfaction of leading a meaningful and purposeful life.

The philosophy of happiness

Everyone needs a philosophy of life. You need it even if you do not believe in God. That philosophy is going to be your shield and savior, which you need to protect yourself from the bumps on the road and the harsh realities of life that you run into. As part of your worldview, you also need a philosophy of happiness of your own, based on your beliefs and values. You should not only have it, but also know why you need it, what purpose it should serve and how you should pursue it. Having your own views about life and happiness helps you to live with clarity and pursue your goals with purpose and vision.

From the earliest times mankind has been grappling with the problem of happiness and how to pursue it without fear or guilt and without risking their lives. Philosophers and religious teachers alike dwelt upon this subject and provided their own answers. In the following discussion, we will examine some of the conclusions they arrived at in their search for happiness and purpose in life.

Philosophers on happiness

The subject of happiness attracted the attention of ancient Greek philosophers. Just as the Indian ascetics believed that true happiness came from within but not from the external things, the Greek philosophers also held similar beliefs.

Foremost among them was Socrates, who was forthright in his opinions. His views on happiness are preserved in the form of three dialogues recorded by Plato, the Euthydemus, the Symposium and the Republc.

In them Socrates argued that all people desired happiness and true happiness came not from external things but on how they used them. Happiness came from good use of things and suffering from their wrong use.

Aristotle believed that happiness was the ultimate purpose of human life. It should be the ultimate goal of all our actions. However, he felt that to experience happiness one must live virtuously and all actions must lead to the perfection of human nature. It meant happiness and good character went together and for the sake of happiness and well being and to perfect human nature, sometimes painful choices were necessary.

Epicurus another Greek philosopher believed that pleasure was the starting point of happiness. Those who pursued pleasure without fear and guilt would experience greater happiness. In pursuing pleasure one should use discretion to know which pains and pleasures were conducive to happiness. To put it bluntly, Epicurus believed in uninhibited pursuit of pleasure. A somewhat similar aim was proposed by the Carvakas, the materialists of ancient India. Both these approaches assume that pleasure and happiness are synonymous and through increased pleasure seeking activity you can enhance happiness.

Epictetus believed that interpretations of perceptions played an important role in creating emotional states. Positive and negative emotions would arise in response to external things and situations. However, the power to create them was not in the things themselves but in the attitude and perceptions with which they were held. In other words, you happiness or suffering was your mental creation based on what you felt about your experiences rather than what actually happened. Epictetus also believed that true happiness stemmed from virtue and from the things and situations where we had the ability to exercise control. To be happy, we must cease to worry about things that are beyond our control.

In the history of the world, countless philosophers spoke about happiness. The scope of this article would not permit me to include all their opinions. Hence, I picked a few representative opinions, which I believe are relevant to our discussion.

Do our religions promote depression?

There are many people in the world today who have reservations against world religions because they feel that religions are meant to make people unhappy and limit their ability and choices to enjoy life or pursue happiness. It is unfortunate that somehow this belief has come to stay.

Religions are not meant to take away your happiness, but to enhance it. They point to a perfect state of existence characterized by pure happiness in which there is no place for suffering. In projecting an ideal life which is conducive to the highest good, they may emphasize the need for an austere and disciplined life to deal with our vulnerabilities and imperfections. But in doing so, they do not ignore the importance of happiness in our lives or our dependence upon it.

Religions believe that suffering is the small price you pay to reach the highest and eternal heavenly life. In truth, heaven represents the highest and purest state of happiness, we can aspire for, while hell represents the worst of suffering. In other words, our religions want you to enjoy the best, not for few days or hours, but eternally. Now, that kind of goal requires effort, sacrifice and suffering.

Thus, our aspiration for heavenly life is actually a reflection of our longing for eternal happiness here and hereafter. This was the simple concept, with which all religions began their journey. But in course of time, it seems we lost sight of it, as fertile minds built layers upon layers of complex thought processes and covered them so much with their intellectuality and even banality that we forgot why we needed religions in the first place.

The essential purpose any religion is to alleviate human suffering and suggest meaningful human conduct so that we may live our lives responsibly and secure maximum peace and happiness for ourselves and others. Our prayers and rituals are meant to seek divine help and secure these noble goals only.

Hinduism is unhesitatingly hedonistic. According to the Vedas, the ultimate purpose of human life is enjoyment, for it is why God created the worlds. He created them for His enjoyment; and as His aspects in the microcosm of their bodies, human beings also have a right to enjoyment. As part of this concept, Hinduism recognizes wealth (artha) and pleasure (kama) as the chief aims of human life, when pursued in conjunction with other two aims, namely duty or responsibility (dharma) and liberation (moksha).

In Hinduism, the purest form of happiness is considered a divine quality. The essential nature of God is pure bliss (ananda) which is said to be billions of times greater than the best of human happiness or even of gods. His essential nature is also described as Truth, Consciousness and Bliss (sat+cit+ananda) personified. Those who come into contact with Him in a transcendental state experience His bliss even while they are in their bodies.

Hence liberation is deemed the highest purpose of human life, where as the purpose of liberation is to transcend suffering, which is inherent in our mortal existence and achieve the state of liberation, which is characterized as eternal (nitya) and blissful (ananda). True joy comes from being free from all bonds and encumbrances, which is characterized as Nirvana or salvation.

The world wears you out with incessant demands for attention. Withdrawing form it would lead to discovering the eternal fountain of joy which remains hidden within all of us as our highest and inherent state. Detachment and renunciation are therefore the highly recommended methods to achieve the highest state of eternal happiness. Discretion or the right use of things, as suggested by Socrates, is also key to achieve this state.

Aiming for happiness, in a world that is designed to subject its inhabitants to numerous challenges, is therefore not sinful, but a spiritual effort to connect to God and relate to Him, provided it is done correctly with right attitude, without encroaching upon the happiness of others through selfish actions.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali suggested that happiness or freedom from suffering arises in a silent mind that is free from modifications (vrittis) and duality. He listed five kinds of modifications from which the mind needs to be disengaged, namely right knowledge, wrong knowledge, imagination, memory and sleep.

You will notice that every aspect of life, even the good ones, signified here as right knowledge, disturb you in some way as long as your remain vulnerable to such disturbances. Your aim should be to deal with those inner reactions of your mind and remain calm in all situations. This is the purpose of yoga.

Buddhism is perceived by many as a pessimistic religion that advocates a life of virtue centered around self-denial. It is not true. What is true, however, is Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, does not speak about happiness, but resolving the problem of suffering to attain the same goal as in yoga, which is freedom from reaction. Freedom from desires and duality leads to happiness. This is stated in the Dhammapada, which begins with the declaration that the mind is the forerunner of all mental states and they are all made up by the mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind happiness follows him like a never ending shadow.

Elsewhere in the same scripture, the Buddha defined the state of Nirvana as happiness (sukhavagga). The liberated ones are benevolent among those who hate, healthy among those who are ailing, and peaceful among those who are anxious. They live in peace giving up both victory and defeat. He then concludes that there is nothing higher than the peace of Nibbana. Nibbana is the supreme bliss.

Thus in Buddhism, focusing upon happiness is not as important as focusing upon suffering. But, whatever may be the effort, happiness is the inevitable end of the Eightfold Path.

The Tao suggests the effortless Way to achieve peace and happiness. Suffering arises from seeking and striving and the urge to control and shape our destinies. When we cease to engage in these self-defeating activities and learn to follow the way unconditionally, the very seeking of happiness itself, happiness follows its chartered course just as everything else in nature.

Thus, happiness, in all these religions is a state of complete freedom, freedom from want, freedom from dependence, freedom from conditioning and authority. When you reach this state happiness comes without your seeking it or wanting it.

Is your happiness level predetermined?

The general belief is that external factors largely determine our happiness and given the same circumstances everyone can experience happiness. But research proves that it is not true. Both extrinsic and intrinsic factors influence our happiness.

In fact, recent researches in this field place more weightage on the intrinsic factors. They suggest that our happiness has a lot to do with the intrinsic factors rather than extrinsic and a substantial part of our happiness level is genetically predetermined.

The happiness level is not only specific to each individual but remains more or less constant throughout the individual's life. Positive and negative events in our levels may slightly increase or decrease our levels of happiness but once they pass we revert back to our normal levels.

In other words, we are hardwired to experience happiness up to a certain limit and there is nothing much we can do about it other than trying to keep it above the set level, like a helicopter during a rescue mission. To explain this concept, Phillip Brickman and Donald Campbell (1978) coined a new term, "the happiness set point," which suggests that our happiness has a lot to do with the way we are born, not the way we are raised. It is as if the karmas of our past lives are at play.

If it is true, it is an incredible finding with far reaching ramifications in psychotherapy and behavioral sciences because if happiness is genetically determined we need to know what other aspects of our personality and behavior is also prewired because in the natural order of things, it cannot happen with just one emotion or mental state.

The findings of Phillip Brickman and colleagues is based upon their study of people who experienced significant positive and negative events such as wining a lotteries. losing near and dear or suffering from debilitating accidents.

Their study showed that in both instances the events did not significantly alter the happiness levels of individuals in the long term to the upside or downside. After the initial euphoria or depression, people reverted to their normal set levels of happiness.

There seems to be a balancing mechanism at work in each of us, as part of our self-preservation instinct, to protect us from the excesses of our own emotional reactions. This may happen even with our anger or fear. After we go through some churning internally, we become normal again.

A recent study done by Sonja Lyubormirsky, Kennon Sheldom and David Schakade (2005) in this regards shows that genetic factors may contribute up to 50% of our general level of happiness. According to another study done by them, extrinsic factors such as income, social status, gender, ethnicity etc., may contribute to a mere 10 to 20% only.

While further research may be required to validate these findings and also expand its scope, it appears that the theory of happiness set point is justified on several grounds. In this regard we are reminded of Epictetus who suggested centuries ago that in creating emotions external events were not as important as our internal reactions.

While external events seems to have a bearing upon our happiness levels, our emotions and well being actually stem from our inherent nature and the way we interpret our perceptions. Commonsense also agrees with this observation. We know from experience that our happiness quotient is predetermined to some extent at birth. Some people and even families have a predisposition for happiness, while some seem to suffer from chronic negativity and even depression.

Time and again studies show that happiness arising from reaching difficult goals or accomplishing a significant gain remains short lived. For example, people who attend therapy sessions and show improvement in their happiness levels eventually return to their normal predisposition after some gap. Each time you try to rise above, nature brings you down and keeps you in the zone. People in war torn countries or those who suffer from major life altering events, get on with their lives once the initial shock is absorbed and they come to terms with them.

These findings further suggest that we cannot take our happiness for granted and we cannot sustain it beyond point unless we keep working at it. While we may try to improve and influence our happiness levels, we have to accept with philosophical attitude that whatever we may accomplish in the process may be short-lived.

How to create favorable conditions for happiness

Considering the above discussion we conclude that while not all factors that contribute to our happiness are within our control, we can create happiness by understanding what makes us happy and creating those conditions that increase our happiness. In this regard the following suggestions are useful.

1. Find a purpose. Purpose brings a deeper change in your thinking and attitude and makes you feel that your life is worthy of living. It not only gives you opportunities to experience happiness and fulfillment, but also the ability to withstand suffering and hardship.

2. Know what makes you happy and pursue it. You can pursue your desires, but makes sure that in the process you use discretion and do not make yourself unhappy.

3. Organize your life in every possible way, including your home and surrounding. It increases your sense of control, order and regularity.

4. Develop your own philosophy of life and happiness which can help you to find happiness without feeling guilty or conflicted.

5. Aim for happiness here and hereafter. While you may practice your religion and spirituality either for liberation or for a place in heaven, you should not ignore the importance of happiness in this life. Both are necessary for you physical, mental and spiritual Wellbeing.

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