by Harold von Kursk
For over two millennia, philosophers, thinkers, scholars, revolutionaries, politicians and psychologists have speculated on the nature of happiness. We all seem to crave it – yet it remains an elusive and fungible notion. Though the greatest minds in history have all sought to define, elucidate, and explore the basis of what makes us happy, the very concept, like the state of mind itself, often escapes our grasp as soon as we approach it.
Beyond easy formulations of immediate gratification and momentary bursts of pleasure, there is considerable force to the notion that happiness is a state of mind and being that embraces multi-tiered levels of spiritual, philosophical, physiological and psychological well-being. As much as the brain releases endorphins corresponding to feelings of pleasure, so does our conscious self drift into a general state of bliss when we find love, comfort, satisfaction, enlightenment and other indecipherable forms of gratification. Or what long-distance runners feel when endorphins kick in and they enter a strange zone of ethereal delight – the same chemical principle which leads people to abuse cocaine as a recreational drug.
But happiness is more than just fleeting moments of contentedness which temporarily and in fragmented bursts interrupt our daily aggravations and help us transcend or otherwise escape our more fundamental frustrations with who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Happiness also refers to higher and more profound states of mind which can be triggered by everything and nothing.
The smile of a small child who runs frantically towards his parents for a hug, the presence of a new lover in one’s life, watching a sunset sitting alone on a beach – there are infinite numbers of moments, memories and mundane events which can arouse us from depression and self-loathing and allow us to drift into that unmistakable state of being which we commonly understand as happiness.
Defining happiness itself is a matter of considerable and centuries-old debate. In ancient times, happiness is linked to such words as happen and happenstance. Greek tragedies were filled with the idea that happiness was a matter of fate. Greek Gods were spiteful and capricious and would regularly intervene in the fates of mortals.
Aristotle held that happiness was based on a lifetime of experience. You couldn’t really tell if you were happy until you were dead. Many felt virtue was the key to happiness even though it took suffering to achieve. Cicero once said a virtuous man could be happy even while being tortured.
Christianity maintained this highly convenient link between virtue and happiness. During the Enlightenment, though, thinkers began to focus more on pleasure and the ability of people to pursue, if not always attain, happiness. John Stuart Mill equated happiness with the accumulation of utils, while Immanuel Kant reformulated the Golden Rule in the form of his famous Kantian imperative – do as you would have others do – citing the example of a man who ponders whether to take a shortcut across a grass field and then thinks of the consequences should everyone similarly do so and thereby ruin the grass.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that post-Enlightenment thinkers began to develop a more pro-active and progressive notion of happiness. The American philosopher and president Thomas Jefferson framed the concept of man ‘s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and inserted such a concept into the United States Declaration of Independence, defining it as an “inalienable right.”
This gave a new twist to the concept of happiness, adding a social, material and political context to the fortuitous, random, or momentary concept of happiness as an isolated or periodic state of mind.
The German philosophers Nietzsche and Schopenhauer drew on Buddhist and Indian teachings to describe happiness as the end to ceaseless striving and the consequent suppression of desire as the source of continual frustration (i.e. as soon as one desire is satisfied, a new one appears; hence a permanent state of yearning, craving, dissatisfaction with the present.)
Sigmund Freud would further refine and deconstruct the notion of happiness as that state of mind associated with the satisfaction of instinctual (principally sexual) drives and yearning for the primitive states of consciousness associated with childhood and attachment to one’s mother.
And in the sixtes, a plethora of radical thinkers, self-help gurus, and post-modern philosophers began exploring new concepts of happiness, consciousness-raising, and spiritual enlightenment. While radical politics began challenging established ways of behaviour and repressive political regimes, Harvard psychologist and LSD-prophet Timothy Leary evoked the spirit of a parallel personal search for liberation and happiness – “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”
So where does that leave us today? Certainly, none of us is any happier than our parents or grandparents. Technology may have liberated us in some ways from clumsy or time-consuming tasks, but anyone dealing with hundreds of emails or the persistent ringing of a cellphone would hardly suggest that daily life is any more pleasurable or that arguing with one’s partner has become a thing of the past.
The following set of principles are intended to help you find inspiration and enlightenment in dealing with a hostile universe. It’s time to expand your mind and open your self to a new way of viewing the world. Your world. So let us proceed to stem the flow of self-imposed daily impedimenta and deliver our selves from the evils of accumulated tension, perpetual frustration, and overriding doubt and doom.
So take heed, be prepared to transform, and take yourself on a journey to the promised land – that strange place we call happiness.
THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF HAPPINESS
We are all the masters of our own fates. Within our deepest selves, we have the unbounded capacity to transform everything our senses are capable of apprehending into a positive and fulfilling way of being. We can choose to be ruled by the daily unrelenting detritus or life or, alternatively, rebel against the confining forces which drag us down. We can either take charge of our lives or find ourselves suffering from being beaten down by the world or those dead spirits in our midst. So instead of complaining about or lamenting the bad things which happen, stay focused on the things you need to do to change or otherwise improve your life. Never live as if you accept defeat. Clear yourselves wherever possible of those people in your lives who suck out your spirit and oblige you to share their poison.
We are only defeated in life if we allow ourselves to accept misery and injustice and emotional threats. If you look, you will find the means to elevate yourself out of despair and what seems to be a sad or hopeless situation. Every day offers you the opportunity to redefine your life: begin with small incremental adjustments such as training yourself to be positive in spirit and outlook. Everything flows from the principle of positivity and self-confidence. Take steps to make sure you have the respect of loved ones or co-workers. Be helpful and giving of yourself. Encourage others to share your joy. Love yourself, establish yourself, and be your own master. Happiness only comes to those who attain the clarity to seize it.
2. ABANDONING DESIRE
So much of daily life is a repetition and reproduction of the eternal struggle between desire and fulfillment. From Buddhist teachings through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and from the Dalai Lama and others, we can identify the basis for achieving the kind of liberation of the mind.
Buddhism establishes that beauty, joy, satori, enlightenment, happiness – call it what you will – can only be attained through the cessation of desire.
The eternal strivings of the will must be choked off at the source so that we can escape the perpetual cycle or dyad of striving/attainment, satisfaction/dissatisfaction. We need to find pleasure in the everydayness of life so that we can escape the nagging and overhanging sense that we are constantly finding ourselves unfulfilled in many respects.
We must accept the notion that we can never be perfectly fulfilled – insofar as we define a general or far-reaching state of fulfillment in terms that go beyond micro-states of being such as orgasm, laughter, substance-induced intoxication, and the limited states of being such as “being in love” or finding oneself lost in a temporarily satisfying activity such as sports, conversation, watching a movie or reading a book (activities which imply the transcendence of one’s self-conscious awareness of whatever problems, concerns, thoughts, or other states of mind which take us out of our frantic worrying selves).
To be sure, we should strive towards goals and other states of achievement. It is in our nature to exceed our limits and go beyond the existent – but accomplishment and success should be not be ends in themselves. They mark our passage through life and help define our being. But they should not and need not eviscerate our momentary or daily sense of contentment. To believe otherwise is to consider ourselves doomed and defeated by the very process of being. Our praxis (our purposeful activity based on conscious decisions) should be healthy and free and the source of true satisfaction.
3. ENJOYING THE JOURNEY
How often have you experienced the pure (mind-less) state of being that comes from driving along the highway or becoming aware of the pure (and unmediated) pleasure of appreciating a sunset or watching your child at play, totally unperturbed by anything and free of all torment? So much effort may be expended at attaining goals or wants that we ignore the staggering truth that the effort or journey required to attain a given objective is, in retrospect, the thing we most enjoyed.
Take the universal example of looking for a great woman (or man) to join us in our life’s journey. The dynamic of seduction, discovery, connection and joining (either sexual or in the sense of living together and being a part of our partner’s life) is one of the most beautiful journeys we can ever take.
How is it then that we lose sight of the blissful beauty that accompanies the sense of romantic intertwining? How is it that we the state of happiness that obtains from falling in love can be so cruelly obliterated by petty squabbles, jealousies, and the hysteric-neurotic arguments that tear loved ones apart? Once we lose sight or the original and authentic bases of our happiness (individual and shared), once we allow ourselves to be swamped by pettiness and anger and wrath, we replace our natural state of grace with all the sources of emotional pain and conflict.
If only we would remain in touch with the expressions of love and joy that first join us to another being, if only we could recall and recover the states of mind that graced that first kiss, that first embrace of flesh and spirit, that first state of orgasmic no-mind, then surely we would find ourselves able to overcome the anger and fear that drives us apart.
We have to learn to enjoy the journey and the pure freedom that comes from removing ourselves from routine, conflict, repression, and petty antagonisms. Sometimes our journey need not have a (specific) goal. Perhaps we can learn something from Cervantes’ Don Quixote who understood that the curious road he travelled was far more illuminating and fulfilling than his destination.
Let your mind wander. The purposeless or non-specific journey requires the discipline of wandering. The state of allowing oneself to expand one’s consciousness and see things clearly.
Freedom and the freedom to be happy is not so much a fact as it is a possibility. It’s the authentic realisation of a great part of what it means to be human. Freedom and happiness are not naturally given conditions – psychologists disagree over whether even infants or children are truly free and unfettered.
We must obtain and attain the freedom of mind that is the precursor to happiness.
You must keep searching to expand your consciousness and see things clearly. That’s the single most difficult thing perhaps for anyone. To have a good grasp on life and your place in the world and being able to stop and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. We all wind up getting lost from time to time in the process (in philosophical terms, everday activity which appears to simply ‘happen,” not the result of any identifiable human decision) of living.
We have to relax our consciousness to be able to enjoy each moment on its own. Some of the most enlightening and deeply spiritual moments of my life have been spent just sitting by myself at a café, letting my mind wander, just thinking to myself as I watch people passing by. Those are very pure and real moments of joy. We should cherish our moments of wandering.
5. BEING (AND FINDING JOY) IN THE MOMENT
Following from one of the most enlightened and generally embraced teachings of Zen Buddhism, being in the moment is surely one key to appreciating and finding joy in the overall journey that we take in life. It’s as basic as appreciating the beauty and shape of a man or woman’s body or chatting over a cup of coffee with a friend about anything and everything or watching a film cozied up next to a lover. These moments transcend the conflicting and disturbing side of life where work-related stress or emotional/relationship conflicts intrude and impinge on our happiness.
We may have the right and obligation to be concerned about geopolitical issues, but there is an utter pointlessness to letting the American invasion of Iraq or the Arab-Israeli conflict or the threat posed by global warming to invade our spirit. We do nothing to deny our responsibilities as citizens by granting ourselves the right to pursue, attain, and manifest happiness.
We should not feel guilty from allowing ourselves the “luxury” of finding joy in the moment and cherishing the state of mind such moments foster. The film star Anthony Hopkins has spoken in the past of finding peace along at the wheel of an automobile, driving along a desert highway:
“I’m a wanderer, trying to keep my peace of mind and not worry too much about the impedimenta of daily living… There’s nothing to win, nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. I feel like I’m floating through it all without any thought as to where I’m headed…
It’s not in my nature to bask in the trappings of whatever success I’ve had. I’m happiest just driving myself through some strange little American town in the middle of nowhere, sitting in a café, and staring into the sunset. That’s all I ask from life.”
When asked what he sees about life while staring into the sunset, or thinking to himself while at the wheel of his car driving along the highway, Hopkins responded: “Everything and nothing. Don’t ask me to explain…”
The expression which holds that we are often “our own worst enemy” says much about human nature. Through the pedantic and repressive process of school-driven education, through the cautions and threats of parents trying to discipline children, we enter adolescence and pass into adulthood suffering from myriad fears, complexes, and states of self-doubt, self-loathing, and confusion.
This litany of fear – fear of being, fear of acting, fear of who we might think we are – is tantamount to a slow and sickening death of our spirit. It is of critical importance that we conquer our fears, subdue them, make them vanish – otherwise we risk the continuing paralysis of our expressivity and natural reaching out towards the world.
We must fight against the socially ingrained dynamic of domination and climate of repression that eats away at our soul. Be fearless in life. Find your spiritual centre. Stand up for your beliefs and emotions and vital essence. Refuse to let others drag you down to their level of misery or towards a collective state of despair. Rise above the fray and determine your own path.
Be adventurous. Find comfort in testing your boundaries and exceeding your own expectations or those which have been insidiously imposed upon you by your collectivity or society. Feel free to defy convention and assert yourself in an indifferent universe.
The courage to be is what the the philosopher Paul Tillich described as the precursor and precondition for Being and hence the possibility for happiness. But one’s wish to be other, one’s wish for happiness, cannot proceed ex nihilo. There must be a conscious willing voice behind that aspiration. There must also be creativity and a corresponding sense of adventure which comes with the pursuit of happiness. Be an artist. Discover the creative bliss that comes with expanding your mind and your life’s “art.”
Unlike the more dour expressions of certain existentialist thinkers who define freedom in the negative, or Buddhist thinkers (the Dalai Lama included) who posit that suffering is the fundamental condition of life (despite the many remedies at the Zen master’s disposal to negate such unhappiness, the principal solution being the cessation of desire), happiness is there for the taking.
There is nothing inherently evil or insidious or tormenting about life. If we learn to master our consciousness, we can create the appropriate existential algebra for a profound and sweeping celebration of life.
Every day is a beautiful day if only we can throw the “switch” and open ourselves to the limitless field of possibilities that present themselves. It is nothing
but our own stubbornness and weakness and willingness to wallow in suffering which systematically defeats and eviscerates us.
Choosing happiness is to choose to celebrate the abundant beauty inherent in life. Sharing an intimate or intense conversation with one’s best friend or life partner, sitting at a café observing the outside world in motion, relaxing in the company of friends, experiencing the adventure and excitement that comes with being in a foreign land or city – all these moments are cause for celebration. But such a formulation is far too restriction. Virtually every aspect of existence can be a source of celebration and pleasure – we have to open ourselves to the perpetual wonder of the commonplace and quotidian. Every moment can have a significance without needing to be part of any goal or expectation or plan.
Once you find your own way of freeing yourself from the possessiveness of experience, from the rationalisation of experience, from the utility of experience, only then can you truly experience and celebrate the moment.
A FINAL OBSERVATION
The French writer/thinker Albert Camus, in works from The Stranger to the Myth of Sisyphus, speculated that the point of existence is happiness. Perhaps so. But that leaves open the question of whether it is the journey or the destination which ultimately reveals itself as the authentic experience of happiness. Perhaps it is in the nature of human consciousness that we can never know the answer or even whether we have phrased the question correctly.
Perhaps, there is psychological uncertainty principle at work in the style of quantum physics where the very object of our inquiry escapes clarification the more intently we try to capture it. Just as virtue has been held to be its own reward, and as a philosophical variation on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics, it may be maddeningly true that, despite all our efforts to attain happiness, the closest we can come to it is the mere awareness of having achieved such a state once we are already removed from it.