It might be interesting to have a look at the philosophical development of happiness in a historical context. A good place to begin a search for happiness might not be in Europe during the Middle Ages where life must have been pretty hard for most people, with seemingly constant wars, the threat of disease, hunger and religious superstitions all rife. Especially it would seem so for women. (Please don’t burn that witch, before she cooks me my dinner!) For many, the idea of dying and going to a beautiful heaven was all that was worth striving for! The Renaissance began a new chapter in Western history and the development of perhaps a new meaning of happiness.
Take for instance Francis Hutcheson, who was born in 1694 in Ireland to Scottish parents and later moved back to Glasgow. He is generally regarded as the founding father of the Scottish Enlightenment. He believed that man universally carried within himself the means to learn how to be virtuous and helpful to others. Men served others not because they had no choice if they wanted to get along with others, but because they realized they actually enjoyed doing it. (By the way, women still really had no choice in it!) He believed that helping others suffused us with a sense of well-being and pleasure. Being good meant doing good to others. Virtue (and to some extent the Ten Commandments) required it, but our feelings confirmed it.
The link between feelings and happiness was important. Human beings were born to make each other’s lives more pleasant, and to be wicked or vicious was to be miserable and unhappy. A delight in the good of others becomes the basis of our sense of right and wrong. We decided that what helps and pleases a person is good because it gives us pleasure. What injures him is bad because it causes us pain. Men begin to realize that the happiness of others is also their own happiness. Some vulgar people assumed, mistakenly, that happiness meant the gratification of physical desires: food, drink and sex. But for Hutcheson, the highest form of happiness was making others happy. The desire to be moral and virtuous, to treat others with kindness, and the desire to be free were universal, and human beings wanted them because it made them happy.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 enshrined these same ideals in writing for the American people. Jefferson believed that happiness was the aim of life, and that virtue was the foundation of happiness. He wrote, “All men are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
However this view was not held universally by all around that time. Lord Kames (a Scottish lawyer) argued that morality arose from human aspirations rather than divine ones. Kames believed that happiness came from the acquisition of property and that laws to protect the possessions that were honestly acquired formed the focus of good governments (rather than the pursuit of the common good). Probably at that time most of the poor were barely able to honestly acquire a loaf of bread! Kames said that “Man is disposed by nature to appropriate. My property is an important part of my sense of self, an important sense of my personality. Property makes me a whole and complete human being.” The happiest society (presumably full of happy citizens), Kames concluded, was where the progress of capitalism polished the manners of men, whereas uncivilized peoples lacked the self-interest of personal ownership to interact in a happy and productive way.
It seems now that Kames’s view became the mantra of progress throughout most of the populations of the developed world and the common incentive for many in the developing nations. So was he right?
Well, about a hundred years later, in 1983, a man from India came to America and gave an address at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda lectured about Vedanta (the knowledge of the Vedas, India’s holy scriptures). He introduced the idea that this world is an illusion and that, as he put it, “God is only true, the world is not true. Let the world fall to ruin around my ears: I do not care. So with the next life, I do not care to go to heaven. By going to heaven we only prolong the miserable illusions. In heaven you become gods, drink nectar, and get rheumatism.”
If the world is indeed an illusion, as Vivekananda argues, then it follows that we, being part of the material world, equally are just an illusion, formed somewhere in our brains by the decoding of the duality matrix surrounding us. Philosophically then, any feelings I may have are also illusory, including happiness, (or lack of it). Swami Vivekananda taught that, “God is the only reality, and that the real in me is God. Thou art That. Thou art the Reality!”
The question then becomes, “Is God happiness?”
Sri Chinmoy, the author of The Jewels of Happiness, offers one insight in the form of a sweet conversation-poem between the spiritual seeker and God:
My Supreme Lord,
What is the difference
Between happiness and delight?
“My child, happiness is an experience,
And delight is a reality
That transcends experience.”
Here Sri Chinmoy suggests that God is in fact Delight, a higher level of consciousness that transcends happiness. Therefore a more perfect way of defining happiness may be that it is an illusory experience that we can experience in this illusory world. However, if we can break or suspend the illusion and identify ourselves with or as the real Reality, then it is possible for us to transcend the dualities of happiness and pain, and become Delight itself. Many great spiritual teachers over the ages have expressed the notion that this is the true reason and meaning to our lives, a higher purpose often simply expressed by the term “oneness” (as in, I and my Father are one).
In 1976, Sri Chinmoy offered a university lecture entitled Happiness. In the lecture he writes, “Happiness can be found only in our conscious surrender to God’s Will. Right now, here on earth, we enjoy false happiness in the body, vital, mind and heart. But there comes a time when real happiness, divine happiness, dawns. At that time the body is fully awake and consciously offering its service-light, the vital is dynamic, the mind is calm and quiet and the heart feels its oneness, its inseparable oneness, with the rest of the world.”
So a goal of life may be stated as: “to integrally raise one’s consciousness to become one with Delight, and thus having removed the illusion of duality, to live in the world in constant Delight as a service to others who have not yet attained to this goal.”
On the road to this goal, a pertinent question would be whether or not it is preferable to experience happiness or sadness? Well, that depends on you. If you know both as an illusion then you might want to try both (as most of us have). It is generally accepted in society that happiness is a preferable state to live in than sadness or depression. In fact, a huge array of industries, pastimes, and distractions have all been developed to try to create and maintain a sense of happiness for people all around the world.
Some people have believed the opposite to be true. For example, in the Mahabharata, a classical Indian epic, Kunti, the queen of the Pandava family, preferred to live in a state of misery rather than happiness because she felt this enabled her to rely more on Sri Krishna, the incarnation of the Divine at that time.
At the present time, many people seem to be caught in an unconsciously depressive and destructive way of living. Many are unable to change their reality. The high rates of suicide, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, and violence particularly among young people, may be partly attributable to a general unhappiness in our communities. Most governments try to address this problem by maintaining low levels of unemployment.
So an historical look at the state of happiness reveals a changing and diverse range of meanings. What the future holds is really up to individuals to create for themselves. However in the area of happiness, it seems that throughout history there has been one common thread, and that is, to “Know thyself” is to know true happiness.