We humans do have some sense. If we are normal, healthy individuals, we don’t do anything unless we believe that it will benefit us positively in the end and bring us happiness. But usually we are unconscious of this fact.
When we try to become a millionaire, we’re doing it not for the money itself, but because we feel all that money will be able to give us a happy lifestyle. Even if someone sacrifices their own personal happiness for the cause of their country or some noble cause, they’re doing it only because they feel that by this sacrifice they’ll be able to achieve a deeper kind of happiness, or give happiness to others. It seems we are just built with a want and need for happiness.
J.S. Mill put it this way: “It’s impossible to desire anything except in proportion to its pleasantness. Human nature can desire nothing which is not either a part or a means of happiness. This is proof that happiness is the only thing desirable. People’s ideas of how to be happy can have more or less wisdom though.”
To say that happiness is the only natural purpose of human life and that everything else is just a means to that end, makes more sense of happiness than our common sense usually cares to notice. That’s why it seems so appealing. It makes common sense more sensical.
It’s no real surprise that all through the history of Western philosophy most of the great minds have made more or less the same observation that happiness should occupy the central position in human life. I like this fact. It immediately brings a kind of humility to philosophy. It says, “As a result of our, the great philosophers, expert philosophical cogitation, we’ve decided happiness is the most important thing.” Happiness is a very simple principle. You don’t need to be a philosopher to understand, value and pursue it. For me, to say happiness is the most important thing is to capture a snapshot of human nature and the nature of human consciousness that seems quite insightful.
For a quick survey of famous Western philosophers who gave happiness an especially central place in the scheme of things, we could start with Epicurus, who lived around 400 BC. His foundational principle of “pleasure” wasn’t pleasure in the sense of material or physical desire. It was what wisdom would achieve, and it involved avoiding the lesser pleasures because they actually stood in the way of the higher enjoyments. For him, this was the highest thing for which an individual can aspire.
Some other milestones in Western thought on happiness:
- Pyrrho, an ancient Greek teacher, regarded the value of knowledge with scepticism, and taught that happiness is to be found as an inner state, a feeling.
- Diogenes, 400 BC, rejected the complications of social life and thought happiness and freedom could be won through mastery of the self.
- The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius had some fairly definite ideas about the nature of happiness, saying that “to live in happiness depends on very few things” and “the happiness of life depends on the quality of our thoughts.”
- Augustine, Christian saint, great writer and one of the fathers of the Church, expressed it like this: “Who wishes anything for any other reason than that he may become happy?” He felt it was wiser and more benefitting a man “to be obscure in the house of Felicity, than to be eminent without her in their own places.”
- In the words of the French philosopher Montaigne, “All the opinions of the world agree on this – that pleasure is our goal – though they choose different means to it. Otherwise they would be thrown out right away. Who could listen to a man who would set up our pain and discomfort as his goal?”
- Happiness was central to the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the USA. This is probably made most famous by the prominent mention of human happiness in his Declaration of Independence. He sings the praises of “America, where the equal rights and the happiness of every individual are acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.”
- Leo Tolstoy said, “Happiness is the soul of every child.”
- To use philosopher of religion William James’s phrase, I think happiness would rank pretty high in a list of “all the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle.”
- A recent introduction to philosophy says something that is relevant to the present topic. “Valuing material goods more than life itself is a very serious self-defeating ethical error.”
So the idea of happiness as the most important thing in life has been around in the West, in the greatest minds, since the beginning of recorded history. Something that almost everyone agrees on is that happiness should go together with wisdom. Wisdom teaches that happiness depends more on our inner attitude than our outer material prosperity.
Meditation is one very effective way to adjust the focus in our everyday life, so that our happiness does not depend so much on material objects and the outer situation. In the words of Sri Chinmoy, my meditation teacher, “True inner joy is self-created. It does not depend on outer circumstances.” We don’t escape from the ordinary life in order to focus on our own inner happiness, but rather we accept life as it is with a view to transforming it.
If we have spiritual happiness, that is, happiness that is not dependent on our outer life, then there’s no need to retreat from the world. Our outer circumstances don’t control our happiness if the source of our happiness is elsewhere. Even if we meet with adversity, or circumstances that don’t meet our hopes or expectations, our happiness can’t be affected for long. We can always return to it, or it always comes back to us.