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Philosophy of happiness: What does it mean to be happy

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By Ania Perveen


Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has quite pithily said, “Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists. So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.”

Everyone around us is in a perpetual fret to be happy. Most of us think that the precise goal of life is happiness. The great British philosopher Bertrand Russell once defined a good hence happy life as, “inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Nonetheless, it would anyhow be apposite to first define happiness. What consists of happiness? Bertrand Russell in his book Conquest of happiness defines happiness as something deeply active, and full of beans. His view of happiness is Aristotelian. Being profoundly immersed in the world and taking deep interest in all activities of the world would make you happy is what Russell suggests. Conversely, Russell adds, what makes us despondent and unhappy is fixation. He adds one of the major reasons for unhappiness is doing monotonous and hackneyed things. Similarly Albert Einstein once wittily noted,’’ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’’ Hence for a happy life it is essential to partake of every vivacious and energetic thing.

According to Russell the secret of happiness is this:’’ Let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.” But things are not so easy. Zizek, being a pessimist himself, considers happiness unimportant. His view is that when you can become interesting why become happy. In psychoanalysis there is a point which asserts that people do not really want or desire happiness. For people happiness is at a distance. Zizek illustrates his point with this example: a man is leading an unhappy life with his wife and has a mistress. He always thinks about his mistress and desires his wife to disappear from his life. Zizek says when the wife disappears from his life his mistress also leaves him due to some problems. Point of happiness of this man was keeping his mistress at a distance and keep desiring her. His idea is what makes us happy not to get what we want but to dream about it.

Same was asserted by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his book The Idiot. He said Columbus was not happy when he discovered America. He was happy when he was on his ship on the way to discover it. Happiness is always in struggle or in dream.

Usually, we see people hammering a question to others, it’s the most asked question every day that is; are you happy? Is there happiness in your life? Is it that much easier to comprehend what we feel? Is happiness a mind of State or a moment that lasts for not so long, on contrary is it an ultimate goal of our life as the Greek philosopher Aristotle said

We have stepped into an era of technology that has entailed globalization. A person on another continent doing daily activities can be seen easily by another person sitting a million miles away. One another “wonder” of this technology is bringing up our private lives, dragging the curtains over them, however, we feel; sad, happy, excited, stressed, and frustrated, and we put it on different platforms of social media. Have we ever lit up our hollow minds to detect whether the happy faces on the screen are actually happy? Who are we deceiving with our laughs and grins on screen? No one, but ourselves.

Happiness definitions and comprehensions could be different for each person; we may have been disillusioned with the theory of happiness. Just like me, many people must have battled with enormous thoughts and questions which pop up in our minds to understand this very term “happiness”.

I am refraining from calling it a feeling, emotion, or something, maybe it could hold a totally strange image. Let me share Aristotle’s thoughts about happiness: ” happiness depends on ourselves” more than anybody else. He believes happiness is a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. His views reminded me of one of my classmates who believed that happiness comes when you feel yourself a complete being, trying to bury your flaws, and taking your strengths into the limelight, live in the present, burst out of the bubbles of fantasy, past, and future. The same thing was said by one of the Roman philosophers named Claudius Aelianus: “one should concentrate on the present day and indeed the very part of it in which one is acting and thinking for only the present, he said, truly belongs to us, and not what has passed by, or what we are anticipating for the one is gone and done with, and it is uncertain whether the other will come to be.

Most of us contemplate happiness as the subject of mind, like if a person binge watches a season on the internet or has fun with friends at any picnic point. But Aristotle believes that happiness is the final goal of one’s life which encloses one’s whole life. Happiness is not something that can be felt hours later. According to Aristotle” for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes spring, so it is not one swallow or a fine day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy”.

Making a small effort to illustrate it a little bit, let me take an example of myself. Let’s assume I love listening to party songs, and this thing is cheering me up and making me feel exhilarated. Is this my happiness, listening to my favorite songs? No! Because here I am taking pleasure by fulfilling my desire, in this way I am enslaving myself to my desires which never end, these desires make us greedy and lure us to do that activity again and again. Here what I am trying to assert is that happiness cannot be achieved in a moment as Aristotle says” happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods, health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. that lead to the perfection of human nature and the enrichment of human life.”

Happiness is not pleasure, nor it is virtue; it, however, is an exercise of virtue. Human beings are unique creatures of God, just because of his ability to think, to give reasons, to do intellectual contemplation. Our happiness also depends on our capabilities, and how we are exceeding these to make life easier. Early Greek philosophers have enormously written about human happiness. Here I would quote another famed Greek philosopher Plato who declares that “people who hold morality are the only ones who may be truly happy”.

Recently, a video was shared by the world economic forum where it was showing a Harvard research which was portraying seven things to do to be happy.  According to this research, firstly one should do regular meditation as regular meditation can rewire the brain to upheave the levels of happiness. Secondly, being kind as being kind and munificent reduces stress and improves mental health to a sagacious extent. Third, buy experiences rather than things. Fourth, make your surroundings positive. Fifth, find something to look up to you. Sixth, do physical activity. Seven do what you are best at.

In a nutshell, there are a horde of different meanings of happiness. Each human being experiences happiness in disparate ways. My happiness could be someone else’s sadness. Nonetheless, for all of us one thing is certain and that is life could be lived fully, and wholeheartedly only when we are truly happy and our happiness does not come at someone else’s expense.


The writer is a student of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.

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