Thomas Jefferson described happiness as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence, whilst Jeremy Bentham invoked the axiom of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as the centrepiece of his ethical doctrine of Utilitarianism. But what is happiness, and what does it mean to be happy? These questions are as old as thought itself and many minds have contemplated their answers, not least because happiness is the currency of morality and informs our principles, choices and responsibilities to those whom we interact with and those whom we will never meet. Difficult as it is to illustrate the form that happiness takes and the semantics which underlies its meaning, we can know with a great deal of certainty when we are happy, and we can be even more certain when it is absent or when it is eroded by unhappiness. The human mind has also evolved a remarkable ability to recognise happiness in others, and to a greater extent its antithesis of unhappiness, by the intuitive mental tasks of reading facial expressions and tuning into the subtle inflections of speech. Additionally the value and significance that is attributed to happiness is exemplified by the actions of those who are willing to sacrifice their own happiness for the happiness of their loved ones, despite any costs to their health, wealth or mental wellbeing that results.
The question therefore of what happiness is and what is meant by it is perhaps not in practical terms as important as the question of how we arrive at a state of happiness and then how we retain it once we get there. It is this facet of happiness that I want to discuss. I certainly don’t claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of happiness that I hold the keys to a cure for unhappiness, but I have collected together some interesting remarks and observations that have illuminated a path towards happiness for those who have followed their recommendations. It would of course be unreflective of reality to convince ourselves that we can coast through life free from misery. There will always be death and illness, anxiety and depression, violence and exploitation, heartbreak and loneliness, and we are at the mercy of our biology in the form of unpredictable neurological and hormonal changes which menacingly loom over the mind. Yet despite these obstacles, however insurmountable they may seem, I am convinced that we can be happy if we are willing to adopt new ways of thinking which have the potential to promote and nurture happiness, even in the depths of despair.
The simple life
If you look to others for fulfilment, you will never be fulfilled. If your happiness depends on money, you will never be happy with yourself. Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realise that there is nothing lacking, the world belongs to you.Laozi (6th century BC)
Simple living as a prescription for happiness has its roots deep within ancient traditions such as Taoism, primitive Christianity and ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, but it arguably found its greatest voice in history through the American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Living at a time when the industrial revolution was starting to gain momentum in the United States, Thoreau dismissed this seismic shift in manufacturing process and technological innovation as a major distraction away from life’s more important questions, succeeding only in blinding people to legitimate means of happiness, making people slaves to materialistic wants and further severing the ties between human beings and nature. In 1845, under the wing of fellow transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau decided to move away from his hometown to live a simple life in the forest near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he built a small cabin which he called home for the next two years, two months and two days.
His life of rustic simplicity and economic solitude at Walden Pond, documented in his classic book Walden, reaffirmed his unwavering belief that the simple life was the virtuous life. Thoreau’s experiment of basic living took the modern concept of happiness and reverse-engineered it by subtracting money and material possessions from the equation and inspecting what was left over, ultimately drawing the conclusion that we actually require very few things to be truly happy and that the most valuable commodity that we have is not wealth, but time. Thoreau’s prolonged disengagement from the emerging technologies of his time also solidified his view that whilst they provide unquestionable economic progress and practical benefits, they do very little to advance the causes of progress and happiness for the individual. For Thoreau, the distraction of technology and the ever-growing list of wants that characterised modern life were symptoms of the corrupting influences of society and the false conflation of acquiring innumerable amounts of these wants with success and ultimately happiness. Modern life with all of its unnecessary complexity could never substitute the natural world as a way of providing meaning to people’s lives and that it is only through a closeness with nature that one can develop self-reliance and break down the self-imposed barriers to a happy existence.
How can we take the advice of Thoreau on improving wellbeing and apply it to our lives in the here and now? It follows that to reap the rewards of happiness through simple living we are required to reach a condition of being satisfied with our own needs and to suppress the desire to accumulate a never-ending list of frivolous wants. This is achieved by embracing a more sceptical attitude towards the materialistic and consumeristic world by way of scrutinising the merits of our possessions and consumptions, asking of ourselves, “Do they add positive value to my life?” If the answer is yes, hold on to them, if the answer is no, discard them. The simple life also entails that we further distance ourselves from our technological indulgences, especially smartphones and social media, which serve to deflect attention away from the profound psychological significance that can be derived from the natural world that surrounds us, and which causes people, as Thoreau puts it, to “miss” life and each other.
The sausage machine
There was once upon a time two sausage machines, exquisitely constructed for the purpose of turning pig into the most delicious sausages. One of these retained his zest for pig and produced sausages innumerable, the other said: “What is pig to me? My own works are far more interesting and wonderful than any pig.” He refused pig and set to work to study his inside. When bereft of its natural food, his inside ceased to function, and the more he studied it, the more empty and foolish it seemed to him to be. All the exquisite apparatus by which the delicious transformation had hitherto been made stood still, and he was at a loss to guess what it was capable of doing. This second sausage machine was like the man who has lost his zest, while the first was like the man who had retained it. The mind is a strange machine which can combine the materials offered to it in the most astonishing ways, but without materials from the external world it is powerless, and unlike the sausage machine it must seize its materials for itself, since events only become experiences through the interest that we take in them: if they do not interest us, we are making nothing of them. The man, therefore, whose attention is turned within finds nothing worthy of his notice, whereas the man whose attention is turned outward can find within, in those rare moments when he examines his soul, the most varied and interesting assortment of ingredients being dissected and recombined into beautiful or instructive patterns.Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (1930)
I never thought that a sausage machine could be used as an analogy to describe the relationship between the human mind and happiness until I read the above excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s short book The Conquest of Happiness. In many respects, Bertrand Russell’s sausage machine analogy is his attempt to extol the virtues of the extrovert over the introvert. The extrovert is so vastly preoccupied with people and events in the environment outside of their psychological self that they have neither the interest nor the time to dwell on their own personal shortcomings, a trait more typically characteristic of the introvert. The time and effort that the extrovert has at their disposal is used to seize external moments and opportunities of interest to them by utilising an outward-looking mindset, rather than sentencing their mind to a lifetime of cognitive isolation by blocking out materials from the external world and painstakingly searching within for some elusive meaning that would sooner end in perpetual self-hatred than prolonged happiness.
Bertrand Russell’s recommendation for a life of contentment detours significantly from traditional prescriptions of happiness which emphasise self-reflection and introspection, but his writing is aimed at those whose road to happiness is impeded by repeatedly incurring their own self-disapproval as a result of failed attempts to find meaning from within. Despite this impediment however, by means of proactively engaging with the people and the environment that nature has given us, personal experiences can become deeply enriched, a “zest” for life can be retained and happiness can be achieved as an indirect by-product of these efforts.
Cognitive quality control
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts, therefore guard accordingly; and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue, and reasonable nature.Marcus Aurelius in Meditations (167 AD)
It is hard to imagine that even in the throes of life’s hardships and sufferings, happiness is still an available commodity to be sought by those who are mentally prepared and willing to endure them. There is no school of thought that is better equipped to provide the tools for cultivating happiness in the face of such hardships and sufferings as the Stoic philosophy that gained immense popularity throughout the ancient Greek and Roman worlds up until the 3rd century AD. Stoicism as a path towards virtue and happiness is the repression of emotions and desires, specifically those of pleasure and pain, by responding to situations with the aid of rational judgement. Additionally, it involves an acceptance of the world around us as it is and our position within in by living in agreement with nature and by dedicating time to understanding it. My first exposure to Stoic philosophy came from the words of Marcus Aurelius, who served as Roman Emperor between 161 and 180 AD. His collection of personal writings, later assigned the title Meditations, could justifiably lay claim to being one of the first self-help books ever written and which have remarkably retained their relevance almost two thousand years later. Aurelius’ life was rife with adversity and tragedy and his reign as Roman Emperor characterised by consistent warfare and political turmoil, so his endurance of life in spite of these considerable challenges is a testament to the effectiveness of Stoic philosophy, which he inherited from the discourses of Epictetus, in shielding his own happiness against feelings of desolation. In this regard, the advice and guidance that Aurelius offers could represent an epiphany for those who find it difficult dealing with the misfortunes that life throws at them.
One of the core tenants of Stoicism, which Aurelius refers to frequently throughout the passages of his Meditations, is the belief that whilst we cannot alter the predetermined course of events in the external world, we do have complete cognitive liberty over our own minds and the quality of our thoughts contained within them, which gives us control over how we think about and react to such events. Aurelius wrote that “you have the power over your mind, not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” Many of us automatically attribute feelings of unhappiness, or depression in the longer term, to be a direct result of the negative events in our lives that have caused them, but this simplistic view of cause and effect totally disregards the involvement of the mind’s interpretation and rendering of these negative events. In other words, it is not events outside of our conscious sphere that have the inherent capacity to do psychological harm, but how we think about them. An inspirational case in point would be paraplegics and amputees, who having overcome the initial shock and distress of their loss can eventually return to their former emotional state, and furthermore by placing their physical disability in a positive frame of mind, they then have the potential to do extraordinary things like helping others overcome their physical disabilities and claiming their right to happiness.
The idea that we can adjust our thoughts like the flick of a light switch in response to the world around us and simply choose to be happy in spite of it might well be met with the understandable protest of “easier said than done”, and it is true that to override the mental hardware of the brain and its tendency to succumb to emotional error is no easy task. However, if we become consciously aware of this limitation and acknowledge that the essence of human happiness, if we so choose, can remain untainted by external events regardless of their circumstances, we have the potential to instantly liberate ourselves from a perception that we are helpless against the forces outside our mind’s control, and that for every unhappy thought that the mind entertains, there is the potential for a happy thought of equal or greater magnitude to counteract it.