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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On Happiness


Philosophers, Theologians, Psychologists, and others occupied with thinking about the human condition have speculated on the nature and origins of happiness for as long as humans have pondered their existence. Despite the effort expended, we are no closer to understanding what constitutes happiness, how one obtains it and why it is so difficult for humans to maintain.

There are many theories, and prescriptions for happiness, none of which account for its fleeting quality, and the vast majority of which seem oddly simplistic.

It is not a little ironic that the only thing on which many thinkers can agree is human kind’s need for adversity as a pre-condition for happiness. At the risk of over simplifying, they say we must first experience unhappiness to know what it is to be happy. I find this oxymoronic in the extreme. Infants, young children and some fortunate adults seem capable of experiencing true joy—unadulterated happiness, without the need for contrast. I am not sure there is a pattern here. Children surely are innocents and for the most part have not experienced great adversity in their young lives. Others who appear to be gloriously untroubled, on close inspection may have suffered tremendous adversity but without losing their native optimism and sense of joy. How do we explain this?

Just what is this feeling, happiness? Is it peace, contentment, acceptance, oneness with our higher self or God, or something else altogether? Is it the same for us all or is it particular to each of us? How do we know when we are happy, and how do we sustain it? These are just a few of my questions on the subject and my guess is that you may have your own to add. Why is happiness so elusive?

Psychologists tell us we are responsible for our own happiness—that seems reasonable, but how can we take responsibility if we don’t know what it is? We know what unhappiness is—or at least we think we know when we are unhappy and sometimes, we may even know why. So, one definition we could argue is that happiness is the absence of unhappiness or the proximate causes of our own, personal unhappiness. Score one for those who advance the adversity theory. Let’s follow this theory for a bit. It stands to reason that if happiness is the absence of its counterpart then we should be able to find a clear understanding of the conditions of our happiness in what makes us unhappy. So, what is unhappiness?

Once again, I am afraid, we are on shaky ground. We know it when we feel it, but short of saying unhappiness is a condition in which we feel pain—physical or psychic and are seemingly unable to alter that circumstance, I am not sure we are much closer to our objective. I am left with only one thin straw on which to try to hang some framework of understanding. It is the word feel. If we accept that happiness and its opposite are feelings, shorthand for emotions, we may be onto something. For one thing, we can then agree that happiness and its counterpart are not the fruit of what lies outside us, but within.

Here we can gain some congruence with Psychologists. Feelings are things we create, they are within our control, and we have the power to decide whether we will permit any given feeling to alter our sense of well-being. Our feelings are, as some have described them, a little like a Hollywood movie set. Look behind them and there isn’t much of substance there but they evoke a powerful response from us, nonetheless, when we permit them to do so. Denying them does not work—it leaves us bereft, but we can avoid viewing them as either good or bad. That would get us a long way toward solving the happiness conundrum. Knowing why we feel a certain way—the root causes, frees us to stand outside a feeling and observe it. Happiness and its counterpart, according to this logic, are caused by us—reactions to people and events, and there is no denying that our reactions are choices regardless of their origins.

Where does that leave us? With a choice to make—to be happy or not. Whatever happiness means for you, joy, peace, contentment or any other state of being, it’s yours to choose.


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