ON THE OTHER HAND – What is happiness
The other day I was in a rum shop when one of the customers wondered aloud: “Can anyone tell me what happiness is?”
All hell broke loose.
The last thing you should do in a rum shop is talk philosophy. Talk religion. Talk politics. Talk cricket. Talk about Rihanna (this in ascending order of importance). But don’t talk philosophy.
Soon opinions started flying fast and furious. Voices became raised. Tempers flared. In no time we were all unhappy.
A few days later, I saw in the Press that Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had decided to create a national happiness index providing quarterly measures of how folks feel. “Happynomics” is all the rage. Even the Chinese are getting into the act: a recent meeting of those who govern China decided it was time to focus on how happy the people were.
Then I discovered that the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan had created a Ministry of Happiness decades ago.
Oprah’s show last Wednesday was devoted to happiness.
All this had me puzzled and pondering: what is happiness?
If, for example, I put my feet up on the verandah, gaze at the distant sea, feel the cool breeze on my face, am I happy?
Well, I’m content. But happy?
Some feel that being in touch with nature, like a sea bath or gardening, makes us happy. Do we need a clean and beautiful environment and community to make us happy?
Eating, drinking and sex are pleasurable. But is pleasure happiness?
To love and be loved: is that happiness?
Is wealth happiness? Rich people often seem too stressed out to be happy. But let’s not romanticize poverty. It sucks. So some level of material well-being seems necessary.
People who climb mountains or run marathons, or give birth or do other personally dangerous or harrowing things, are they happy when they’re doing them? Or only in retrospect? Am I happy when I’m writing? Or only after having written?
The American Declaration Of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Maybe happiness is a goal we can only pursue but never attain?
Is it the journey that makes us happy while the arrival disappoints?
And death? Does the knowledge of death destroy happiness? Or is death, paradoxically, the one thing that makes happiness possible?
Now, dear reader, you can understand what went on in the rum shop and how we became so miserable by talking about happiness.
But I won’t leave you unhappy.
So let me take a stab at defining happiness.
We’re happy when we experience the fulfilment of using our gifts. Since we’re social creatures, as well as part of the natural order, the exercise of our gifts necessarily brings us into a relationship with others and with the universe/God.
Everyone has gifts: both talent and vocation; both graceful ease and hard exertion; both blessing and curse.
In the superb sports film Chariots Of Fire, the Scottish Christian missionary runner Eric Liddell, who was the fastest man on the planet in the 1920s, tells his sister, who is urging him to give up running for missionary work: “I believe God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and I feel His pleasure when I run.”
We’re lucky; happiness happens to us twice: when we use our gifts and when we recall their use.
The pursuit of happiness is a lifelong quest to discover and use our gifts.
Discovering them can be difficult. Sometimes those whom we love and respect lead us away from them because they think them unworthy of us, or we unworthy of them.
But it’s also why we treasure forever the memory of a parent or that one teacher who helped us unlock the mystery within us and put us on the hard path to happiness.
Email me your thoughts – if that makes you happy.
Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and a commentator on social issues.