What Really Makes Us Happy

What Really Makes Us Happy

Throughout history, great thinkers have attempted to describe the concept of happiness, a state of mind.

The 19th Century philosopher Henry David Thoreau defined it as being “like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

Gautama Buddha taught “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” Socrates believed that “The secret of happiness … is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” Helen Keller wrote, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but fidelity to a worthy cause.”

The famous scientist and thinker Albert Einstein once, in lieu of a tip, gave a Japanese bellboy a slip of paper with his theory of happiness: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” Einstein told the bellboy that one day that note might become more valuable than a regular tip which, in fact, it did.

All the major religions of the world accord a central place in their teachings to seeking and finding happiness.

For example, in Buddhism happiness is perceived as an inner experience of well-being which is associated with enlightenment. In order to appreciate the true meaning of happiness one needs to understand the root sources of suffering which, Buddha taught, are caused by human desires such as a craving for pleasure. Therefore, to be happy, one would need to eliminate desires. On the other hand, experiencing desire is part of being human, making it impossible to eliminate all desires—so Buddhists believe that instead of eliminating desires, people should understand and confront them. Meditation is prescribed as an approach to accomplish this goal.

In the Baha’i Faith, Abdu’l-Baha explained that “Material progress insures the happiness of this human world. Spiritual progress insures the happiness and eternal continuance of the soul.” – Baha’i World Faith, p. 227. The Baha’i writings elucidate the significance of happiness in human society by stating that:

The primary purpose, the basic objective, in laying down powerful laws and setting up great principles and institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness; and human happiness consists only in drawing closer to the Threshold of Almighty God, and in securing the peace and well-being of every individual member, high and low alike, of the human race; and the supreme agencies of accomplishing these two objectives are the excellent qualities with which humanity has been endowed. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 60.

Science has also tried to unravel the phenomenon of happiness and the vital role it plays in the well-being of people. However, while science can explore and measure the physical expressions of joy, it can never describe its inner reality. For example, science cannot examine and capture intangible realities like love, compassion, consciousness and wisdom—and when science does examine the material outcomes of happiness, they are often expressed in terms of pleasure, which is not always the same as happiness.

According to the Baha’i teachings, there are two kinds of happiness: material and spiritual:

As to spiritual happiness, this is the true basis of the life of man because life is created for happiness, not for sorrow; for pleasure, not for grief. Happiness is life; sorrow is death. Spiritual happiness is life eternal. This is a light which is not followed by darkness. This is an honour which is not followed by shame. This is a life that is not followed by death. This is an existence that is not followed by annihilation. This great blessing and precious gift is obtained by man only through the guidance of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 163.

As to material happiness, it never exists; nay, it is but imagination, an image reflected in mirrors, a spectre and shadow. Consider the nature of material happiness. It is something which but slightly removes one’s afflictions; yet the people imagine it to be joy, delight, exultation and blessing. All the material blessings, including food, drink, etc., tend only to allay thirst, hunger and fatigue. They bestow no delight on the mind nor pleasure on the soul; nay, they furnish only the bodily wants. So this kind of happiness has no real existence. – Ibid.

From this statement we can discern that material happiness results from our interaction with the world of the senses, rooted in our biological and instinctual nature and associated with a sense of pleasure and enjoyment—which is inevitably temporary and fleeting, and, as the Baha’i teachings point out, “has no real existence.”