In the beginning of every new year, we wish one another happiness. Everyone welcomes such a wish, for ultimately that’s what humans long for since the birth of mankind. But what exactly do we want? We often hear people say, “I just want to be happy.” But what exactly is it that gives us happiness?
The concept of happiness is a very tricky one, because what makes you happy may make me sad, not to mention the cultural differences in defining it. Historical and social developments also constitute changes in the nature of happiness; we feel differently at different times and in different environments. Take women’s feelings for example; a woman in the 19th century would be very happy if she could marry well, but women nowadays want more than having a rich husband to be happy. Indeed happiness is a fluid concept. It’s not something we can firmly grasp, and it’s largely subjective: everybody has his/ her own definition of ‘the best life’. There is a story about a teenager, whom everyone considers to be very blessed with loving parents and material abundance; but the boy doesn’t feel happy—his fortune is not what he desires. Looking around, we can conclude that happiness has its own levels and dimensions; it would be superficial to think of one kind of happiness for all. No matter what, it has become our goal in life, almost an obsession, to find happiness, however little we understand what makes us happy.
The dictionary defines ‘happy’ as ‘feeling or expressing pleasure, contentment, satisfaction etc.’ Often we are too concerned about how we feel, trying to achieve a blithe feeling, and forgetting that contentment or satisfaction requires certain rational understanding of one’s own circumstances. One can still be content in a difficult situation—the contentment comes out of a decision rather than a feeling, that is, more according to the mind and less from the heart. It arrives from a judgement of one’s own situation and then a realisation of one’s limitations. To be content, then, is to accept what one has, and make the best out of it. This way we make an effort to create happiness which is quite different from a feel-good pleasure that’s bestowed upon us.
It has become more and more difficult to be happy in our post-modern world. Perhaps it’s because we are given too many options, and our wants are increasing—we feel readily unhappy. The cliché saying that ‘more is not better’ has a fundamental reference to our human nature: we can easily feel ‘less’ when in fact we have ‘more’. This includes the concept of happiness; many indulge in maximizing their pleasures, only to realize that the goal of perfect happiness is unreachable. The quest for happiness is a persistent human endeavour. We quit because we’re dissatisfied; we fight due to our anger; we’re depressed from our frustration; we’re sad for we’re hurt. For many, to live is to find happiness. However, when we are obsessed with feeling happy, we find ourselves disheartened. Happiness can present an illusory picture of itself when it becomes the centre of our focus. So by trying too hard, we fall and find ourselves hurt a lot.
Yet unhappiness is not entirely bad for us. The artist, Tonio Kroeger, in Thomas Mann’s short story, Tonio Kroeger, claims that good work comes from bad life; and considers a pleasurable life contaminating to the creative mind. While it’s debatable how true this claim is, we can’t help thinking of great artists like Van Gogh and Beethoven whose lives were darkened by anguish and misery, but whose works lift us in great appreciation of beauty that mankind can accomplish. Can it be that the lack of happiness propels us to indulge in creative works, so that satisfaction is found in our diligence and persistence, and the outcome of them? This baffles us: perhaps there is a devil in disguise in the notion of happiness; perhaps we shouldn’t allow a lot of happiness for ourselves. But how much is too much? This has become problematic for many parents who want the best for their children, and question the meaning of ‘the best’. Again, there is no one model answer for all.
In the Bible, Paul asserts the positive aspect of suffering. According to him, suffering produces perseverance, and in perseverance, character is developed so that we can have hope. To most people, this at first sounds unreal. To contemplate deeper, however, it’s not absurd to recognise how hardship can shape us to become stronger and better. In fact, we feel it easier to find happiness after we have experienced suffering, more appreciative of what we already have. Truly happiness is largely relative; a setback can heighten our awareness of certain aspects of life that have been overlooked, and shift our attention away from our own obsession. Interestingly, a bit of distance from our self-focus delivers us closer to contentment.
After all, it’s our attitude that determines how we feel about many things in life. As Aristotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” We need to come to terms with the fact that the reality is quite unlike our jolly dreamland; while we may be able to linger a bit there for consolation, we must then wake up and adjust our attitude to receive the challenge. This way we may find ourselves getting along well even with the undesirable people and events around us. When we become less anxious and more relaxed, happiness enters and lands quietly in our hearts.